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

At the Plaza breakfast with Richard Salant, Ehrlichman had also singled out CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr for criticism. Schorr, said Ehrlichman, reported what the critics said about Nixon's domestic programs, but not the Administration's side. A few months later Schorr was under investigation by the FBI. Early on the morning of August 20, 1971, Ellen McCloy, Salant's secretary, received a telephone call at CBS News headquarters on West Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan. The call was from one Tom Harrington. "He's the CBS FBI man," Miss McCloy explained. "He always opens up his conversations by saying 'Tom Harrington FBI.'"

He did so on this occasion, explaining to Miss McCloy that she would be getting a call from another FBI man "who is checking on Dan Schorr." Salant was not in yet, so his secretary called him at home to alert him to the fact that the FBI was on the trail of a CBS correspondent. When the second agent called Miss McCloy, she gave him Salant's listed number in New Canaan, Connecticut. "He was in a big rush," Miss McCloy recalled. "He gave the impression he had to have the information right away." The FBI man then called the CBS News president at his home, asking for the names of people who knew Dan Schorr. In the meantime Miss McCloy called Bill Small in Washington, Schorr's boss, to let him know what was happening.

The FBI agent called Miss McCloy back twice. With Salant's permission, she provided the names of other officials for him to talk to at CBS. Salant confirmed that the FBI agent who telephoned him presented the matter as "very urgent." The sort of questions he was asked about Schorr, Salant said, were: "Was he loyal? Did he go around with disreputable people?"

Schorr, a gray-haired, bespectacled family man of fifty-five, and a veteran of twenty years at CBS, definitely did not have the reputation of hanging around with disreputable people. A serious, hardworking newsman, he specialized in covering health, education, welfare, the environment, and economics.

As Schorr recalls the sequence of events, it began on Tuesday, August 17, when Nixon, in a speech to the Knights of Columbus, promised that "you can count on my support" to help parochial schools. The producer of the CBS Evening News--the Walter Cronkite show--called Schorr and asked for a follow-up story. Schorr went to see a source, a Catholic priest active in the field of education, who told him the Administration was doing nothing to aid Catholic schools.

On Wednesday night Cronkite ran a film clip of Nixon's speech promising to aid parochial schools, then cut to Schorr saying there was "absolutely nothing in the works" to help these schools. On Thursday, Alvin Snyder, the Administration's deputy communications director for television, telephoned Schorr, asking him to come to the White House because "Peter Flanigan and others thought I didn't have the facts." Late in the day Schorr met at the White House with Pat Buchanan, Terry T. Bell, deputy commissioner of education, and Henry C. Cashen II, an assistant to Charles Colson, who was then special counsel to the President. "They began reading figures off very rapidly," Schorr said. He suggested that they put their main points down on paper and said he would try to get it on the air.

On Thursday, the same day that Schorr was summoned to the White House, a member of the White House staff requested the FBI to investigate the CBS correspondent.

On Friday morning Schorr reported to the CBS studios in Washington. An FBI agent was already there questioning Small, who declined to answer until he knew the reason. "I don't know except it has to do with government employment," the FBI man said. Not having learned much from Small, the agent then wandered over to Schorr's desk and started asking routine questions--age? family? occupation?

Without thinking, Schorr began answering, then suddenly stopped and said he would not say anymore until the agent specified what employment he was talking about. Since the agent would not or could not, Schorr refused to answer any further questions.

"Is that what you want me to report?"

"Yes."

"Do you mind if I ask other people about you?"

"Yes."

Schorr explained to the agent that he was in a "highly visible" occupation; it would soon get around that he was being investigated and it might seem as though he was looking for a job. And that, Schorr explained, could be harmful to his reputation and position at CBS.

"All the rest of the day," Schorr said, "calls came in from all over from people who said they had been approached by the FBI. Fred Friendly [the former president of CBS News] called from his vacation home in New Hampshire. They had telephoned him and asked to see him, but he said he would not talk to them without checking with me. They called Bill Leonard and Gordon Manning, both vice presidents of CBS News. They called Ernie Leiser, the executive producer of CBS specials. Sam Donaldson of ABC was called. Irv Levine of NBC, who was with me in Moscow, was called; they wanted to know how I carried on as a correspondent in Moscow." When some of those questioned asked why the FBI was making these inquiries, they were told that Dan Schorr was being considered for a high government post, a position of trust.

Then Schorr discovered that "the FBI had talked to my neighbors, including Marjorie Hunter of the New York Times." One neighbor reported that Schorr's home had apparently been under surveillance. By now Schorr was determined to know more. "There were two theories at CBS: first, that it was a real employment investigation, and second, that it was an adverse investigation as a result of my stories on Catholic school aid. But if there was a job involved, where the hell was it?"

On November 11, the Washington Post published a detailed front-page story about the FBI investigation. The story said the probe had been initiated by the office of Frederic V. Malek. As personnel man in the White House, Malek earned a reputation as "the Cool Hand Luke" of the Nixon Administration.

The storm broke over Ron Ziegler at the White House morning press briefing. Schorr, Ziegler told newsmen, was being checked for a job in "the area of the environment." Malek, Ziegler added, was in charge of searching "across the nation" for "qualified people." Claiming "I am trying to be forthright with you," Ziegler nevertheless repeatedly ducked the simple, direct question of who had ordered the FBI investigation. He kept saying that "...it was part of the Malek process." But the transcript of the briefing does include this exchange:

Q.: Is it your understanding Mr. Malek was aware that an FBI check was under way?

