August 29, 2017

1970. Senator McGovern Accuses Nixon of Press Intimidation

The Tradition of Blaming the News Media
Caricature of Spiro Agnew, Nixon's "hatchet man," by Edmund S. Valtman in 1970 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 18, 1970

Edward P. Morgan is on vacation. This is Bill Downs in Washington.

It has always been electorally fashionable for politicians, members of Congress, and government and military officials to blame whatever is bothering them on the news media. It's part of the American tradition. As general Omar Bradley used to say, "If the troops aren't griping, then something's wrong."

It's something the same with news reporting. If a correspondent or commentator doesn't generate some criticism, then he knows he's doing something wrong—or possibly being just plain dull.

As far as politicians are concerned, they are heard from whenever they hear or read too much that they don't like about themselves. Example: Vice President Agnew.

By the same token, when a political figure suddenly comes to the defense of the printed and electronic news media, the general rule is that this politician hasn't been hearing enough good about himself.

South Dakota's Senator George McGovern made a speech today in which he blasted the Nixon Administration, accusing it of a deliberate attempt to "harass and intimidate the press," and that Vice President Agnew had been designated as the hatchet man to do the job.

You recall Mr. Agnew yesterday blasted Senator McGovern as cosponsor of an "end the war" amendment which Agnew said would lose the war in Vietnam. So if Agnew is out to get the media, McGovern naturally would be there to defend them.

McGovern charged that "There's a deliberate effort by the Nixon-Agnew Administration to intimidate the press...and that the situation is a serious threat to our free society."

"What we are witnessing is an incredible paradox," the Senator continued. "The Administration seeks to silence its critics in the media while at the same time exploiting the use of the media for its own message."

So what else is new.

Unlike Vice President Agnew, McGovern said the press has been "amazingly tolerant" of the Nixon Administration, and the broadcast networks, particularly, "have been generous almost beyond generosity" in giving the President airtime.

Again, what's new. T'was always thus.

We agree with the Vice President that news reporting and reporters aren't always perfect. We agree with Senator McGovern that some formula must be found to give the Administration's loyal opposition equal time and space to present their views.

But as far as intimidating the news media—anyone who covered Washington during the days of Joe McCarthy finds Mr. Agnew's obfuscations about the journalistic craft singularly unterrifying.

Besides, anyone who can't take it as well as hand it out doesn't belong in news—or politics.

It was back in the eighteenth century that Jonathan Swift called printer's ink—today that would include typewriter ribbons—a malignant liquor compounded of copperas and gall.

Gall is as much a requirement of potatoes as it is of journalists. But in the give and take of politics and reporting it can turn to acid, and there's nothing worse than a corroded politician—or a journalist who has lost his sense of humor.

This is Bill Downs in Washington with the shape of one man's opinion.