American Rhetoric: Spiro Agnew -- Television News Coverage (Nov 1... Page 1 of 9
Spiro Theodore Agnew
Television News Coverage
delivered 13 November 1969, Des Moines, IA
Audio mp3 Excerpt of Speech
American Rhetoric: Spiro Agnew -- Television News Coverage (Nov 1... Page 2 of 9
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 which I think if of great
importance to the American people. Tonight I want to discuss the
importance of the television news medium to the American people. No
nation depends more on the intelligent judgment of its citizens. No
medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in
our system are there fewer checks on 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
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in the Pacific. For 32 minutes, he reasoned with a nation that has www.cente
suffered almost a third of a million casualties in the longest war in its
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
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these men in a genuine state of nonpreparedness. This was not it.
One commentator twice contradicted the President’s statement about yours? F
the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh. Another challenged www.RealT
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 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 military take-over of South Vietnam; and he told a little anecdote
about a “very, very responsible” fellow he had met in the North
All in all, Mr. Harrison 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
American Rhetoric: Spiro Agnew -- Television News Coverage (Nov 1... Page 3 of 9
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
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 people of this country have the
right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a
Presidential address without having a 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 war
through. When President Kennedy rallied the 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 Roger’s 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
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.
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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 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
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.
Another anchorman on a network news show contends, and I quote:
“You can’t expunge all your private convictions just because you sit in a
seat like this and a camera starts to stare at you. I think your program
has to reflect what your basic feelings are. I’ll plead guilty to that.”
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 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.”
Had this slander been made by one political candidate about another, it
would have been dismissed by most commentators as a partisan attack.
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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 Public S
concentration in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged Here's A
men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and To Spea
licensed by Government? Public. F
The views of the majority of this fraternity do not --and I repeat, not --
represent the views of America. 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 50th/60
speech more warmly than the networks, but so also did the Congress of Speech
the United States. Preview
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 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 question I’m raising here tonight should have been raised by others
long ago. They should have been raised by those Americans who have Free Vid
traditionally considered the preservation of freedom of speech and
freedom of the press their special provinces of responsibility. 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. 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. [The average weekday circulation of the Times in October was
1,012,367; the average Sunday circulation was 1,523,558.] 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 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. But besides the
mass circulation dailies, there are weeklies, monthlies, out-of-town
newspapers and books. 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 a phonograph. "Networks," he stated
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"which are few in number have a virtual monopoly of a whole media of
communications." The newspaper of mass circulation have no monopoly
on the medium of print.
Now a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication is not
something that democratic people should blindly 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 wrote in his landmark opinion six months
ago, "It’s the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the
broadcasters, which is paramount."
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."
If we are to believe a recent report of the House of Representative
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.”
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
complete, but some early returns are available. Again, we have enough
information to raise serious questions about its effect on a democratic
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. 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 Eldrige 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.
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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 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 logical compromise essential to the functioning of a democratic
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 to the great responsibilities they hold.
And the people of America are challenged, too -- challenged to press for
responsible news presentation. 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
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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’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?
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 unelected elite. The great networks
have dominated America’s airwaves for decades. The people are entitled
a full accounting their stewardship.
Text Source: This version taken from Halford Ross Ryan (Ed.), American Rhetoric from Roosevelt to Reagan
second edition, published in 1987 by Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, IL pp 212-219.
Audio Source: American Voices at Michigan State University.
Additional Note: Portions of this text transcribed directly from the audio excerpt above.
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