Beat the Press: How Leading Political Cartoonists Framed Protests at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention

By Makemson, Harlen | Journalism History, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Beat the Press: How Leading Political Cartoonists Framed Protests at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention


Makemson, Harlen, Journalism History


Anti-war protestors at the 1968 Democratic convention chanted, "The whole world is watching," as Chicago police beat demonstrators. But it was not only television that depicted the violence. In the aftermath, political cartoonists tried to make sense of the carnage, assign blame, and express outrage. Seven of the nation's leading cartoonists of the period told the story by portraying the candidates, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the police, and even the barbed wire meant to keep undesirables out of the proceedings. But strikingly absent, for the most part, from their discourse were depictions of those who caused the security concerns in the first place-the protestors. Instead, cartoonists, and the press at large, focused attention on violence that had been directed toward their own journalistic colleagues.

It may have been the most violent seventeen-minute news segment ever to air on network television. An estimated 90 million Americans watched in shock as Chicago police used tear gas, nightsticks, and brute force to clear the streets of anti-war protestors in front of the Conrad Hilton on the night of August 28,1968, as Hubert Humphrey awaited his nomination as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.1

While the battle on Michigan Avenue was the most infamous episode of the 1968 Democratic convention, it was merely the climax to a week of violence between police and anti-war activists.2 Also covered by the media, but with less dramatic footage, were violent episodes near the Loop and in Lincoln Park a few nights earlier.3 The tension had begun well before the convention, as Vietnam War opponents, becoming even more vocal since the Tet Offensive earlier in the year, were determined to organize "an assembly of people too large to be considered the lunatic fringe."4 Determined to stop the protestors was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who denied the and-war movement demonstration permits and assembled a massive security force in anticipation of a violent confrontation.

However, it was the battle in front of the Conrad Hilton that became the symbol of the 1968 Democratic convention, in part because of the protestors' mantra through the violence: "The whole world is watching." For observers then, and scholars now, conventional wisdom has been that television images of the riot "undermined Hubert Humphrey's candidacy, and helped give Richard Nixon electoral victory," according to researcher David Gilbert in 1998.5

But the world saw other images in addition to those on television. Newspaper and magazine photographs depicted bloodied protestors and media members and froze action of police striking down protestors. In the aftermath, political cartoonists tried to make sense of the carnage, assign blame, and express outrage.

This article examines how the Chicago anti-war protests and resulting violence were depicted by seven of the leading political cartoonists in the country. The only two-time Pulitzer Prize winners of the era-Herbert L. Block (Herblock) of the Washington Post and Bill Mauldin of the Cbicago Sun-Timtt-were chosen for the study, as were the four most recent Pulitzer winners in 1968: Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times? Don Wright of the Miami News, Patrick B. Oliphant of the Denver Post, and Eugene Gray Payne of the Charlotte Observer. John Fischetti of the Chicago Daily News, who would win the 1969 Pulitzer for his work in the previous year, rounded out the study. Convention-related cartoons were analyzed if they dealt specifically with Vietnam, protests, or police reaction from August 25, the Sunday before the convention began, through September 5, one week after the convention's adjournment. The dates were selected to adequately account for pre-convention coverage and post-convention comment about the violence. Thirty-two cartoons fell into the above criteria.

This study takes a cultural approach, which focuses on analysis of the underlying social order behind cartoons rather than their persuasive effectiveness. …

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