Book Review: The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Todd Gitlin)

The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left


Todd Gitlin


I will be summarizing Gitlin’s main points and structuring the summary with the help of his table of contents. His table of contents did an excellent job in organizing his main points and I will be utilizing his table of contents to provide a structure to my own summary.



  • At its most broad description, Gitlin’s book is simply summarized as such: the book is about “mass media, the New Left, and their complex relations in the historical time.” He begins the book by explaining the shift of media’s purpose for a community. Americans in the 1960’s relied on media to shape their ideology.  They allowed the media to certify leaders and create celebrities through reporting news that fit within their media frame. I appreciated Gitlin’s definition of a media frame – “Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organized discourse, whether verbal or visual.” He places a lot of influence on the journalists, the “symbol-handlers.”  The journalists in the 1960’s kept within this hegemonic culture by keeping news stories within harness and serving the interest of the elite by publishing what is “relative” and publishing news that does not violate core hegemonic values.

Part 1. Images of a Movement

1. Preliminaries

  • Gitlin moves on to explaining more about the book, which is divided into two big sections. The first section tracks a year of SDS – Students for a Democratic Society – during the year of 1965.  The preliminaries summarize the early history of SDS. SDS did not actively seek out media coverage and was not media oriented. They were students who joined together to protest and discuss issues they believed in. The media attention on SDS began with their march in Washington on April 17th, 1965. Gitlin lists the earliest framing devices “trivialization, polarization, emphasis on internal dissension, marginalization disparagement by numbers, disparagement of the movement’s effectiveness, reliance on statements by government officials and other authorities, emphasis on the presence of Communists, emphasis on the carrying of “Viet Cong” flags, emphasis on violence in demonstrations, delegitimizing use of quotation marks, considerable attention to right wing opposition to the movement,” and goes on to explaining each one in more detail.


2. Versions of SDS, Spring 1965

  • This section of the book is devoted to specific analyses of every extant CBS and NYTimes treatment of SDS in the spring of that year, especially in concerning the sit-in against Chase Manhattan bank loans to South Africa in March and the first substantial national demonstration against the Vietnam war in April. Gitlin places his analytical focus on a narrow archive of news articles and films from CBS and The New York Times but he supplements this material with his own experience in SDS.. He summarizes the progression nicely when he says “Progression in times images of SDS from (a) serious movement (Powledge in March), to (b) marginal, ineffectual, contested oddity (April), to (c) a mixture of absurdity and menace (Jaffe in June), and subsequently to (d) undoubted menace (October), was partly the professional, informal, unreflective, “free” response of Times reporters to their editors’ responses in turn, to the Johnson administration’s escalation of the Vietnam war, and partly their political response to the unsettling emergence of a radical movement. The most interesting segment of this chapter was when Gitlin asked what influence may the Johnson administration have had on the framing of SDS? The Johnson administration would understand that coverage of the war that stretched outside his frame of pro-war would damage the war effort through its weak link: American public opinion. The McCarthyism ripple was still being felt through Americans so journalists used a pro-Communism frame for most of their publishing’s about SDS. Gitlin showed no evidence of Johnson’s meddling but discusses how due to this ripple effect of McCarthyism, journalists did not want to get charged for sympathizing with communists so their frame work was more right rather than objective.


3. SDS in the Spotlight, Fall 1965

  • In the fall, the issue is no longer simply the media version of SDS, but SDS’s struggle to repossess its image. That fall, the media helped amplify right wing and Johnson administration attacks on SDS. Vulnerable, SDS tried to go into the offensive. The two main focuses for the fall were the first nationally coordinated actions of the International Days of Protest, October 15th and 16th, and then the moderate March on Washington organized by SANE for November 27th.  Gitlin begins by discussing the tendency of the media to rely on statements of official figures such as the government and university officials in regard to coverage of student action. Gitlin says this creates the idea that students produce actions while authorities have thoughts, undermining the agency of students’ actions.
  • After the big march in October, the media framed SDS creating a “draft evasion” program. SDS took the public attention as an opportunity to voice their opinions but journalists often strategically ignored them and reported on issues that might interest or affect the largest number of readers. The new media coverage and the draft evasion framework produced another problem for SDS – overeager members. The issue with these new members after being exposed to this produced media frame was an issue that Gitlin delves into later.
  • The New York Times and CBS News distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate forms of protest, and then discredited the SDS protests. The New York Times especially was considered to be an objective news source and their media framing of SDS was especially harmful and divisive to the organization.  


