How America got polarized

Gore Vidal and William Buckley Jr. debate on November 5, 1968.

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: The seeds of today's divisions were evident in the Gore Vidal-William Buckley Jr. debates of 1968
  • Today, the right talks to the right and the left talks to the left, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" and co-editor of a new book, "Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America's Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)As my wife and I waited to see a screening of "Best of Enemies," a new documentary focusing on the debates between the conservative publisher William Buckley Jr. and the liberal author Gore Vidal in the summer 1968, I overheard another guest say, "It will be nice to see a movie about a time when television was so much better at the news than it is today."

Julian Zelizer
They were in for a surprise. It turns out that the kind of nostalgia we have for the golden age of news is misplaced. Indeed, the film, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, reveals that the roots of some of the worst elements of contemporary news coverage were evident at the very moment that television was emerging as the primary medium for reporting on politics. With the television coverage of the elections about to heat up with the first Republican debates, the movie is an important reminder of what we need to do better.
ABC Television invited Buckley and Vidal to conduct 10 debates at the Republican and Democratic conventions in the summer of 1968. This was a tumultuous moment in American history. The Vietnam War was raging, with opponents taking to the streets in protest. The previous year, rioting in cities like Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, had fueled a conservative backlash against the Great Society, while civil rights advocates argued that the government was not doing enough to alleviate social inequality. The cultural revolution had fully taken hold, with younger Americans ignoring older social norms as some of them engaged in drugs, sex and rock-and-roll without reservation.
    Desperate for ratings, perpetually struggling network executives believed that they could boost viewership over NBC and CBS by bringing these two celebrity intellectuals to the airwaves. Vidal, who once said to never turn down an invitation to have sex or be on television, and Buckley both jumped at the opportunity for an even bigger audience. Each loved the spotlight and craved the attention that only television could bring.
    At moments, their debates could be exactly what serious political thinkers hoped for: a genuine intellectual conflict over the big issues of the day -- poverty, Vietnam, crime -- presented in an entertaining, punchy style that made the events fun for average viewers to watch.
    But the takeaway from "Best of Enemies" was that the quality of their conversation quickly disintegrated into something that would be very familiar to modern viewers. "Anything complicated confuses Mr. Vidal," Buckley said. Buckley was "always to the right and almost always in the wrong," Vidal said in a carefully prepared quip.
    By the time they were in Chicago, the two men came close to physical conflict. The turbulence of the period had bled into the conventions as violence flared outside the hall. Anti-war Democrats were brutally attacked by Chicago police, as Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley sought to impose law and order by whatever means necessary.
    During the most infamous moment from the debates that occurred on August 28, Vidal accused his adversary of being a "pro- or crypto-Nazi." Buckley, barely able to contain his anger, started in on Vidal by saying "Now listen, you queer," a derisive insult that was not uttered on television, before leaning his body over in menacing fashion and saying he would "sock" the writer in the "goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
    For the rest of his life, Buckley would regret how he had lost control on the national airwaves. Vidal was pleased that in his mind, he had revealed to the country who the nasty person was behind the conservative rhetoric.
    The debates certainly did not create modern television news, but they embodied some of the problems that have existed with the medium from the very beginning. As executives and producers looked for ways to make politics accessible and entertaining in the short time frame available, they made stylistic decisions that were not always best for the electorate.
    The insistence on dividing politics into clear categories of "liberal" versus "conservative" was essential to the Vidal-Buckley confrontation. It has remained so through our current age, when everything must be red or blue. While social scientists like Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams have shown how public opinion is often all over the place on key policy issues, news coverage, like politicians, tends to play into a more polarized vision of politics.
    The problem is that this kind of news coverage actually plays a big role in polarizing the electorate. Rather than presenting nuance and areas of agreement, television news has tended to offer politics that stress one position or the other. The divisions are further amplified by the fact that more Americans now tune in to networks, and websites, that present the news from a partisan perspective. The cycle never ends.
    When Vidal and Buckley held these debates, it became apparent that the fight between them was more important than the substance of what they said. While humans love to watch confrontation and conflict, there were many people like Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite in this formative era of news who didn't believe that it was the job of their industry to satisfy those demands. Rather it was to provide the best information and reporting about the big stories of the day. The rest was for the entertainment shows.
    With Vidal and Buckley, the jousting dominated the conversation. The fight was what people tuned in to see. Even after the shocking breakdown when Buckley called Vidal a "queer," the very astute novelist said, off camera, "Well I guess we gave them their money's worth tonight!"
    Too much of television news is now about the fight between the panelists, not the issues. The show "Crossfire" on CNN institutionalized this approach on a nightly basis starting in the early 1980s. For decades, there has been a premium on panelists who can light up the airwaves with dramatic and contentious arguments. As with professional hockey games, viewers often tune in to see the panelists go after one another rather than try to rationally work through the problems of the day. The incentives for television hosts and panelists is to be confrontational and to be shocking. That draws the ratings.
    The medium has changed even more dramatically since the 1990s. Rather than having left and right on one show, we have now divided left and right on different networks. Media personalities on Fox argue about the people who are no longer in the room, with those on MSBNC finding airtime to do the same.
    The Buckley-Vidal debates also pointed to another trend that would become increasingly important over time -- the celebrity hosts and guests received more airtime than the politicians. The fact that ABC devoted up to 22 minutes at the convention to these debates, rather than what was taking place on the floor, was a harbinger of things to come. Over the next few decades, the amount of airtime that television stations allotted to politicians diminished.
    The line between celebrity and newscaster diminished. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in an astute piece, "A news anchor must be beguiling, even captivating. That's what led Brian Williams to go astray -- he got so invested in the role that he overplayed it."
    "Best of Enemies" offers a welcome wake-up call that we need to do more to elevate the quality of our news coverage. One of the worst effects of these trends has been that the public has decreasing trust in the news as an institution. A recent study by the Newseum Institute found that only 24% polled believed the news is unbiased. Last year, Gallup found that trust in the news media has reached an all-time low.
    The roots of "The O'Reilly Factor," "Morning Joe" and other popular entertainment-driven news shows today were there in the television of the 1960s. The problems that the nation faces -- from police brutality to nuclear threats in Iran -- are too great for us to continue with the kinds of barbs and jabs we will hear. Americans will always want political discussions that are entertaining and lively, but we can't allow that to continue to be an excuse for events that revolve solely around the kind of debased discussions with which we have become too familiar.