Normality has Become the Nemesis of Network News
Des Moines, IA, November 13, 1969
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. His hope was to rally the American people to see the conflict through to a lasting and just peace in the Pacific. For thirty-two minutes, he reasoned with a nation that has suffered almost a third of a million casualties in the longest war in its history.
When the President completed his address--an address that he spent weeks in preparing--his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism. The audience of seventy-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 reelection have seen these men in a genuine state of non-preparedness. This was not it.
One commentator twice contradicted the President's statement about the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh. Another challenged the President's abilities as a politician. A third asserted that the President was now "following the Pentagon line." Others, by the expressions on their faces, the tone of their questions, and the sarcasm of their response, 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 Viet
Cong or North Vietnamese did not really want a military take-over
of South Vietnam; he told a little anecdote about a "very,
very responsible" fellow he had met in the North Vietnamese
All in all, Mr. Harriman 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 ten months he was America's
chief 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 a 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. The networks have shown
themselves willing to give him all the air-time he desires.
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 the President's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudice of hostile critics before they can even be digested.
When Winston Churchill rallied public opinion to stay the course against Hitler's Germany, he did not 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 round-table of critics who disparaged the course of action he had 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 of our nation.
First, let us define that power. At least forty-million Americans
each night, it is estimated, watch the network news. Seven million
of them view ABC; the remainder being divided between NBC and
CBS. According to Harris polls and other studies, for millions
of Americans, the networks are the sole source of national and
In Will Rogers' observation, what you knew was what you read in the newspaper. Today, for growing millions of Americans, it is what they see and hear on their television sets.
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 is to reach the public. This selection is made from the 90 to 180 minutes that may be available. Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what forty to fifty-million Americans will learn of the day's events in the nation and the world.
We cannot measure this power and influence by 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 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.
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 immediacy that is the gift of their medium. They have focused 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 power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.
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 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 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: "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 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.
The American people would rightly not tolerate this kind of concentration of power in government. Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?
The views of this fraternity do 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 address with a warmer reception than the networks; so, too, did the Congress of the United States. Yesterday, the President was notified that 300 individual Congressmen and 59 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.
I am 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 forty-million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible to their corporate employers, and filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases.
The questions I am raising tonight should have been raised by others long ago. They should have been raised by those Americans who have traditionally considered the preservation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press their special provinces of responsibility and concern. 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.
The situations are not identical. Where The New York Times reaches 800,000 people, NBC reaches twenty times that number with its evening news. Nor can the tremendous impact of seeing television film and hearing commentary be compared with reading the printed page.
We are not going to cut off our
television sets and listen to the phonograph
because the air waves do not belong to the
networks; they belong to the people.
A decade ago, before the network news acquired such dominance over public opinion, Walter Lippmann spoke to the issue: "There is an essential and radical difference," he stated, "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 the weeklies, the monthlies, the out-of-town newspapers, and books. If a man does not like his newspaper, he can read another from out of town, or wait for a weekly news magazine. It is not ideal. But it is infinitely better than the situation in television. There, if a man does not like what the networks offer him, all he can do is turn them off, and listen to a phonograph."
"Networks," he stated, "which are few in number, have a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication." The newspapers of mass circulation have no monopoly of the medium of print.
A "virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication"
is not something a democratic people should blithely ignore.
And we are not going to cut off our television sets and listen to the phonograph because the air waves do not belong to the networks; they belong to the people.
As Justice Byron White wrote in his landmark opinion six months ago, "It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."
It is 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 witnesses, former Vice President
Humphrey and the City of Chicago.
According to Theodore H. 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 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 "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 the 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.
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 society.
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?
Normality has become the nemesis of the evening news.
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 Eldridge Cleaver is worth ten 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 line. Normality has become the nemesis of the evening news.
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 whole 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. 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 place?
What has this passionate pursuit of "controversy" done to the politics of progress through logical compromise, essential to the functioning of a democratic society?
The members of Congress 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 have 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 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?
In this search for excitement and controversy, has more than equal time gone to that minority of Americans who specialize in attacking the United States, its institutions and its citizens?
Tonight, I have raised questions. I have made no attempt to suggest answers. These answers must come from the media men. They are challenged 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. They are challenged to structure their own civic ethics to relate their great freedom with their great responsibility.
And the people of America are challenged, too--challenged to press for responsible news presentations. 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 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 have said to you tonight will be heard and seen at all by the nation is not my decision; it is not your decision; it is their decision.
In tomorrow's edition of the Des Moines Register you will be able to read a news story detailing what I 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?
We would never trust such power 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.