The Power and the Profits: Part II

The advent of the half hour news program made television the major source of news for many Americans and the only source for a dismayingly large number of them. This vested in broadcasters awesome responsibilities and a sense that they had ventured into a political minefield. In the first installment of his two part examination of the growth of broadcasting, television journalism, and the CBS network in particular, David Halberstam showed how the medium became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes. In this installment he tells how three Presidents influenced and were influenced by TV, how TV made Vietnam into an electronic war, and how, reluctantly, it dealt with the Watergate tragedy.
14. The Dick Nixon Show: The Message Is That the Medium Stinks

The Nixon Administration was even more preoccupied with television than its predecessors. Richard Nixon himself was obsessed by television, perhaps because he scored an early coup (the Checkers speech) on it, and was later a victim of it (the debates with Kennedy); perhaps because he sensed that if he controlled it he could make it show the Nixon he wanted to be and not the Nixon he was. In the Nixon years, television was not just a means but an end. Those who opposed him on it became his real opposition. He struggled to control his exposure. Unsure of who he was, Nixon was obsessed by exterior definitions of himself. His was a television White House; it was dominated by Bob Haldeman and his people. Haldeman came from the world of the manipulative arts, not from the world of politics. Haldeman paid close attention to television. He knew after which prime-time shows it was advantageous to schedule a presidential broadcast, and which ones never to break in on. In 1968 Haldeman devised the campaign tactic of scheduling only one appearance a day that could be filmed, on the theory that if the network producers had choice of film for two or more Nixon campaign appearances, they would always pick the least flattering one. Therefore, schedule Nixon tightly, control the environment, and give the networks the film you want, not what they want. It was Haldeman, too, who, during the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (kids, cops, pols, blood, all in the street, and all on television), made sure that Nixon was on a boat and out of reach of a camera so that there could be no connection, not even subliminal, in the public mind between Nixon and that kind of politics. Once they were in the White House, more time and energy of more key White House people was spent deciding when and how to get the President on television—and how to keep potential adversaries off—than in dealing with the Congress or the Democratic opposition.

By comparison with Nixon and his aides, previous Presidents had pressured the networks with kid gloves. Now there was an orchestrated assault upon the integrity of the network news divisions, an attempt to put them on the defensive and to reduce public respect for them.

CBS News was the strongest of the three networks, and the theory was that if CBS was bent, the other two would follow. Early in the conflict between the Nixon Administration and the media, Walter Cronkite called it a conspiracy. At the time, Joe Wershba, an old Marrow hand, had congratulated Cronkite on his response to Agnew, but said that he was bothered by the word "conspiracy"; wasn’t that too harsh a word? A few years later, as more evidence began to come out from Watergate, including a memo on NBC by Larry Higby of Haldeman’s staff which said that the aim was to destroy the institution, Wershba apologized to Cronkite.

Nixon dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack the press in general and the networks in particular ten days after he announced his policy of Peace with Honor. He intended to sell his policy with as little negative or pessimistic analysis as possible. Americans would think they were getting both peace and honor in Vietnam, even if neither was in fact, under the conditions set by Nixon, attainable. But the selling of the policy was more important than the policy. He had, in singling out the networks and unleashing Agnew upon them, picked up the scent of the networks’ vulnerability. For a decade they had been, if not the cause, at least the bearers, of bad and jarring news: racial conflict, a terrible war, arid protest against a terrible war. Kill the messenger.

To many Americans, the old verities about America still lived: America was good, and the less said about the bad, the better. The Nixon–Agnew onslaught against the media was more successful than most television executives like to admit. Nixon drew blood, and people in television were newly sensitive to the issues raised. Yes, the networks would carry bad and unsettling news when it was warranted, but there was a subtle drop-off in their aggressiveness in seeking it out, and a new defensiveness about their reporting. At CBS in the early 1970s, for example, Charles Kuralt’s reports on roving around America became easier to include in the news show. Kuralt had been doing charming bits of Americana for some time; now there was an intensified effort to find Kuraltlike human interest stories—good stories, but that did not jar people’s nerves. There was a word for them at CBS—"HI," Human Interest—and the word was, get more HI. At the height of the Nixon–Agnew pressure, Bill Paley decided to drop instant analysis after presidential speeches. Later it was reinstated. CBS did not back down on really important issues under the attack (or remove Dan Rather from the White House beat, which was a prime Nixon priority). But it made sure that with the bad news, the abrasive or critical reporting, there was a certain amount of sugar coating. TV correspondents as good guys. If not lovable, at least likable.

