CURSING ESTABLISHMENT SEIZES MASS MEDIA
By Todd Gitlin
San Francisco Express-Times, July 3, 1968
"Money doesn't talk, it swears." -Dylan
Your eyes might have been stabbed by the Page One headline in last Wednesday's S.F. Examiner:
Cursing NY Hippies Seize TV Station.
FOUL TALK GOES ON THE AIR
6 MEN, WOMAN ARRESTED
By United Press International and Associated Press
Between them, each with their vast chain of bureaus and thousands of Trained Personnel, these two giant "news"-"gathering" corporations were able to assemble this blood-curdling tale:
NEW YORK - A score of loud-mouthed hippies, shaggy, beaded and screaming obscenities, took over an educational TV station while thousands of viewers watched in their living rooms.
The intruders burst into the basement studios of station WNDT-TV, across First Avenue from the UN, during an "underground press" interview late last night. They knocked down a guard and punched their way past two members of the station staff, totally disrupting the program....
When the intruders were asked what they wanted, one replied, "We're here to break down the barriers of panel discussion shows." Another said simply, "We want in."...
Now, just as a guerrilla is explained by the system that drives him into final opposition, so is what happened June 25 at WNDT-TV perfectly well explained by the Examiner story. But not the way the Examiner meant it. And the Examiner is no mere benighted bush-league villain, The Chronicle's story the next morning was in a lower key just as confused and confusing, and the New York Times headlined, "20 Hippies invade TV Show and Shout Obscenities on Air." The media, sure enough, as a whole, were the message - but not the way McLuhan understands, either.
No one has to study Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man - though it would help - in order to read between the lines. Anyone who has ever been billyclubbed or Maced by a cop only to read that his peaceable demonstration was "violent" and that Law Enforcement Officers used "necessary force" (if the fact that cops used force at all was deemed Fit To Print), anyone who has been in Vietnam and returns to hear on the radio that "our boys' morale is high," any Columbia insurrectionary who reads the Times accounts - anyone who has lived an event, a place, a mood from the inside, and knows and insists he knows what he saw, heard, felt despite the sonorous, three-button interpretations of Information Specialists; anyone, in short, who has held to the slightest shred of his own intuition and judgment knows that the media lie.
They lie daily, they lie in patterns, they invent lies and peddle the powerful's, maybe they apologize and they lie again, by commission and omission: they lie, we might say, chronically, predictably. They lie by conspiracy (the handling of D.A. Garrison), they lie by implication ("Communist" equals archdemon), they lie by diversion (at least Miss California gets close to Jesus Christ), but mostly they lie by telling what they imagine to be the truth. They lie because of the code of their objectivity, because they have learned not to see, hear, feel, not to believe in the inside of a fact, not to doubt that their leaders lie and their textbooks lie and their teachers equate blue-eyed rock-stable property-gagging manifestly-destined 5% interest America with truth. They lie finally because they can do no other, because they need their lies, for the crude but quite serviceable reason that lying is their livelihood, brings in advertising; and - never forget this better concealed, more insidious reason - because the very particular slant of their lies numbs their audience into nodding befuddlement, makes consumers of men and masses of publics, makes packaged try-harder Americans of puzzled disgruntled people.
And the chronic liar who from time to time tells the truth is no more credible, for who can tell? We may be grateful for small exceptional favors, if we can detect them - that Examiner interview with Huey Newton “wasn't bad," I thought last Sunday morning: a grudging and to me demeaning tribute - but the pattern is still bare - threadbare - for all who will look, and no less
The cultural guerrillas who for some 15 minutes liberated a small zone of the New York airwaves had come naturally to such thoughts, and thoughts pushed them to action. Most had grouped around Newsreel, a project founded early this year by New York filmmakers determined to make and distribute films addressed to The Movement, The Underground - films which engaged political reality from within it, who asked the questions of it that an activist would ask, who reported demonstrations (October, at the Pentagon, the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, Up-Against-The-Wall-Motherfucker's dumping of garbage at Lincoln Center) and organizing projects (Resistance, Boston Draft Resistance Group) not only thoroughly, but with an eye to conveying experience to people prepared to apply its lessons.
The country is fairly crawling with filmmakers who refuse to sever their talent from their commitment, their eyes from their more vital organs; a San Francisco group is already at work. Newsreel, like the underground press, has flowered, and for the same reason; they exist to sensitize and serve those of us who refuse to consume the indigestible products of our enemies.
But to declare yourself fully it is necessary to do more than Your Thing, because Your Thing is circumscribed and absorbed and eaten in a million ways by their spongy, 50,000-watt, 1-million-circulation Things. The German SDS knew this well last spring; they took after Axel Springer, right-wing tycoon publisher, as if he were simply manufacturing poison. It is intolerable to manufacture poison, they reasoned, even if someone else is allowed to make antidotes.
Newsreel took on a more elusive and therefore striking target, and they hit the mark directly. ABC, CBS, NBC would have been sitting ducks - even former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow had consigned them to a "vast wasteland." Money-making enterprises pure and simple, purchasing rigged polls to justify their spewing forth of canned pap, dispensing "news" in interchangeable pellets (usually placebos), reserving the most meager shreds of creativity for commercials, the networks have left many highly-placed people with empty feelings and headaches beyond even the far reach of Excedrin. CBS News Chief Fred Friendly had quit in 1966 when higher-ups refused to jerk the morning's soap operas to broadcast the Fulbright hearings live, and written a book, "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control," denouncing narrow-minded bureaucrats. What Friendly proposed instead were broad-minded bureaucrats; administering higher-toned culture in gilded eye-droppers to higher-toned people - broadly speaking, the upper middle class. Meanwhile McGeorge Bundy's Ford Foundation had argued for a publicly-financed TV channel, a fourth network devoted to "public affairs" and symphonic civilization: and lo and behold, we have PBL, Public Broadcast Laboratory. (The alacrity with which PBL zoomed into regular existence tells you something about where power is lodged.) No commercials, well-mannered critiques of the war -not yet of the lustful imperialism (another curse word!) that powers this war and the next - sympathetic treatments of black power; but that's just it. PBL offers TREATMENTS, renditions, slicked through the detached cinematic retina. The upper middles don't want to relinquish their position, only to secure it more firmly by adjusting its sights, “taking account" of “new realities." Typical board member: James Reston of the New York Times, who blandly bemoans the plight of the Empire and hopes Senator McCarthy will goose it back into gear. Poor James. So much for "new realities."
