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This Little Group of Men
Written February 12, 2019


The 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon, felt besieged.  As a candidate he'd promised a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.  However, once in office, he was reluctant to withdraw the troops.  The war dragged on.  As the one-year anniversary of his election approached in October 1969, protesters staged a huge peace rally.

Nixon scheduled an address to the nation, to be delivered from the Oval Office two weeks later.  However, his speech would not announce the hoped-for immediate end of hostilities.  Instead, Nixon announced a more gradual policy he called “Vietnamization”:  slowly turning the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.  (Very slowly.  Six months later, American troops actually did the opposite by moving into Cambodia.  Only after another five years would the last Marines be evacuated from Saigon.)

Though he wrote the address himself, Nixon used a phrase by speechwriter Pat Buchanan to appeal for support from “the great Silent Majority of my fellow Americans.”  That was meant to include everyone who wasn't actively marching for peace. 

On Monday, November 3, 1969, the Presidential address aired live on all three TV networks.  Afterwards, all the networks immediately pointed out what was wrong with it.  The anchors and correspondents were “universally derisive,” according to Buchanan. 

I was in Syracuse, New York, at the time, studying for a Master's degree.  My friend Jenny wrote me, “I think Nixon is a dumdum.  His speech tonight lacked a lot.”  On November 6, the Syracuse student newspaper Daily Orange editorialized:

“Tuesday, an exuberant President Nixon showed off the vague mountain of response to his no-news Vietnam speech.  He stated that silent Americans had finally voiced their support.

“He was obviously quite moved.  Unfortunately, it seems that our President has fallen victim to the common psycho-political ailment of selective perception.

“It was less than a month ago that Nixon virtually ignored impassioned pleas for an immediate planned withdrawal of American troops, dismissing the hundreds of thousands of young Americans as people who would make policy in the streets rather than in the Capital.

Perhaps we should all mail a letter to the President on November 15, or better still, bring one to Washington.  We wonder if he will call in news photographers to show the country an Oval Room filled with mail?”

Still fuming about the TV critics, Pat Buchanan urged the President to launch a counterattack to convert the “smoldering hostility between the White House and the networks and national press into a war.”

It was decided that Vice President Spiro Agnew would fire the first shot against the media — “the enemy of the people,” as they're called today.

Buchanan remembered that Agnew once described intellectuals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” so he wrote some new insults for him to deliver.

But the Vice President would not speak his piece in Washington, home of the pundits.  Instead, he'd travel to Middle America.  There the “Silent Majority” was on the Administration's side.

Nixon edited Buchanan's final draft line by line, muttering “this'll tear the scabs off those bastards.”  Agnew would deliver it at the Midwestern Regional Republican Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 13.

The next day, as we did every Friday, my Syracuse University graduate class met for our weekly two-hour discussion, “TVR 635: Foundations of Broadcasting.”  Dr. Ernest F. Andrews was our professor.  His real-world experience entitled him to be a member of RTNDA, which then stood for the Radio/Television News Directors Association.  During a road trip the following spring, he would arrange for me and a few others to attend a press briefing at the White House.

When our class assembled in Room 108 of the old Carnegie Library at 9:00 that November morning, journalists were buzzing over what Agnew had said in Iowa the night before.

The TV network news departments had considered it so important that they pre-empted their nightly newscasts to carry the speech live.  Dr. Andrews asked whether we'd seen it.  Many of us had not; I didn't even have a TV set in the little off-campus bedroom where I was staying.

Therefore the professor played a tape for us.  Our blind classmate, Doug Wakefield, assumed it was a video tape, and he was surprised afterwards to learn it was merely an audio recording.  We had been forced to listen for half an hour with nothing to look at.  Doug was accustomed to that sort of thing, of course.

You, on the other hand, can actually watch the spellbinding orator (at least for the first 19 minutes) on this YouTube video.  And Dr. Andrews distributed copies of the text:  six pages, single-spaced, in purple ink from a spirit duplicator.

For the following Friday, November 21, our assignment was to write a reply to Agnew — not necessarily disagreeing with him, but maybe fleshing out his incomplete arguments. 