The Nixon Administration’s war on the networks had a second front. That was a subtle but deliberate attempt by the Administration to turn the outlying affiliate stations against the network news divisions in New York. The Nixon men saw strongest, most centralized rival for power and political opposition in network television. They set out to do something that Kennedy and Johnson had never tried—to decentralize the networks, provoke regional pressure from the affiliates on home-office news questions. They had discovered that the affiliates were the soft underbelly of the networks. The affiliate station owners tended to be Republicans, but there was more than party politics to this effort. There were social and cultural aspects of it: the local station owners were businessmen; they were closer to the local chamber of commerce outlook than to any notion of a journalistic tradition and they were not from New York. They did not like the contemporary counterculture in its various manifestations, especially not when the networks covered it and, by covering it, encouraged it. In any showdown between the traditionalist values or the allegedly traditionalist values, of the Nixon Administration and those of the CBS newsroom, the affiliate owners were by inclination and instinct on the side of the Administration.

In 1970, CBS planned to put on a small, frail show called The Loyal Opposition, designed to compete with presidential use of television—four half-hour shows in an election year. The Nixon people roused the affiliates against it; they brought so much pressure that the show was canceled abruptly after only one viewing. Herb Klein, the nice guy of the Nixon Administration press operation, quietly worked the boondocks, taking the “good cop” approach. He was not, like Agnew, looking for headlines, but rather stirring up the natives against network news, encouraging the affiliate owners to protest the kind of coverage that alien forces in New York were subverting them with—the impudence of Dan Schorr and Dan Rather, the lack of patriotism in the Saigon bureau. (Dick Salant, head of CBS News, spent two days arguing a committee of affiliate representatives out of the idea that they should visit the Saigon bureau, shape it up, and express their displeasure with the reporting. The suggestion originated in the White House.)

There was no doubt that the Nixon Administration found a receptive response among affiliate owners: the things that Nixon disliked, they disliked. They began to put a constant pressure on the news show, particularly against Dan Schorr, and most of all against Dan Rather. The Administration hit a sensitive nerve.  The affiliates had a powerful lever against the less than mighty news department: the power not to take CBS programs. Indeed, right after the 1974 tangle between Rather and Nixon and the Houston meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, CBS officials went to their affiliates’ meeting and had to defuse a major recall movement against Rather.

In 1972, Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency by being President, as incumbents usually do. He had learned the lessons of the 1970 off-year election when he made a number of hard-sell campaign appearances as if he were running for sheriff. His ultimate 1972 campaign weapon was his trip to China. Whatever history was made, he played it as political theater, hour on hour of picture postcards of China, Nixon with Mao and Chou and a cast of 800 million exotic extras. Campaigning. The networks had bitten all the way for that one, covering it exactly as Nixon had planned, perhaps a little more so. Senior network news executives smuggled themselves on planes as sound technicians. One Nixon aide thought it was as if there were two Republican conventions that year, the first in China, the second in Miami.

Even so, the Nixon people took few chances with the second, and real, Republican convention. They studied how the networks had covered previous national conventions, and they broke the code and wrote their own scenario. They knew when the networks took breaks, and how long the breaks lasted, so that if there was something they wanted to slip by quietly, they were ready to use the network commercial breaks as a cover. They had the convention timed to the second. They doled out a roster of young attractive Republican comers and stars to the networks as the convention wound on. All of it went according to script, according to schedule—balloons to be let off at exactly the right moment. Then someone got hold of the schedule, but even that didn’t really cause any bother. All of it was perhaps boring, but better boredom than chaos of earlier conventions. Control was of the essence.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In