And thus NET, the National Educational Television network, a string of stations - WNDT-TV, New York, KQED-TV, San Francisco, etc. - that have popped up over the last few years to form an oasis in the wasteland. NET has distributed Felix Greene's "Inside North Vietnam," Saul Landau and Richard Moore's pro-Castro "Report on Cuba." Only the wasteland seeps into the oasis; the oasis ignores its location only at great peril. Almost everything is packaged for the most painless consumption, tailored to cramped time-formats, stripped of the sharpest edges; NET does not, cannot promote and elaborate the shattering idea that it is possible for Americans to live a different way. Instead it offers a channeled switch-off for the good people whose most elementary sensibilities will not allow them to stomach the Big 3 networks. American television, they will conclude, is indeed an open marketplace; let the buyer only beware, and he will be rewarded. NET is the lollypop after the $2.50 haircut, the last meal on Death Row.
I exaggerate, but to a point. Consider the rebuttal: “But it's worlds better than CBS." But there is a principle at stake; the airwaves belong to the people; not grudgingly, not in boiled-down concessions, not forever subject to broad-minded censors who balance politics as if they were a diet, but as a matter of right. The right to say so before a microphone, for the titillation of an audience trained only to be flattered by novelty, is not the issue. The issue is the right to exercise the right, not proclaim it.
So the Newsreel people chose WNDT-TV to make their point. The occasion was a panel discussion on the underground press, moderated (very precise word) by a protégé of James Reston. The guests (no doubt as to who owned the house) were Allen Katzman, editor of the East Village Other, Jeff Shero, editor of Rat, and Marvin Fishman of Newsreel. And a few minutes into the show, other Newsreel people entered the studio, began shouting telegraphic versions of their views: "The establishment press lies! TV is free! Under the circumstances, on hostile ground in an unaccustomed medium, they resorted to slogans; but then they assumed the show had been zipped off the air, couldn't know the studio was still transmitting. Why it did remains a mystery: were the technicians friendly?
The nervous moderator was just as oblivious. "Why did you do this?" he asked, when the noise level had settled. "This is what the underground media really is," Fishman said, "and no established media can convey what the underground wants to convey. You've got a format; the underground doesn't work according to your format. The underground works, operates and creates in a whole different manner. We go to Columbia and we work on the inside where the action is. We go to Resurrection City and we work on the inside. ...We cannot work as the media does, behind the line of the police."
He went on to talk about a show illuminating Positive Features of the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto, and Jeff Shero defined a central principle of the Newsreel Underground approach: "If you want to do a show on Bedford-Stuyvesant, you have an open camera and let anyone who wants to sit down and talk - gang kids, dope pushers, anyone."
Then the bombshell. "And," said Jeff, I "I can't say 'fuck' on this TV station."
Extra consternation in the studio.
"If you're doing a show on Bedford-Stuyvesant, people have to express themselves in their own language - not in the language of the establishment."
Fishman added, “When someone goes on TV, he is expected to use the language of TV. He can't say 'fuck' on the air because it's considered bad taste. But the fact of the matter is, he uses 'fuck' a great deal - not for its own sake. He uses it in the natural course of how he lives."
But probably no one was listening any more. Probably no one heard Jeff Shero go on to ask whether NET had broadcast evidence liberated from Grayson Kirk's office of the tie between Columbia and the Institute for Defense Analyses, evidence of Columbia as realtor and holding company. Probably no one heard the answer, "No," let alone pondered the implications. Scandal blurred substance, most likely: after all, this was the no-feedback medium, there was no chance to read the watching armchair faces, say "Wait a minute now, you don't understand, OK, we'll explain. " And the infantry was on its way to retake the hamlet, to clear and hold. Word got to the liberators, and most cut out, melted back onto the street. Seven were a little slow in leaving, and were arrested, charged with (1) burglary, breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony, namely: (2) rioting. Maximum penalties, seven years on the first charge, four years on the second.
This is serious business, this business of clearing the air. Everything has gotten more serious this year, which is another way of saying that the stakes, those intangible and preoccupying stakes we carry in our heads, are climbing; what we once found tolerable we can no longer blink. “Provo tactics" not so long ago seemed innocuously cute, the raw precious stuff of stories with which to regale your friends for months to come. No longer. Working through the implications of theory in real life, always risky in the abstract, has become a matter of concrete risk and practical planning, a constant tension. Who knows what was in the minds of the medical students who in 1957 seized a radio station in Havana, held it momentarily before falling, shot dead in the streets where markers today commemorate them?
Do not mistake me: We are not riding the crest of a revolutionary wave; we are only - ONLY, but this is no small feat: staking out our own history, defining precedents, opening space for new objectives, lighting new energy-fuses. Vague formulations all, for the holding of cultural and physical territory is something we know little about.
But as we come to reckon as seriously with the cultural artillery of the oligarchy as with our own walled-off culture, the liberation of WNDT-TV, half-assed and incomplete and problematic as it was, may stand as one more cracked foundation stone on which the New City may yet be built.
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