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. My hope, as his at that
time, was to rally the American people to see the conflict through
to a lasting and just peace in the Pacific. For 32 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,
incidentally, that he spent weeks in the preparation of -- his words
and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous
criticism. The audience of 70 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
It was obvious that their minds were made up in advance. Those who
recall the fumbling and groping that followed President Johnsonís
dramatic disclosure of his intention not to seek another term have
seen these men in a genuine state of nonpreparedness. This was not
One commentator twice contradicted the Presidentís statement about
the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh. Another challenged
the Presidentís abilities as a politician. A third asserted that the
President was following a Pentagon line. Others, by the expressions
on their faces, the tone of their questions, and the sarcasm of
their responses, made clear their sharp disapproval.
To guarantee in advance that the Presidentís 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 Presidentís 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 Vietcong or North
Vietnamese did not really want military take-over of South Vietnam;
and he told a little anecdote about a ďvery, very responsibleĒ
fellow he had met in the North Vietnamese delegation.
All in all, Mr. Harrison 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
A word about Mr. Harriman. For 10 months he was Americaís 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 the
bargaining table. Like Coleridgeís Ancient Mariner, Mr. Harriman
seems to be under some heavy compulsion to justify his failures to
anyone who will listen. And the networks have shown themselves
willing to give him all the air time he desires.
Now 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 a Presidentís words and
thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics
before they can even be digested.
When Winston Churchill rallied public opinion to stay the course
against Hitlerís Germany, he didnít 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
roundtable of critics who disparaged the course of action heíd 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 in
our nation. First, letís define that power.
At least 40 million Americans every night, itís estimated, watch the
network news. Seven million of them view A.B.C., the remainder being
divided between N.B.C. and C.B.S. According to Harris polls and
other studies, for millions of Americans the networks are the sole
source of national and world news. In Will Rogerís observation, what
you knew was what you read in the newspaper. Today for growing
millions of Americans, itís what they see and hear on their
Now 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 thatís to reach the public. This selection is made from
the 90 to 180 minutes that may be available. Their powers of choice
They decide what 40 to 50 million Americans will learn of the dayís
events in the nation and in the world. We cannot measure this power
and influence by the 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 obscurity to national prominence within a week.
They can reward some politicians with national exposure and ignore
For millions of Americans the network reporter who covers a
continuing issue -- like the 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 an immediacy thatís the gift of their medium. They
focus the nationís 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
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 powers of the networks
equal to that of local, state, and Federal Governments all combined.
Certainly it represents a concentration of power over American
public opinion unknown in history.
Now 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
We can deduce that these men read the same newspapers. They 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, and I quote: ďYou
canít 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. Iíll plead
guilty to that.Ē
Less than a week before the 1968 election, this same commentator
charged that President Nixonís campaign commitments were no more
durable than campaign balloons. He claimed that, were it not for the
fear of hostile reaction, Richard Nixon would be giving into, and I
quote him exactly, ďhis natural instinct to smash the enemy with a
club or go after him with a meat axe.Ē
Had this slander been made by one political candidate about another,
it would have been dismissed by most commentators as a partisan
attack. 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 concentration of power in Government. Is it not fair and
relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny,
enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying
a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by Government?
The views of the majority of this fraternity do not -- and I repeat,
not -- represent the views of America. That is why such a great gulf
existed between how the nation received the Presidentís address and
how the networks reviewed it. Not only did the country receive the
Presidentís speech more warmly than the networks, but so also did
the Congress of the United States.
Yesterday, the President was notified that 300 individual
Congressmen and 50 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.
Now I want to make myself perfectly clear. Iím 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 40
million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of
men responsible only to their corporate employers and is filtered
through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of
The question Iím raising here 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.
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.
But the situations are not identical. Where The New York Times
reaches 800,000 people, N.B.C. reaches 20 times that number on its
evening news. [The average weekday circulation of the Times in
October was 1,012,367; the average Sunday circulation was
1,523,558.] Nor can the tremendous impact of seeing television film
and hearing commentary be compared with reading the printed page.
A decade ago, before the network news acquired such dominance over
public opinion, Walter Lippman spoke to the issue. He said thereís
an essential and radical difference 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 weeklies,
monthlies, out-of-town newspapers and books. If a man doesnít like
his newspaper, he can read another from out of town or wait for a
weekly news magazine. Itís not ideal, but itís infinitely better
than the situation in television.
There, if a man doesnít like what the networks are showing, 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
media of communications." The newspaper of mass circulation have no
monopoly on the medium of print.
Now a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication is not
something that democratic people should blindly ignore. And we are
not going to cut off our television sets and listen to the
phonograph just because the airways belong to the networks. They
donít. They belong to the people. As Justice Byron wrote in his
landmark opinion six months ago, "Itís the right of the viewers and
listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."
Now itís 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
witness, former Vice President Humphrey and the city of Chicago.
According to Theodore White, televisionís 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
If we are to believe a recent report of the House of Representative
Commerce Committee, then televisionís 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, and I quote, ďa one-sided picture which in
large measure exonerates the demonstrators and protestors.Ē Film of
provocations of police that was available never saw the light of
day, while the film of a 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.
And, 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
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?
Greshamís 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 Eldrige Cleaver is worth 10 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 lines. Normality has become the nemesis of the
Now 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 entire 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.
We know that 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 places? 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 or the Senate 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?
Weíve 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 and their 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
In this search for excitement and controversy, has more than equal
time gone to the minority of Americans who specialize in attacking
the United States -- its institutions and its citizens?
Tonight Iíve raised questions. Iíve made no attempt to suggest the
answers. The answers must come from the media men. They are
challenged to turn their critical powers on themselves, to direct
their energy, their talent, and their conviction toward improving
the quality and objectivity of news presentation. They are
challenged to structure their own civic ethics to relate to the
great responsibilities they hold.
And the people of America are challenged, too -- challenged to press
for responsible news presentation. 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 the Government, must
be the reformer; where the consumer can be the most effective
By way of conclusion, let me say that every elected leader in the
United States depends on these men of the media. Whether what Iíve
said to you tonight will be heard and seen at all by the nation is
not my decision, itís not your decision, itís their decision. In
tomorrowís edition of the Des Moines Register, youíll be able to
read a news story detailing what Iíve 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 nationís networks?
Now, my friends, weíd never trust such power, as Iíve described,
over public opinion in the hands of an elected Government. Itís time
we questioned it in the hands of a small unelected elite. The great
networks have dominated Americaís airwaves for decades. The people
are entitled a full accounting their stewardship.