I dutifully typed four pages, double-spaced, entitled “Is There Room for Improvement?”  I don't recall what grade I received, if any.  Fifty years later, my little essay sounds bland and superficial.

Some of it, however, might be quotable.  Therefore for the remainder of this article I'll alternate selected excerpts among three sources:
           Thomas 11/21/69 (I was green back then),
           Agnew 11/13/69 (in red), and
           Thomas today (in blue).



On November 13, 1969, the Vice-President of the United States delivered a speech questioning whether the enormous power of television news to influence public opinion is being used responsibly by those few people who control it.  There has been a great deal of fear that the Vice-President's criticisms were an attempt to intimidate broadcast journalists into criticizing the administration less.

No nation depends more on the intelligent judgement of its citizens.  No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion.  Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on vast power.  Are we demanding enough of our television news presentations?

Monday night a week ago, President Nixon delivered the most important address of his Administration, one of the most important of our decade.  His hope was to rally the American [people] to see the conflict through to a lasting and just peace.

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 by a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts.

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.

I do recall that fumbling and groping.  No one in early 1968 suspected LBJ was going to quit the race.

Roger, uh, no question about it, this was a bombshell politically.

Well, I, you, you really don't know where to begin.  Uh, as you said, there was no warning; the announcement that he would not seek another term or accept another term was not in the text....  It, it, it, uh — it's —  What I'd rather do, Dan, is go home and come back tomorrow morning and begin to talk about it.

It is a stunning moment, and for those of you in the audience who may be saying, well, “Those two fellows are having a hard time coming up with something to say” — uh, that's the truth of the matter, because it did come as a distinct surprise.

But in 1969, it was no surprise that Nixon would drag out the war.  Most of us had been skeptical of his “secret plan” to end it.

The credibility of a news organization and faith in its objectivity would be better preserved if the organization presented the speech as straight news, with a quick summary at the end but no analysis.  The reporters would curb their impulse to be commentators.  By not offering opinions of their own, they would retain the image of open-minded transmitters of the words of others.

To guarantee in advance that the President's plea would be challenged, one network trotted out Averell Harriman for the occasion.  Where the President had issued a call for unity, Mr. Harriman was encouraging the country not to listen to him.

Now every American has a right to disagree with the President of the United States.  But the President has a right to communicate directly with the people, and the people have the right to make up their own minds without having a President's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can be digested.

Nowadays the President can communicate directly with the people via Twitter.  Of couse, that platform also enables hostile critics to raise immediate objections.


Scarcity of Voices

At least 40 million Americans every night watch network news.  Seven million of them view ABC, the remainder being divided between NBC and CBS.  For millions of Americans the networks are the sole source of national and world news.

Fifty years later, we have far more than three sources.  Fox News and CNN and PBS and Bloomberg and Newsy and BBC and CBN and all their various spinoffs are now available on cable and satellite.

This is actually a problem.

In the 1960s, everyone got their evening updates from reliably middle-of-the-road anchormen.  We believed that  “Uncle Walter” gave us straight facts, even though Nixon might not always agree.

But now Americans have abandoned the center.  Each side feels more comfortable watching commentators who reinforce their prejudices.  Republicans and Democrats do their best to ignore each other.

How is this network news determined?  A small group of men — 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.


And was in control of Agnew's small group of men?  Jews, probably, in his mind.  A decade later, he would write to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Fahd:

Since 1974, the Zionists have orchestrated a well-organized attack on me — the idea being to use lawsuits to bleed me of my resources to continue my effort to inform the American people of their control of the media and other influential sectors of American society.  ...I am sure that this damage suit was encouraged by the B'nai B'rith.  ...I need desperately your financial support so that I can continue to fight.

Agnew asked for two million dollars, a “loan” to be placed in a secret Swiss bank account.  His 1980 telegram was revealed on MSNBC in February 2019. 

Unelected Power

This little group of men 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.

These men can create national issues overnight.  They can make or break, by their coverage and commentary, a moratorium on the war.  They elevate men from obscurity to national prominence within a week.

Today, of course, the networks' power to set the national agenda has been diluted.  Almost anyone can create an issue by expressing an opinion on social media.



The network reporter becomes, in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury.

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.

