Advocacy Journalism in Full Flower

By James Buckley   |   November 12, 2020

The year 1968 was an eventful one: On April 3 of that year, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee;  two months later (June 8), Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, just hours after having won the California Democratic Primary, and in August, the Democratic Convention in Chicago nominated Hubert Humphrey (LBJ’s former Vice President) as its presidential candidate.

The convention featured bloody confrontations between protestors and Chicago police and riots instigated by a small group who came to be known as “The Chicago Seven,” headed up by Tom Hayden (who later became active in California legislative politics and married Jane Fonda), Abbie Hoffman (who wrote “Steal This Book” and later committed suicide in upstate New York), Jerry Rubin (who became a successful businessman and inspirational speaker), Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, and several others.

During that summer, I was a young reporter/editor at a small (circ: 1,200) left-wing publication called the New York Free Press and had been assigned to cover something called the Grand Central Be-In by my Editor-in-Chief. “Be-Ins” were a by-product of San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love” that attracted youth from all over the United States, who descended upon Golden Gate Park en masse to get naked, smoke dope, and have fun.

A Be-In was a more-or-less spontaneous get-together of like-minded souls, arranged via telephone calls, notices in “underground” publications, 3”x5” cards tacked onto bulletin boards, flyers in head shops, etcetera. The Grand Central Midnight Be-In attracted perhaps as many as 5,000 mostly young jeans-clad New Yorkers. NYPD received advance notice of the upcoming event and had assigned dozens of mounted police on the outside and maybe a hundred uniformed officers (and, no doubt, a number of plain-clothes detectives) to watch over the sea of people that had congregated in the great central hall of Grand Central Station.

There were no speeches; there was no agenda. They were there just to… well, just to “be in.”

And, all went well for an hour or two. Lots of kids and twenty-somethings were lighting up and smoking prohibited substances, meeting with friends and acquaintances, and mostly marveling that a cordon of New York’s finest was simply standing around allowing such illegalities to continue unmolested.

The peaceful situation didn’t sit well with some of the Be-In organizers however, and before long a small group of men climbed up on the counter underneath the historical and iconic four-sided clock, under which residents and tourists alike would arrange to meet in the always crowded New York City train terminal.

The young men proceeded to pull at the hands of the clock on all sides in an effort to destroy it.

Naturally, law enforcement reacted.

Policemen attacked the miscreants with nightsticks and pulled them off the counter and the clock.

And, just as naturally, mayhem ensued, heads were bloodied, glass doors shattered, and a number of attendees were arrested and hauled off to spend the night courtesy of the NYPD.

I pretty much wrote up my report as those above sentences reflect and turned my article in the next morning.

“We can’t print this,” my editor told me.

“Why not?” I asked, promising to quickly polish the piece if that’s what he wanted and wondered aloud what was missing.

“You’re blaming the kids,” he said.

“But that’s what happened,” I responded, reiterating that it was a peaceful Be-In for the longest time until those guys jumped up on the counter and began to destroy the clock.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, telling me that he was going to send the piece around to various organizations, whose names fade in memory but all were all radical left-wing groups, for their approval and possible edits.

After a number of those groups re-wrote the copy switching the dynamic from destructive dope-smoking youth causing the problem to brutish police bullies beating up peace-loving hippies out to have a good time, the article was deemed “printable.”

My byline was (at my request) removed from the report. The police were blamed for the turn in violence and, for all I know, the New York Free Press found another sucker philanthropist to cadge support from, since the paper had always been and remained a money-losing proposition.

The experience was the first incidence that I can recall of “advocacy journalism.” Earlier that year, I witnessed the takeover of Columbia University, where students stormed the college administration building, pouring soda, coffee, and other liquids on papers, spilling open file cabinets and destroying office equipment. Administration officials, including Columbia’s tough-minded president Grayson Kirk, acceded to some of the student demands, but after eight days of insults, increasingly ludicrous ultimatums from the protestors, and negative coverage from media, Mr. Kirk called in the police. 

The protest was notable mostly for the split between Black Panther leaders and the mostly white SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). It was a precursor to today’s Black Lives Matter and Antifa friction. Major media covered this event but barely, if at all, mentioned the vandalism, and after police finally moved in to remove the demonstrators in another bloody melee, progressive media outlets took the side of the “students” in their coverage.

Many young reporters who covered those and following events are now in charge of college administrations, newsrooms, television and radio stations, and myriad levers of power. So, if you’re wondering why and how we got to the situation we now find ourselves in, with major media ignoring certain stories and playing up others, with objective journalism having been thrown under the VW minivan, you now have your answer, at least as I see it: half a century of biased news reportage has reached fruition as nothing but full-blown advocacy journalism at virtually every “news” outlet. 

 

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