Spiro Theodore Agnew
Television News Coverage
delivered 13 November 1969, Des Moines, Iowa
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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Thank you very much, Governor Ray, Governor Ogilvie, Governor Tiemann, Mr. Boyd, Miss Peterson, the many distinguished officials of the Republican Party gathered for this Midwest regional meeting. It's indeed a pleasure for me to be here tonight. I had intended to make all three of the regional meetings that have been scheduled thus far, but unfortunately I had to scrub the Western one -- Hawaii was a little far at the moment, that time. But I'm glad to be here tonight and I look forward to attending the others.
I think it's obvious from the cameras here that I didn't come to discuss the ban on cyclamates or DDT. I have a subject I think is of great interest to the American people. Tonight I want to discuss the importance of the television medium to the American people. No nation depends more on the intelligent judgment of its citizens. And no medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on such vast power. So nowhere should there be more conscientious responsibility exercised than by the news media. The question is, "Are we demanding enough of our television news presentations?" "And are the men of this medium demanding enough of themselves?"
Monday night, a week ago, President Nixon delivered the most important address of his Administration, one of the most important of our decade. His subject was Vietnam. My hope, as his at that time, was to rally the American people to see the conflict through to a lasting and just peace in the Pacific. For 32 minutes, he reasoned with a nation that has suffered almost a third of a million casualties in the longest war in its history.
When the President completed his address -- an address, incidentally, that he spent weeks in the preparation of -- his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism. The audience of 70 million Americans gathered to hear the President of the United States was inherited by a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say.
It was obvious that their minds were made up in advance. Those who recall the fumbling and groping that followed President Johnson's dramatic disclosure of his intention not to seek another term have seen these men in a genuine state of non-preparedness. This was not it.
One commentator -- One commentator twice contradicted the President's statement about the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh. Another challenged the President's abilities as a politician. A third asserted that the President was following a Pentagon line. Others, by the expressions on their faces, the tone of their questions, and the sarcasm of their responses, made clear their sharp disapproval.
To guarantee in advance that the President's plea for national unity would be challenged, one network [A.B.C.] trotted out Averell Harriman for the occasion. Throughout the President's address, he waited in the wings. When the President concluded, Mr. Harriman recited perfectly. He attacked the Thieu Government as unrepresentative. He criticized the President's speech for various deficiencies. He twice issued a call to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to debate Vietnam once again. He stated his belief that the Vietcong or North Vietnamese did not really want a military takeover of South Vietnam. And he told a little anecdote about a "very, very responsible" fellow he had met in the North Vietnamese delegation.1
All in all, Mr. Harriman offered a broad range of gratuitous advice challenging and contradicting the policies outlined by the President of the United States. Where the President had issued a call for unity, Mr. Harriman was encouraging the country not to listen to him.
A word about Mr. Harriman. For 10 months he was America's chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks -- a period in which the United States swapped some of the greatest military concessions in the history of warfare for an enemy agreement on the shape of the bargaining table. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Mr. Harriman seems to be under some heavy compulsion to justify his failures to anyone who will listen. And the networks have shown themselves willing to give him all the air time he desires.
Now every American has a right to disagree with the President of the United States and to express publicly that disagreement. But the President of the United States has a right to communicate directly with the people who elected him, and the -- and the people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a Presidential address without having the President's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.
When Winston Churchill rallied public opinion to stay the course against Hitler's Germany, he didn't have to contend with a gaggle of commentators raising doubts about whether he was reading public opinion right, or whether Britain had the stamina to see the world -- the war through. When President Kennedy rallied a nation in the Cuban missile crisis, his address to the people was not chewed over by a roundtable of critics who disparaged the course of action he'd asked America to follow.
The purpose of my remarks tonight is to focus your attention on this little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every Presidential address, but, more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues in our nation.
First, let's define that power.
At least 40 million Americans every night, it's estimated, watch the network news. Seven million of them view A.B.C., the remainder being divided between N.B.C. and C.B.S. According to Harris polls and other studies, for millions of Americans the networks are the sole source of national and world news. In Will Rogers' observation, what you knew was what you read in the newspaper. Today for growing millions of Americans, it's what they see and hear on their television sets.
Now how is this network news determined? A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that's to reach the public.
This selection is made from the 90 to 180 minutes that may be available. Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what 40 to 50 million Americans will learn of the day's events in the nation and in the world. We cannot measure this power and influence by the traditional democratic standards, for these men can create national issues overnight. They can make or break by their coverage and commentary a moratorium on the war. They can elevate men from obscurity to national prominence within a week. They can reward some politicians with national exposure and ignore others.
