50 Years of Students Under Fire: In Classrooms and in Print

It’s been several weeks since the Parkland shooting, and there has been fierce discussion about the role of the Florida teens who are demanding gun reform in lieu of thoughts, prayers and Congress’ continual inaction. The conversation has exposed certain continuities in the mainstream media’s history of demonizing and delegitimizing coverage of student-led activism.

It’s been exactly 50 years since 1968, the controversial year in American history that “rocked the world.” The year comes to characterize this famous and sometimes infamous decade for its boom in student activism. Students across college campuses like the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan rallied around social justice causes from the Civil Rights Movement, to freedom of speech, to perhaps, most famously, the Anti-War Movement.

Students of the 1960s began demanding accountability from not only their universities but from the government, citing deeply-embedded hypocrisy and cronyism that led to false promises with no tangible results. They condemned American foreign policy as systematic foreign intervention run by politicians whose concerns lie with corporate profits and urged the nation to elect officials who would invest in diplomacy rather than those who would consistently vote for a budget that champions nationalism by glorifying militarism.

In defiance of the Vietnam War, students across the nation organized protests and teach-ins, publicly burned draft cards–some even attempted to shutdown induction centers–and demanded that their college divest from firms which made napalm, a gasoline used to make firebombs used by U.S. soldiers.

However noble their causes, these students still experienced enormous backlash on various fronts. If it was not their very university administration’s attempt to quell their speech and restrict their ability to protest, it was the news media’s sensationalization and disparagement.

Edward Morgan, a professor of political science at Lehigh University, has argued that the mass media “systematically reinforces the prevailing order” through key tactics that emerged during the 1960’s movement of student activism. The media determined what views were acceptable in common discourse by delegitimizing those who were more radical or were otherwise outside the dominant debate–in this case, the students.

The news often sensationalized the individuals and events that drove student movements, using controversial images and video which sidetracked public focus from more intrinsic debates at hand. By commercializing rebellion, the media could reject the legitimacy of their claims on a broad scale.

Mainstream media characterized one of the most well known and incendiary protest leaders of the free speech movements, Mario Savio, by over-dramatization and an undesired elevation to celebrity status. Savio’s claims were largely undermined, and one Washington Post article even called the activists “rebels without causes” whose motives lie more in martyrdom than an authentic call for political reform.

The decade’s trends of protests, sit-ins and marches were demonized as well, with the Chicago Tribune classifying student demonstrations as  “organized rioting.” Not only were these students likened to violent rebels, but they were tied also to communists and other extremist groups despite the lack of singular political affiliation and decentralized structure of student movements throughout the decade.

Fast forward 50 years.

On February 14 of this year, the nation watched the 30th mass shooting of 2018 (yes, it was only February) tear through the lives of 17 high school students and their loved ones in Parkland, Florida. The survivors experienced the ricochet, and are now echoing the distant cries of students activists of 1968.

As we have seen so many times before after each mass shooting, the nation reacts with outrage, some with “thoughts and prayers.” The left goes on to demand reform, some even pleading with government officials to make a change. But in the end, the gun lobby speaks over all, leaving no tangible changes; and the media, along with the rest of us, move on until the next mass casualty.

And while many nationwide braced themselves for this formula to emerge, these Florida teens decided to break the cycle.  

Parkland student Emma González is already being regarded as one of the poster children for this movement. González launched into the media’s eye after her viral speech following the shooting in which she directly attacked the president and other politicians for the funding they have received from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The voice of student journalist David Hogg has also emerged over the chorus of students calling for gun control. Hogg interviewed his classmates as the massacre was happening, huddled with them as gunman Nikolas Cruz rampaged through the school hallways, and even took out his cellphone to record the nightmare. He has since go on to speak with several television news networks to demand common sense gun reform, and that politicians cut ties with the NRA and reject emergent calls to arm teachers in classrooms.

Many more have joined them in the call for both state and federal government to mobilize common sense gun reform. But, unsurprisingly, their efforts are being scrutinized by the unflinchingly pro-gun right and its respective media basis.

Right-wing media has since launched an all-out attack on the legitimacy of this student movement. National Review’s Ben Shapiro asked about the Parkland students: “Are they innocents or are they leaders?” He argued that their activism should be dismissed because, in adolescence, “the emotional centers of the brain are overdeveloped in comparison with the rational centers of the brain.”

