The President and the Press

"I was determined to tell my story directly to the people rather than to funnel it to them through a press account." —Richard Nixon, Six Crises
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Sometimes a presidential aide or appointee manages to act as a buffer between the White House and the networks. Newton Minow, the Chicago attorney whom President John Kennedy made chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, recalls that Kennedy once expressed dissatisfaction with NBC News.

One night in April, 1962, Minow said, in the midst of Kennedy's fight with the steel companies, the Huntley-Brinkley show on NBC included "a long speech by somebody who took the President apart. I happened to have watched it. We were having a small dinner party at home and I was getting dressed when my wife said 'The President is on the phone.'" As Minow recalled the conversation, it went this way:

JFK: Did you see that goddamn thing on Huntley-Brinkley?

MINOW: Yes.

JFK: I thought they were supposed to be our friends. I want you to do something about that. You do something about that.

Minow said that the President did not, as the story later got around in the television industry, ask that the FCC chairman take Huntley-Brinkley off the air. But, said Minow, the President "was mad."

Minow added: "Some nutty FCC chairman would have called the network. Instead I called Kenny O'Donnell [Kennedy's appointments secretary] in the morning and I said to him, 'Just tell the President he's very lucky he has an FCC chairman who doesn't do what the President tells him.'"

When a President desires to make a television broadcast, there are standing arrangements to handle his request, procedures worked out between the White House and the Washington bureaus of the major networks. At the time Lyndon Johnson was President, the networks told the White House they needed six hours to make the technical arrangements for a White House broadcast; they could do it in three, they said, but could not guarantee a good picture, or any picture. Despite this, Johnson often demanded instant access to the networks and got on the air within one hour.

Johnson used TV so frequently that finally he asked for--and the networks agreed to provide--"hot cameras," manned throughout the day in the White House theater, with crews continually at the ready. Johnson could then walk into the theater and go on the air live, immediately. During the Dominican crisis he went on television on such short notice that he burst into the regular network programming with almost no introduction, startling millions of viewers.

"Once Johnson went on the air so fast," an NBC executive recalled, "that we couldn't put up the presidential seal. When a network technician said we need a second to put up the seal, Johnson said, 'Son, I'm the leader of the free world, and I'll go on the air when I want to.'"

There is a seeming paradox in Richard Nixon's view of television. On the one hand, television saved his political career in 1952, and he has often had kind words for the medium. Note, for example, that in his 1962 false exit ("You won't have Nixon to kick around any more"), he stated: "Thank God for television and radio for keeping the newspapers a little more honest." As President, he told Cyrus Sulzberger in 1971: "I must say that without television it might have been difficult for me to get people to understand a thing."

On the other hand, as President, Nixon criticized the networks. It was with Nixon's blessing that Spiro Agnew launched his celebrated attack on network news analysts. Nixon's Administration has made systematic efforts to cow the networks and destroy the credibility of the press, including television news.

There is no inconsistency, however, if one understands that in Nixon's view television ideally should serve only as a carrier, a mechanical means of electronically transmitting his picture and words directly to the voters. It is this concept of television-as-conduit that has won Nixon's praise, not television as a form of electronic journalism. The moment that television analyzes his words, qualifies his remarks, or renders news judgments, it becomes part of the "press," and a political target.

In discussing Nixon and television, therefore, one must distinguish between television as a mechanical means of communication and television as an intellectual instrument. "Pure" television is OK, television news is not. As President, Nixon's use of television flows logically from these basic premises. Thus at every opportunity Nixon solemnly addresses the nation, but he has usually avoided the give-and-take of the televised news conference. Only in the first setting does Nixon have total control--except for the analyses afterwards by network newsmen, which Spiro Agnew's attacks were specifically designed to discourage. In short, to Richard Nixon, television ideally is the mirror, mirror on the wall.

In April of 1971, John Ehrlichman, the President's chief assistant for domestic affairs, complained in person to Richard S. Salant, the president of CBS News, about Dan Rather, the network's White House correspondent. Ehrlichman was in New York to appear on the CBS Morning News with correspondent John Hart. Afterwards Hart and Ehrlichman adjourned for breakfast at the Edwardian Room of the Plaza, where they were joined by Salant. The President's assistant brought up the subject of CBS's White House reporter.

"Rather has been jobbing us," Ehrlichman said. Salant, seeking to inject a lighter note into the conversation, told how Rather had been hired by CBS in 1962 after he had saved the life of a horse, an act of heroism that resulted in considerable publicity and brought him to the attention of the network. It was then that Rather went to work for CBS News as chief of its Southwest bureau in Dallas. When President Kennedy was assassinated in that city, Rather went on the air for the network, and his cool, poised coverage of the tragedy gained him national recognition. After Dallas, Salant explained to Ehrlichman, CBS brought Rather to Washington, in part because the new President, Lyndon Johnson, was a fellow Texan.

"Aren't you going to open a bureau in Austin where Dan could have a job?" Ehrlichman asked Salant. He then accused Rather of never coming to see him in the White House, and he suggested it might be beneficial if Rather took a year's vacation. That evening, following a presidential press conference at the White House, Ziegler told Rather cryptically that President Nixon's obvious failure to recognize him at that conference had "no connection" with something that "you are about to hear."

Rather heard the next morning. Salant telephoned William Small, head of the CBS Washington bureau. Small called Rather in and told him about the breakfast at the Plaza; he assured Rather that his standing with CBS was not affected. He said he was mentioning the episode simply because sooner or later Rather was bound to learn about it. Rather told Small it was true he had not seen much of Ehrlichman at the White House--because Ehrlichman would not see him.

Now, however, Ziegler urged Rather to see Ehrlichman and talk the situation over. When Rather walked into Ehrlichman's office, he found Haldeman waiting there as well. The conversation, with just the three men present, was blunt on both sides. As Rather reconstructed it, the dialogue proceeded as follows:

EHRLICHMAN: I wanted to tell you to your face I wasn't in New York for this purpose....I didn't know there was going to be a breakfast. When the conversation went in the direction it did, I told them what I thought, which is I think you're slanted. I don't know whether it's just sloppiness or you're letting your true feelings come through, but the net effect is that you're negative. You have negative leads on bad stories.

RATHER: What's a bad story?

EHRLICHMAN: A story that's dead-assed wrong. You're wrong 90 percent of the time.

RATHER: Then you have nothing to worry about; any reporter who's wrong 90 percent of the time can't last.

HALDEMAN (breaking in): What concerns me is that you are sometimes wrong, but your style is very positive. You sound like you know what you're talking about, people believe you.

EHRLICHMAN: Yeah, people believe you, and they shouldn't.

RATHER: I hope they do, and maybe now we are getting down to the root of it. You have trouble getting people to believe you.

EHRLICHMAN: I didn't say that.

At one point Ehrlichman complained that "only the President, Bob, and sometimes myself" knew what was going on, and "you're out there on the White House lawn talking as though you know what's going on."

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