1969 in Public Media: Broadcasting a Tumultuous Time

This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1969, a year of important and turbulent events in history. Here to highlight the role of public media in covering these events, we welcome back Christopher Brown, Archives Engagement Intern at the AAPB who will be publishing a series of articles about this fascinating topic. Christopher is currently pursuing a Masters in History with a focus in Archives.

1969: An Introduction

Fifty years ago, one of the most tumultuous decades in American history came to a close. The 1960s were an era in which previously disempowered groups throughout society found their voice and took direct action towards social justice: The civil rights movement sought equality for African Americans, just as the feminist movement sought the same for women; the ongoing fight for LGBT equality took on greater urgency, especially after the 1969 Stonewall Riots; and those with disabilities demanded equal opportunities. An increasing focus on environmentalism led to the creation of the EPA in 1970 and resistance against the Vietnam War, especially by the “Baby Boomer” generation, reached a fever pitch as protests occurred with increasing regularity. In short, it was a time when many in society sought fairness, justice, and a better quality of life. 

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration – https://catalog.archives.gov/id/594360

The decade was a time of progress and setbacks in equal measure. The peace and love expressed by the hippie movement was countered by the violence at the Altamont music festival, a stark contrast to Woodstock just four months prior. The hope inspired by John F. Kennedy’s presidency was shattered by his assassination in 1963, along with the killing of his brother Robert Kennedy in 1968. Similarly, the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 dealt an agonizing blow to the civil rights movement, the latter unleashing an explosion of despair and rage that resulted in riots throughout the nation. And the strength of the anti-war movement was insufficient to prevent the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, which lasted halfway through the following decade.  

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X waiting for press conference. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3d01847/

The movements of the 1960s led to significant changes experienced in society today, such as the legalization of gay marriage, the election of the first African American president, and many others. However, despite this progress, many of the same struggles continue. The demand for equality and the spirit of radical change of the 1960s continues today, expressed by a new generation coming of age.  

By the late ‘60s, public media had become a major force in journalism, education, and entertainment. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, resulting in the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and in 1970 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was created, as it is still known today. This article represents the first in a series which will examine public broadcasting’s exploration of the tumultuous events taking place in 1969. 

To start, it seems fitting to briefly look at the fight for public media itself. In 1969, President Nixon proposed a dramatic reduction in funding for the CPB, putting the future of public broadcasting in jeopardy. In response, hearings took place before the U.S. Senate, arguing against the proposed cuts. Among those testifying was Fred Rogers, creator of the famous educational program Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 to 2001. Rogers’ heartfelt testimony sufficiently moved the chairman, Senator John Pastore, to declare that Rogers “just earned the $20 million” for the CPB. These hearings were aired on National Educational Television in 1969 and are especially relevant today, as public broadcasting faces renewed threats of budget cuts. 

NET Special: Public Television Hearings (National Educational Television, 1969)

Stay tuned for our next article about public media in 1969, which will examine coverage of the student movement.

The program outlined above can be viewed online and in full at the AAPB – https://americanarchive.org.

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a national effort to preserve at-risk public media and provide a central web portal for access to the programming that public stations and producers have created over the past 70 years. To date, over 50,000 hours of television and radio programming contributed by more than 100 public media organizations and archives across the United States have been digitized, and the Archive aims to grow by up to 25,000 additional hours per year. The entire collection is available for research on location at WGBH and the Library, and currently more than 30,000 programs are available in the AAPB’s Online Reading Room at americanarchive.org to anyone in the United States.

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