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  • What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy by Edward P. Morgan
  • Michael Stamm
What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy Edward P. Morgan Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010; 405 pages. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780700617562

Although a half-century has passed since the start of the 1960s, debates about the meaning and effects of the decade's politics and culture continue to shape many aspects of American public life. For Edward Morgan, Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University, the problem is not that these debates persist. Rather, it is that their terms are inaccurate. "Much of mass media discourse on the sixties," Morgan argues in this powerful book, "is about ghosts, accusations, and smoke and mirrors" (3). The author's goal, as the book's title announces, is to tell readers "what really happened to the 1960s." His argument is that the mass media have consistently misrepresented the aims and effects of sixties activism and engaged in a process of political delegitimization. The primary actors in the story are the activists themselves and the major for-profit media institutions that defined the American mainstream in the 1960s and subsequent decades, and Morgan offers a powerful indictment of how U.S. political culture has been poorly served by them. "By effectively excluding the critical [End Page 149] perspectives and argumentation of outsiders," Morgan argues, "the media simultaneously delegitimize, marginalize, and disempower them" (12).

Morgan supports his argument through two lines of historical analysis, the first of which focuses on the representation of leftist activism during the 1960s. During the 1960s, Morgan claims, the mass media "simultaneously helped to shape, marginalize, and ultimately constrain protest movements" (11). In the content of news coverage, the mass media tended to focus on the more spectacular aspects of 1960s activism at the expense of giving serious treatment to the substantive issues that activists raised. During the decade, the growing prominence of television as a news source also contributed to a narrow presentation of radical politics, and Morgan suggests that visual images played powerful roles in constructing ideas about groups or movements of the Left. In major print and broadcast outlets in the 1960s, the mass media focused on "dramatic and colorful events" (143) that would attract wide audiences. By the end of the decade, the counterculture provided additional fodder for this sort of representation, and it was "subjected to massive sensationalism and screaming alarmism through virtually all mainstream media" (149). Throughout the decade, Morgan argues, the mass media created a particular popular conception of Left-wing activism that deemphasized legitimate political concerns in favor of promoting more immediately arresting ideas and images.

Morgan's second major line of analysis is about how the mass media have perpetuated this process of delegitimization in subsequent decades. The mass media, Morgan argues, have been "used by the Right and the corporate center in fanning the flames of ideological backlash against sixties-era social movements" (3). This project has been realized in two ways, the first of which has been an "ideological attack" (5) from the political Right. With the help of wealthy benefactors, conservative think tanks and foundations "launched the organizational nexus that would begin to transform public discourse in the 1970s" (242). Second, Morgan builds on the work of Thomas Frank in arguing that commercial popular culture has perpetuated a narrow, depoliticized, and inaccurate vision of the 1960s. The decade has survived in the popular memory not through substantive discussions of matters such as how to create, for example, the "participatory democracy" of Students for a Democratic Society, but [End Page 150] instead through commercialized and depoliticized programs like The Monkees and movies like The Big Chill.

Morgan's source material is mostly composed of the products of mainstream commercial media organizations: national weekly magazines such as Time and Newsweek, newspapers such as The New York Times, and the television broadcasts of the major networks. The "mass media culture" that Morgan analyzes is something that has been created by commercial institutions that have ignored or obscured controversial voices in the process of seeking as wide an audience as possible...


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pp. 149-152
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