This view has been corroborated strongly by various Fox News programs, entertaining a drove of pundits who claim that the grief of these students is being co-opted by far-left groups.

The Federalist contributor Chandler Lasch complained on the site that “media tends to treat survivors like Hogg as if they are policy experts … Yet enduring tragedy does not make anyone a source of wisdom on legislation.” The logic follows effectively that personal experience with tragedy does not necessarily give one the right to contribute to political discourse surrounding it, but rather policy expertise does (Nevermind that if this logic applied to our president, he would never be allowed to speak).

More perverted criticisms have come from conservative conspiratorial fringe groups who have claimed that these teens are nothing more than pawns in the left’s anti-gun agenda. Lucian Wintrich of pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit, suggested that David Hogg was “heavily coached on lines and is merely reciting a script.”

Hogg has since taken the offensive in response to these claims, assuring that not only is he “not a crisis actor” but also told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “the fact that some of the students at Stoneman Douglas high school are showing more maturity and political action than many of our elected officials is a testament to how disgusting and broken our political system is right now in America.”

These attacks on the Florida teens mirror similar media trends of characterizing entities such as the Black Lives Matter movement, which is also often largely comprised of younger individuals, as rioting thugs or anti-police conspirators (Though one cannot ignore that attacks on the BLM movement is also largely racially charged in addition to its critique of politically active young folks).

Some more insidious news media outlets have even launched attempts to turn Parkland students against one another in the interest of preserving pro-Second Amendment discourse. The Daily Wire was able to find a pro-gun Parkland student who came out accusing the media of “politicizing” the massacre to talk about gun control, echoing similar cries of conservative media pundits who beg for leftists to allow loved ones sufficient time to grieve before launching their anti-gun campaign.  

So why have news media pundits been so intent on attacking these students?

It might have to do with the fact that nationwide discourse about gun culture and consideration about gun control has maintained pique interest well since the shooting when compared to its predecessors, and the students’ persistence is largely responsible. In fact, signs are already beginning to show that, in fact, these Florida teens really are disrupting the cycle, where not only is cable news kept its attention on the Parkland shooting for longer than previous mass shootings (including Sandy Hook), but is also focusing increasingly on policy changes.

And the gun lobby is taking note. The head of the National Rifle Association has accused the mainstream media and gun control advocates of using the tragedy to push its agenda.

Still, the more likely reality is a sad truth, and age has everything to do with it.

It is easy to poke holes in the arguments of young people. As pundits on Fox News and other right-wing outlets have been so keen to point out, students are not always necessarily policy experts, nor draped in university degrees in political science. But they are old enough to discern right from wrong, have seen enough school shootings to know that the status quo is not fixing the problem, and are clearly adept enough to have keep the nation’s attention.

So when, according to mainstream media, do students become eligible to enter debate that implicates everyone? Especially when the Parkland shooting and so many before it implicates the students directly?  

It is more likely that there is no actual eligibility standard, but rather that, at points of contention, age becomes a scapegoat where, in fact, policy disagreement underlies media efforts to discredit resistance movements. Perhaps most especially: when the students just may be on to something.

The 1960s Anti-War Movement was both a direct critique on American glorification of the military and an attack on the government’s control of the relationship between military and corporations. The escalating and now boiled-over tensions between young people and staunchly pro-gun Americans (even those who still cling desperately to the Second Amendment in the wake of Sandy Hook) are finally implicating the government’s deep corporate ties with the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby at large– a relationship that has stalled the passage of gun reform for decades.

Parkland students, just as so many students before them, are a part of America’s longstanding tradition of youth-led activism as well as a tradition of intense media scrutiny about youth involvement into a political discourse that has not improved in the last half-century.

So what are the consequences if Americans cannot collectively agree that children are the future? And what message are we sending when we call for freedom of speech but patronize and discredit their voices when they emerge after a tragedy? How about when they demand accountability from our nation’s leaders?

The reality is that none of what we tell young people about their potential, about the usefulness of their education, about their ability to create the change they wish to see in the world, means anything if we smother them when they dissent. 1968 was the year they rocked the world. If these teens have anything to say about it, 2018 may be the one to brings it to its knees.

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