Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of a unique political speech. On November 13, 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew questioned the network news divisions' domination of the political debate, and the "narrow and distorted picture of America [that] often emerges from the television news."
Despite the very different times we lieve in today compared to the Old Media days of the late 1960s -- a time when the Big Three were a very dominant force in determining what Americans saw and discussed -- much of what Agnew said then remains a compelling critique of TV news today:
Setting the Agenda: "We cannot measure this power and influence by traditional democratic standards. They can make or break -- by their coverage and commentary -- a moratorium on the war. They can elevate men from local 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 ABM or civil rights, becomes in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury."
A Unanimous Eastern Elite: "We do know that, to a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographic and political 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 parochialism. We can deduce that these men thus read the same newspapers, and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement ot their own viewpoints."
Attack Journalism: "Less than a week before the 1968 election, [ABC's Frank Reynolds] charged that President Nixon's campaign commitments were no more durable than campaign balloons. He claimed, were it not for fear of a hostile reaction, Richard Nixon would be giving into, and I quote the commentator, '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 assault. But this attack emanated from the privileged sanctuary of a network studio and therefore had the apparent dignity of an objective statement."
Campaign Reform: "We have heard demands that Senators and Congressmen and Judges make known their financial connections -- so that the public will know who and what influences their decisions or 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?"
Unmet Challenges: Agnew challenged the media "to turn their critical powers on themselves. They are challenged to direct their energy, talent, and conviction toward improving the quality and objectivity of news presentation....And the people of America are challenged too....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."
He ended: "We would never trust such powers, I've described, over public opinion in the hands of an elected government. It is time we questioned it in the hands of a small and unelected elite. The great networks have dominated America's airwaves for decades. The people are entitled to a full accounting of their stewardship."