January 13, 2011
Denunciations of media vitriol in the wake of the Tucson shootings look back to an age of civil media discourse. That golden age existed in living memory: the 1960s and 1970s, when the mainstream media almost universally hewed to a belief in professional, objective, neutral journalism. The news industry could enforce this line, since it was more oligopolistic than at any time before or since. Most cities had only a few dominant newspapers. Television penetrated about 90% of American homes by the late 1950s, and the classic era of network television news began in September 1963, when the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite expanded from 15 minutes to 30 minutes. These newscasts rapidly became the primary news source for most Americans. No cable news, no internet.
The result? Two decades of assassinations and assassination attempts against major political figures, starting with JFK just two months after the 30-minute newscasts started, and continuing through Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, George Wallace and Gerald Ford, until culminating with the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt in 1981. The no-vitriol news age featured widespread civil unrest, often politically motivated, including Southern white violence against African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, African-American riots destroying neighborhoods in major cities, and leftist political violence including future Barack Obama associate Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground bombing campaign.
You could even argue that the golden age mainstream media made violence more likely by shutting out marginal voices; but it’s more likely that the tone of the media has little to do with the violent actions of radicals and crazies.