For millions of Americans the network reporter who covers a continuing issue -- like the ABM or civil rights -- becomes, in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury.
It must be recognized that the networks have made important contributions to the national knowledge -- through news, documentaries, and specials. They have often used their power constructively and creatively to awaken the public conscience to critical problems. The networks made hunger and black lung disease national issues overnight. The TV networks have done what no other medium could have done in terms of dramatizing the horrors of war. The networks have tackled our most difficult social problems with a directness and an immediacy that's the gift of their medium. They focus the nation's attention on its environmental abuses -- on pollution in the Great Lakes and the threatened ecology of the Everglades. But it was also the networks that elevated Stokely Carmichael and George Lincoln Rockwell from obscurity to national prominence.
Nor is their power confined to the substantive. A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official or the wisdom of a Government policy. One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the powers of the networks equal to that of local, state, and Federal Governments all combined. Certainly it represents a concentration of -- of power over American public opinion unknown in history.
Now what do Americans know of the men who wield this power? Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing. Of the commentators, most Americans know little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well-informed on every important matter. We do know that to a man these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms "the most unrepresentative community in the entire United States."
Both communities bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism. We can deduce that these men read the same newspapers. They draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints. Do they allow their biases to influence the selection and presentation of the news? David Brinkley states, "objectivity is impossible" to normal human behavior. Rather, he says, we should strive for "fairness" (p. 219).2
Another anchorman on a network news show contends, and I quote:
Less than a week before the 1968 election, this same commentator charged that President Nixon's campaign commitments were no more durable than campaign balloons. He claimed that, were it not for the fear of the hostile reaction, Richard Nixon would be giving into, and I quote him exactly, "his natural instinct to smash the enemy with a club or go after him with a meat axe."4
Had this slander been made by one political candidate about another, it would have been dismissed by most commentators as a partisan attack. But this attack emanated from the privileged sanctuary of a network studio and therefore had the apparent dignity of an objective statement.
The American people would rightly not tolerate this concentration of power in Government. Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by Government? The views of a -- the majority of this fraternity do not -- and I repeat, not -- represent the views of America. And that is why such a great gulf existed between how the nation received the President's address and how the networks reviewed it.
Not only did the country receive the President's address warmer -- more warmly than the networks, but so also did the Congress of the United States. Yesterday, the President was notified that 300 individual Congressmen and 50 Senators of both parties had endorsed his efforts for peace. As with other American institutions, perhaps it is time that the networks were made more responsive to the views of the nation and more responsible to the people they serve.
Now I want to make myself perfectly clear: I'm not asking for Government censorship or any other kind of censorship. I am asking whether a form of censorship already exists when the news that 40 million Americans -- when the news that 40 million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers and is filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases.
The questions I'm raising here tonight should have been raised by others long ago. They should have been raised by those Americans who have traditionally considered the preservation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press their special provinces of responsibility. They -- They should have been raised by those Americans who share the view of the late Justice Learned Hand that "right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection."5
Advocates for the networks have claimed a First Amendment right to the same unlimited freedoms held by the great newspapers of America. But the situations are not identical. Where The New York Times reaches 800,000 people, N.B.C. reaches 20 times that number on its evening news. Nor can the tremendous impact of seeing television film and hearing commentary be compared with reading the printed page.
A decade ago, before the network news acquired such dominance over public opinion, Walter Lippman spoke to the issue. He said,
"Networks," he stated,
Now a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication is not something that democratic people should blithely ignore. And we are not going to cut off our television sets and listen to the phonograph just because the airways belong to the networks. They don't. They belong to the people. As Justice Byron...White wrote in his landmark opinion six months ago, "It [is] the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."8
Now it's argued that this power presents no danger in the hands of those who have used it responsibly. But as to whether or not the networks have abused the power they enjoy, let us call as our first witness, former Vice President Humphrey and the city of Chicago. According to Theodore White, television's intercutting of the film from the streets of Chicago with the "current proceedings on the floor of the convention created the most striking and false political picture of 1968 -- the nomination of a man for the American Presidency by the brutality and violence of merciless police."9
If we are to believe a recent report of the House of Representatives Commerce Committee, then television's presentation of the violence in the streets worked an injustice on the reputation of the Chicago police. According to the committee findings, one network in particular presented, and I quote, "a one-sided picture which in large measure exonerates the demonstrators and protestors."10 Film of provocations of police that was available never saw the light of day, while the film of a police response which the protestors provoked was shown to millions.