Part 2. Media in the making and unmaking of the movement


4. Organizational Crisis, 1965

  • There was a membership surge after the April march and especially after the draft crisis of October. Many of these new members were new recruits from the South and the Great Plains. These members were “natively radical. Their radicalism came from almost a nihilism, a root and branch rejection of the society.” The term for these new members is Prairie Power. The Old Guard generation was the original SDS based in the North East. The original SDS group was trying hard to not be just an antiwar group but because the media framed them as so, the new members perceived their goals as primarily anti-war. The Prairie Power pressure and the fights between SDS deepened the decomposition of their organization.

5. Certifying Leaders and Converting Leadership to Celebrity

  • Gitlin is critical of the inability of SDS’s leaders to handle the spotlight and not become celebrities. Since the structure of SDS was so casual and lacked organization, it was difficult to define leaders. Many leaders were involved in SDS and some were placed in the spotlight over others, which created tension within the movement. Leaders who became celebrities lost their accountability. Many movement leaders could not find the middle ground. “The movement’s leaders, ambivalent from the first about leading, had trouble keeping track of the sources of their authority and the obligations it entailed. The rank and file wanted their leaders to lead, but were uneasy with them at the same time; the mixed message they sent made the leaders’ situation as untenable as it was tempting. The cultural apparatus’s structured need for celebrity harmonized with, and selected for, the ambitions of movement leaders.”
  • Since Gitlin was SDS president from 1964-65, hard to say if he is being too critical because he was a leader.

6. Inflating Rhetoric and Militancy

  • This section analyzed the media’s role in exacerbating the militant tendencies of the movement. His main argument, like the title suggests, is that the media inflated rhetoric and militancy within the movement to create more media coverage. The focus was always placed on the marches and not the reasons. Media only covers issues they believe will be violent.  “Where a picket line might have been news in 1965, it took tear gas and bloodied heads to make headlines in 1968. If the last demonstration was counted at 100,000, the next would have to number 200,000; otherwise it would be downplayed or framed as a sign of the movement’s waning.” The need for attention by SDS and these organizations meant that they had to play into the media’s hands, which meant a growing need for militancy and violence.


7. Elevating Moderate Alternatives: The Moment of Reform

  • As the war progressed and as sympathy for the antiwar movement grew, the media had to change its framing. A new consensus was being formed. The war lost legitimacy and popularity and antiwar activity became respectable. There was also the development of the “responsible” moderate, which led to the Moratorium. They held briefing sessions for sympathetic reporters whom they knew from the McCarthy campaign and because of their involvement with McCarthy, they were considered “credible.” At this time of the war, Democrats and Republicans were flocking to the antiwar standard and supporting things like the Moratorium (around 1968-69). By 1970, most of the correspondents and news executives opposed the war. The media shift polarized the New Left between moderates and the militants.

8. Contracting Time and Eclipsing Context

  • SDS and movements like it were dependent on the spotlight of the media. The media’s low tolerance for “staleness” helped rev up the movement pace. Movement leaders began seeing success based on news headlines. The developing broadcasting system made possible sped-up social reactions to events, and thus sped up spirals of activity and counter activity.
  • Interesting because Gitlin says “A radical student movement’s volatility follows directly from the conflict between the enormous scope of its ambition – to transform the whole society, root and branch – and the narrowness of its social and cultural base.” I tend to associate the Occupy movement with the same idea of having an enormous scope of ambition but is Occupy’s social and cultural base narrow? Does Occupy resemble a radical student movement?
  • The contraction of time in a media-saturated society fueled the wishful thinking of a student-based movement – the students were thrown into media and did not get a grip on the reality. They were in a hurry to slash through old knots. The movement “got burned, and burned out.”