ZIEGLER: Yes.

In an interview published the next day, Malek seemed to imply that there had been a full field FBI probe. Malek said someone on his staff--again unidentified--had asked the FBI to investigate Schorr but "the message somehow got bungled. Somehow something went wrong. Either I wasn't clear on what I wanted or the staff wasn't clear or the FBI. A breakdown occurred."

Something indeed had gone wrong, and Senator Sam J. Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, a Southern defender of constitutional liberties, announced a Senate investigation of the episode.

"Job or no job," Schorr told the Ervin committee, "the launching of such an investigation without consent demonstrates an insensitivity to personal rights. An FBI investigation is not a neutral matter. It has an impact on one's life, on relations with employers, neighbors, and friends."

Considering the Administration's protestations of innocence, it was surprising how little cooperation Ervin received. The President declined to let any staff member testify--Malek, Herbert Klein, and Colson all refused invitations--but the White House sent a letter to Ervin, saying that Schorr "was being considered for a post that 'is presently filled.'" The letter was signed by John W. Dean III, counsel to the President. Nixon, the letter added, had decided that such job investigations in the future would not be initiated "without prior notification to the person being investigated." On the same day the letter was published, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed White House official as saying that the job for which Schorr had been investigated was that of assistant to Russell E. Train, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. The story indicated that the Administration thought Schorr might produce a series of television programs on the environment.

The leak was not entirely convincing, since Train had no assistant producing TV shows, and the White House letter to Ervin distinctly said the job was "presently filled." In fact, the council had no one with the title or duties of assistant to the chairman; no such job existed.

Much of the pressure by government on the networks takes place out of public view. The telephone calls from White House assistants and the visits to network executives by presidential aides are seldom publicized. For the most part, however, it is CBS that feels the greatest pressure under the Nixon Administration. The official who bears the brunt of that pressure is Richard Salant, the president of CBS News.

Salant, a lawyer turned news executive, occupies a high-pressure job; he wears glasses, has a receding hairline, and chain-smokes. Unlike some network executives, he is unusually outspoken. Salant reeled off a list of pressures from and contacts with CBS emanating from the Administration.

In February of 1971, he said, CBS did a segment on Agnew on the program 60 Minutes. Narrator Mike Wallace reported that Agnew's grades at Forest Park High School "were mediocre at best." CBS asked to see the grades, Wallace added, "but school principal Charles Michael told us Agnew's record was pulled from the file when he became Vice President." The program, tracing Agnew's early career, also noted that he once served as personnel director at a supermarket and, like other employees, "Agnew often wore a smock with the words 'No Tipping Please' on it."

After the broadcast, Salant said, the President's director of communications, Herbert Klein, telephoned him. "Klein called and said he wanted to see me. He came to New York and came to my office and made small talk. Then he got around to the point; he said the Vice President didn't see 60 Minutes, he never looks at those things. But Mrs. Agnew saw it and didn't like it."

Salant told Klein that 60 Minutes had broadcast letters from viewers who did not like the Agnew program; CBS would be happy to receive a letter from Mrs. Agnew.

Once Klein telephoned Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News, to protest a broadcast by David Brinkley. Frank became so furious that he stormed next door into the office of Richard C. Wald, then vice president of NBC News (later Frank's successor), to let off steam.

"Relax," said Wald, "he gets paid to call you."

A few days later on a Saturday morning, the White House telephoned Frank at home. Frank was annoyed since he was kept waiting on the line, it was his day off, and he hadn't had his breakfast yet. He started to do a slow burn again. Finally Klein came on. He was calling, he announced cheerily, to say he had seen something he liked on NBC; he just wanted Frank to know.

It may be that no single example of government power directed at television news means very much--Dan Rather survived John Ehrlichman's bemoanings, Salant's sympathy for Judy Agnew was limited, and so on--but taken together, such incidents constitute a pattern of pressure that has dangerous implications. It is by means of such contacts that political leaders attempt to influence the presentation of the news so as to put the government in the most favorable light.

The First Amendment clearly protects the printed press. But the Founding Fathers, after all, did not foresee the advent of television, and the degree to which broadcasting is protected by the First Amendment has been subject to shifting interpretation. Technology has outpaced the Constitution, and the result is a major paradox: television news, which has the greatest impact on the public, is the most vulnerable and the least protected news medium.

Only economics limits the number of newspapers and magazines that may be published. But the number of radio frequencies and television channels is finite; the rationale for government regulation is that stations would otherwise overlap and interfere with each other. Cable television may one day erode the technological argument for government regulation by opening up an unlimited number of channels, but for the moment the networks remain under government supervision and the Dean Rusks will continue, when they want to, to replace the Steve Allens and the Rumanian dancers on short notice.

The government's ultimate power over the networks is its ability to take away a license at renewal time and give it to someone else. Public television, dependent on Congress for funds, is even more susceptible to government intervention than the networks; the Nixon Administration has made no secret of its discontent with public television.

Walter Cronkite believes the Nixon Administration attacked the news media "to raise the credibility of the Administration. It's like a first-year physics experiment with two tubes of water--you put pressure on one side and it makes the other side go up or down." He added: "I have charged that this is a 'conspiracy.' I don't regret my use of that word."

By applying constant pressure, in ways seen and unseen, the leaders of the government have attempted to shape the news to resemble the images seen through the prism of their own power. The Administration's attacks, Richard Salant acknowledged, have "made us all edgy. We've thought about things we shouldn't think about."

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