Another network showed virtually the same scene of violence from three separate angles without making clear it was the same scene. And while the full report is reticent in drawing conclusions, it is not a document to inspire confidence in the fairness of the network news. Our knowledge of the impact of network news on the national mind is far from incomplete [sic] but some early returns are available. Again, we have enough information to raise serious questions about its effect on a democratic society.
Several years ago Fred Friendly, one of the pioneers of network news, wrote that its "missing ingredients" were "conviction, controversy, and a point of view" (p.153).11 The networks have compensated with a vengeance.
And in the networks' endless pursuit of controversy, we should ask: "What is the end value -- to enlighten or to profit?" "What is the end result -- to inform or to confuse?" "How does the ongoing exploration for more action, more excitement, more drama serve our national search for internal peace and stability?"
Gresham's Law seems to be operating in the network news. Bad news drives out good news. The irrational is more controversial than the rational. Concurrence can no longer compete with dissent. One minute of Eldridge Cleaver is worth 10 minutes of Roy Wilkins. The labor crisis settled at the negotiating table is nothing compared to the confrontation that results in a strike -- or better yet, violence along the picket lines. Normality has become the nemesis of the network news.
Now the upshot of all this controversy is that a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news. A single, dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes in the minds of millions the entire picture. The -- The American who relies upon television for his news might conclude that the majority of American students are embittered radicals; that the majority of black Americans feel no regard for their country; that violence and lawlessness are the rule rather than the exception on the American campus. We know that none of these conclusions is true.
Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the Government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York. Television may have destroyed the old stereotypes, but has it not created new ones in their places? What has this "passionate" pursuit of controversy done to the politics of progress through local compromise essential to the functioning of a democratic society?
The members of Congress or the Senate who follow their principles and philosophy quietly in a spirit of compromise are unknown to many Americans, while the loudest and most extreme dissenters on every issue are known to every man in the street. How many marches and demonstrations would we have if the marchers did not know that the ever-faithful TV cameras would be there to record their antics for the next news show?
We've heard demands that Senators and Congressmen and judges make known all their financial connections so that the public will know who and what influences their decisions and their votes. Strong arguments can be made for that view. But when a single commentator or producer, night after night, determines for millions of people how much of each side of a great issue they are going to see and hear, should he not first disclose his personal views on the issue as well? In this search for excitement and controversy, has more than equal time gone to the minority of Americans who specialize in attacking the United States -- its institutions and its citizens?
Tonight I've raised questions. I've made no attempt to suggest the answers. The answers must come from the media men. They are challenged to turn their critical powers on themselves, to direct their energy, their talent, and their conviction toward improving the quality and objectivity of news presentation. They are challenged to structure their own civic ethics -- to relate their great feeling with the great responsibilities they hold.
And the people of America are challenged, too -- challenged to press for responsible news presentations. The people can let the networks know that they want their news straight and objective. The people can register their complaints on bias through mail to the networks and phone calls to local stations. This is one case where the people must defend themselves, where the citizen, not the Government, must be the reformer; where the consumer can be the most effective crusader.
By way of conclusion, let me say that every elected leader in the United States depends on these men of the media. Whether what I've said to you tonight will be heard and seen at all by the nation is not my decision; it's not your decision -- it's their decision.
In tomorrow's edition of the Des Moines Register, you'll be able to read a news story detailing what I said tonight. Editorial comment will be reserved for the editorial page, where it belongs. Should not the same wall of separation exist between news and comment on the nation's networks?
Now my friends, we'd never trust such power, as I've described, over public opinion in the hands of an elected Government. It's time we questioned it in the hands of a small and unelected elite. The great networks have dominated America's airwaves for decades. The people are entitled to a full accounting of their stewardship.
1 Citation unverified.
2 Brinkley, D. (1969) Newsweek. Cited in George, J. H. (1994). Be Reasonable: Selected Quotations for Inquiring Minds. Prometheus Books (via Google Books search).
3 Citation unverified.
4 Citation unverified.
9 Citation unverified.
10 Citation unverified.
11 Ehrlich, M. C. (2011). Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest. University of Illinois Press (via Google Books search).
Research Note: Transcript authenticated 23 November 2014 on the basis of a recently obtained public domain artifact of the entire address.
Audio Source: G. Robert Vincent Voice Library
U.S. Copyright Status: This text = Property of AmericanRhetoric.com. Audio and Image = Public domain.