The very idea!  Patriotic Americans, always loyal to their government, cannot allow such doubts to be raised.  We must never question policy nor suspect an Administration official of lying.

To a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., and of New York City.

The American people would rightly not tolerate this concentration of power in government.  Is it not fair to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny fraternity of privileged men elected by no one?  The views of the majority of this fraternity do not — and I repeat, not — represent the views of America.

Network news, for very practical reasons, must be controlled by a centralized authority, and this authority has come to be located in New York and Washington.  However, this does not mean that the East has a “dangerous” control over television news.  For one thing, on most stations a majority of news hours are locally produced, not produced by the network, and their local programs do include national news told by local reporters.  For another, the networks use contributions from reporters in all parts of the country (a practice which perhaps should be increased).

News | Comment

Every elected leader in the United States depends on these men of the media.  Whether what I said to you tonight will be heard and seen at all by the nation is not my 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've 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?


Some editorial opinion is currently set aside and labeled as such, the commentary of Eric Sevareid being the best example.  Sevareid is not a reporter but rather the television version of a columnist.  Also, some opinion is made necessary by the format required to cover special events as they are happening.  Walter Cronkite would find it very difficult to keep his personal feelings completely out of a twelve-hour Apollo telecast, or a funeral, or a political convention.

But a renewed effort should be made to keep the newscaster's personal opinion from creeping into the main body of a regular newscast.  Often, because of the compressed nature of broadcast news, the newscaster feels it necessary to express why something happened in terms which seem to indicate that his theory is actually a fact.  Responsible journalism would suggest that such theories should at least be prefaced with “it is my opinion that” or “most observers believe” or some similar qualifying phrase, to label it as not strictly news.


Now I want to make myself perfectly clear.  I'm not asking for Government censorship.  I'm asking whether a form of censorship already exists when the news that 40 million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers.  I 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.

A decade ago, Walter Lippman spoke to the issue.  He said there's an essential and radical difference between television and printing.  The three or four competing television stations control virtually all that can be received over the air by ordinary television sets.  If a man doesn't like his newspaper, he can read another from out of town or wait for a weekly news magazine.  It's not ideal, but it's infinitely better than the situation in television.  There, if a man doesn't like what the networks are showing, all he can do is turn them off and listen to the phonograph.

As mentioned before, times have changed, and phonographs have been replaced by many other available distractions.


In the networks' endless pursuit of controversy, Gresham's Law seems to be operating:  Bad news drives out good news.  One minute of Eldridge Cleaver is worth 10 minutes of Roy Wilkins.

Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver,
charged with attempted murder

Civil rights leader Roy Wilkins,
criticized for his cautious approach

The labor crisis settled at the negotiating table is nothing compared to violence along the picket lines.

The American who relies upon the television might conclude that the majority of Americans feel no regard for their country, that violence and lawlessness are the rule on the American campus.

Does PPC Poison PPC?

What has this passionate pursuit of controversy done to the politics of progress through compromise, essential to the functioning of a democratic society?  Has more than equal time gone to the minority of Americans who specialize in attacking the United States — its institutions and its citizens?

I'd say that “more than equal time” has rightly gone to the majority of Americans who don't agree with their current leaders.  For example, just one year before President Nixon's speech, more than 56% of voters had cast their ballots for other candidates.

A similar situation exists today.  


It is, unfortunately, human nature to be more interested in extreme, unusual, violent, or bizarre happenings.  Therefore a minority of irrational loudmouths get more than their share of attention.

This condition is hardly confined to television news; one can easily find it in the newspapers as well.  There is no real cure, but a conscious effort should be made to seek out the non-exciting, levelheaded opinions of those who disagree with the extremists and to put these opinions on the air.

The networks have dominated America's airwaves for decades.  The people are entitled to a full accounting of their stewardship.  This is one case where the people must defend themselves; where the citizen, not the government, must be the reformer.


Of course, the people are also entitled to a full accounting of Agnew's stewardship.  It's given in this podcast.

We didn't know it at the time, but Agnew had run a bribery and extortion racket when he was Governor of Maryland, and he didn't stop even when he became Vice President.

Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook.”

Agnew likewise tried to claim innocence.  However, less than four years after Des Moines, he would be forced to resign in disgrace.




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