Academic journal article Journalism History

Woodstock: How the Media Missed the Historic Angle of the Breaking Story

Academic journal article Journalism History

Woodstock: How the Media Missed the Historic Angle of the Breaking Story

Article excerpt

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August 1969 was an iconic moment of the 1960s for a generation of young people. However, coverage of the breaking story by major newspapers and magazines did not emphasize the events cultural significance, focusing instead on crowd size and related logistical problems and public safety issues. This study of breaking coverage by six daily newspapers and three magazines examines how prominently the story was displayed, the sources who were quoted, and to what extent the cultural angle was reported. A key finding was that each publication relied mostly on official sources and consulted few young festival attendees for their perspective. The breaking coverage thus focused on the negative aspects of the massive assembly, overlooking the cultural perspective that has come to characterize the event in history.

One of the iconic cultural events that defined the 1960s was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which drew an estimated 450,000 young people to a vast sloping meadow in rural New York state over the weekend of Friday, August 15, to Monday, August 18, 1969. The young crowd came to witness an unprecedented rock music extravaganza, and the unexpected turnout overwhelmed the preparations of promoters. Tens of thousands of concert-goers were caught in traffic jams on narrow country roads several miles from the rural festival site near the town of Bethel, about 1 00 miles northwest of New York City, and could not reach the concert grounds. For those who did arrive, a crisis was unfolding. Food, water, and sanitation facilities were insufficient for the large crowd, widespread drug use was resulting in overdoses and bad "trips," and heavy rains were turning the festival grounds into a muddy quagmire.

In one sense, Woodstock was the story of a mass gathering that became a potentially dangerous logistical and public safety nightmare. But from a cultural perspective, it represented a transcendental moment, a coming of age, for the young generation of Americans in the late 1960s.1 Not surprisingly, many Americans of older generations - as well as many journalists - did not immediately recognize the passage of that transcendental moment and its impact on young people. The New York Times, for instance, initially dismissed Woodstock in an editorial as "a colossal mess" and "a nightmare of mud and stagnation."2 To be sure, the American media would quickly come to regard it "as the birth of a new 'nation.'"3 But the breaking news coverage failed to acknowledge the festival's historic cultural significance.

This study examines how six newspapers and three magazines in the United States covered and framed the breaking story of the Woodstock festival. The newspapers were the New York Times, the nation's newspaper of record; the Washington Post, a major metropolitan daily with a strong national focus; the Wall Street Journal, a national daily focusing on economic and political news; the Chicago Tribune, a major metropolitan daily focusing on the Midwest; the Los Angeles Times, a major metropolitan -daily focusing on the West; and the Cincinnati Enquirer, a mid-size metropolitan daily that was typical of newspapers of that class and which relied almost entirely on wire services for national and world coverage. The magazines included Time, the nation's largest news weekly, with a circulation of about 4.1 million, based in New York; Life, the nation's largest general interest weekly, with a circulation of about 8.5 million, based in New York; and Rolling Stone, the liberal biweekly journal of the 1960s counter-culture and a rock music publication, based in San Francisco.4

Newspaper coverage was examined from Friday, August 15, through Sunday, August 24, 1969. For the magazines Time, Life, and Rolling Stone, the issue that first contained Woodstock coverage was examined. The relevant editions were the Time and Life issues of August 29 and the Rolling Stone issue of September 20. Each publication's Woodstock coverage was examined with regard to story placement, author, focus, and sources. …

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