Failing to sort out 1968

mlkFive years ago, political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio wrote a fascinating story about the media's failure to cover the rise to power of "secularists" in the Democratic Party. Bolce and De Maio studied The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times between 1990 and 2000. While the papers ran 682 stories about the GOP and evangelical or fundamentalist Christians between 1990 and 2000, they ran only 43 stories identifying secularists with the Democratic Party. That imbalance has surely lessened after reporters in 2004 discovered that Howard Dean was more of a secular liberal than a religious one. Yet when it comes to broader-gauge topics, such as recent political history, reporters continue to ignore or slight its importance. Witness the recent cover story in Newsweek about the legacy of 1968 on American life:

What, after all, did the baby boomers really achieve 40 years ago? Why does Newsweek commemorate 1968 instead of 1918 or 1941?

The answer: because all of us, young and old, are stuck in the '60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against. As the pages that follow demonstrate, the '60s were not necessarily, as some baby boomers would have it, America's defining moment. But they were an era when a generation held sustained argument over the things that have always mattered most: How should America show its power in the world? What rights were owed to African-Americans, to women, to gays? What is America and what does it want to be?

No doubt, the events of 1968 continue to be emotional and even painful for many in the pressroom. But is examining that year dispassionately as impossible as Newsweek implies?

I don't think so. After all, the story suggests that America has become more individualistic, noting that Republicans pine to cast the 2008 election as a choice between "family values versus free love, the order and comfort of the '50s versus the trauma and extremism of the '60s." Yet this story, by Jonathan Darman, and the others in the package view the secularist-religious liberal alliance as one that never occurred. None of the stories make the point that today traditional religion is weaker or that Americans are more materialistic and less communal.

Newsweek misses or slights those post-1968 changes in American life. While acknowledging that women and gays are treated differently, the magazine should not have stopped there as far as cultural issues. Divorce was not generally legal; cohabitation was not widely practiced; cloning was only found in sci-fci stories. If the magazine were more daring, it could have explored the religious or secularist elements of other changes. Military service was still universal; the top marginal rate on federal taxes in 1968 was 70 percent.

Being an American today often means bowling alone, to borrow from Putnam. American life is less about self sacrifice and more about autonomy; less about traditional religion and more about secularism and religious liberalism; less about formality in dress and speech and more about doing your own thing. That represents a sea change in values from 1968. Yet like intelligence officials before 9/11, we reporters continue to fail to connect the dots.

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