9. Broadcasting and Containment

  • The movement got broadcast. Often ideas got diffused in an oversimplified and often distorted and debased form but they got diffused. Publicity helped antiwar feeling become a normal fact of American political life. Media coverage acknowledges the movement’s goals and that what they are doing does matter in the world. The media in a way validates them. The inexperience with media in a movement is harmful. Audiences with less direct experience of the situations at issue were more vulnerable to the framings of the mass media. For Gitlin, this suggests that the media helped contain the movement. The less attentive and less informed bulk was more vulnerable to the crude elements of framing.
  • Gitlin ends Part 2 by saying that the State used the magnifying class to help point and justify its heavy hand of repression. The inexperienced caught fire under the glass – quite an image.


Part 3.


10. Media Routines and Political Crises

  • Theories of the News. First, Gitlin talks about journalist-centered theories, which explains the news as a product of professional news judgments. He proceeds to talk about the inertia, the sheer habit of news organizations. This is an informal rule, which journalists adopt to enable them to process vast amounts of information that people will accept as news. The third approach is event-centered which argues that the news reflects the actual nature of the world. 
  • The next part of this section focuses mostly of ideological hegemony focusing on Antonio Gramsci’s prison writings.  This can be defined as “hegemony is a ruling class’s domination of subordinated classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order. In any given society, hegemony and coercion are interwoven. Hegemony exists when a ruling class is able not only to coerce a subordinate class to conform to its interests, but exerts a total social authority. Hegemonic ideology in capitalism is more complex because it is integrated into the economic system. The capitalist society is conflicted because there is the affirmation of patriarchal authority but also the affirmation of individual worth and self-determination. The contradictory values of liberty versus equality, democracy versus hierarchy, public rights versus property rights.
  • Gitlin continues to talk about the workings of hegemony in journalism. News selection has three stages – editor decides a certain scene should be investigated, a reporter decides what is worthy, and editors decide how to treat and place the story. The owners and managers of the media are committed to the maintenance of the system. The hegemonic frames can shift but it relies on the point of view of the elite who are unreliable.

11. Seventies Going on Eighties

  • This chapter is the books conclusion. Gitlin begins with saying that the more closely the concerns and values of social movements coincide with the concerns and values of elites in politics and in media, the more likely they are to become incorporated in the prevailing news framed. He ends by discussing some recent frames – the treatment of movements against nuclear power and nuclear weapons – clearly this book was written in 1980. Uses the same ideas of media shaping movements and how mass media has suffused social life. Mass media defines social meaning within the hegemonic ideology.


I read Gitlin’s preface last because I was curious to read the 1980 portion first to get an idea of what his views were before. He wrote the preface in 2003. What I found most interesting is that he said he thought media had their most important impact on ideology but now he believes that most thought, for most people, is superficial. People attach to media for their emotional texture. He is less interested in his Part III section now because he believes that hegemony is a cumbersome and misleading name for an intricate process and that the name is insufficient.


The book does not highlight the frame for the sixties but a frame. Overall, the book was interesting and I enjoyed reading about SDS. I wish the book was not so narrow in its sources but I if Gitlin can write a 300 page book mostly based on CBS News and The New York Times, I can not imagine how long a book with his amount of detail analyzing other articles would take. Also, reading his preface and learning that he was president of SDS makes me curious about much he left his bias affect his analyzing.



One thought on “Book Review: The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Todd Gitlin)

  1. the summary of the book is very interesting but it may overlook a media appearance, and he was much more focused on the political aspect rather than a framework that allows us to understand the behavior of the media but as an explanation of the event recounted in book

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