For the 75th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to Dale Cressman about the complex relationship between the Nixon administration and ABC News in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s rhetorical attack on television journalists.
An associate professor in the School of Communication at Brigham Young University, Cressman is the author of “Agnew, ABC, and Richard Nixon’s War on Television” in the March 2021 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Dale Cressman: All presidents, you know, feel the sting of criticism from the press. LBJ said that if he swam in the Potomac, the press would say that it was only because he couldn’t walk on water.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.
The contentious relationship between the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon and journalists is well known. Major episodes, such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers and, later, coverage of the Watergate scandal, are touchstones of American journalism.
But as Brigham Young University Associate Professor Dr. Dale Cressman explains in an article published in Journalism History, Nixon picked a fight with journalists, and specifically television newscasters, early in his presidency. Unleashing allies like Vice President Spiro Agnew on the media, Nixon sought early to pressure journalists to give his administration favorable news coverage or face consequences. As Cressman explains, one result of those efforts was a tangled relationship with a then-underdog of TV news, ABC.
Dale, welcome to the show. So, I think the best place for us to start might be for you to lay the groundwork, sort of provide a foundation of where ABC was at this point. Nowadays, we think of ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX today, too—but ABC was a very different network. It was in a different position back then. Can you sort of tell us where it was in relation to those other networks?
Dale Cressman: Well, it was so weak that people sometimes jokingly referred to it as the Almost Broadcasting Company. [Laughter] The fewest — it had the fewest affiliates carrying the broadcast, the newscast, and it was in third place. It didn’t have its own film crews until 1963. It didn’t expand to color until the other networks, didn’t expand to 30 minutes until after the networks.
And by the time it converted to color, they had a failed merger, and they had real money problems. In fact, Av Westin said when he joined ABC, he was shocked to learn that the affiliates committee was actually considering pressuring the network to drop the network newscast in favor of a syndication service.
Ken Ward: Huh. That’s—that’s interesting, then, and that it plays such a big role in the story that you have to tell here, right? So, maybe explain the connection, then, between the network and—and Nixon and some of these other characters, right?
How did—how did ABC and Nixon wind up crossing paths?
Dale Cressman: Well, in the—and, of course, the, all of the networks did, and a lot’s been — a lot has been written on the other networks. But we have some weird connections with ABC, and one of the major ones is James Hagerty, who was Eisenhower’s press secretary, later went on, after Kennedy became president, went on to be president of ABC News. Didn’t do terribly well because he was a print guy.
And so, in 1963, they decided to hire Elmer Lower, who was an executive at NBC News, and Hagerty was kicked upstairs to a vice president’s connection. But he continues on having, um—he’s almost, like, playing for the White House instead of ABC. So, that’s—that’s one connection.
Another connection is, ABC is running a very successful television drama series called The FBI, which it is doing with the cooperation and approval of the FBI. You also have two anchormen that—one, the White House loves, and that’s Howard K. Smith, and the other that the White House hates, and that’s Frank Reynolds. And, at some point, they had to choose between Frank Reynolds and Harry Reasoner—we can get to that later. But then the last thing was, ABC longtime diplomatic correspondent John Scali goes to work for the Nixon White House.
So you have all these—even though there’s interplay between the Nixon White House and all the other networks, ABC has just some weird connections, it seemed to me.
Ken Ward: That’s interesting. So—so, then, let’s, let’s turn and look squarely at the Nixon administration.
Because I think it’s really important for us to understand—I mean, one of the big questions that I’ve long had is why Nixon and Agnew and other people in the administration were so hostile toward the news media. Like, having not studied that administration personally myself, I still knew that much about them.
So, where did that hostility come from, and then how does it manifest in the story that you tell? And that way, maybe we can draw ABC and Nixon together.
Dale Cressman: Well, and all presidents, you know, feel the sting of criticism from the press. LBJ said that if he swam in the Potomac, the press would say that it was only because he couldn’t walk on water.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: But Nixon’s hatred came very early on. Uh, he lost the 1960 election, a very close election, to John F. Kennedy. And then he went and ran for governor of California in 1962 and lost, and felt that the press played a part in his loss, and afterwards was ill tempered giving a press conference telling the press, “Look, you’ve had Dick Nixon to kick around. It’s been fun, but this is it, this is my last news conference.”
Ken Ward: Hmm.
Dale Cressman: And ABC actually, Howard K. Smith and Jim Hagerty, do a documentary on ABC following the 1962 election called Richard Nixon’s Political Obituary.
So, Nixon already just hated the press, and Agnew came to hate the press as well, as he ran. I mean, at first, when he was governor of Maryland, he was kind of a moderate governor, but later became more controversial and combative. But then when he ran as vice president in 1968, he made a number of gaffes on the campaign trail, and the press naturally jumped on those, and so, he felt kinda beat up over that.
So, they both disliked the press, but I think Nixon had a much longer and more deeply rooted hatred for the press, and combined with his personality, the kind of paranoia that some people have attributed to him, he ends up really, really disliking the press before he even starts as president.
Ken Ward: Okay. So, in your paper we get a few months—I think it was about nine months into the Nixon administration and things aren’t going great. It’s not like things are going terribly, but he’s facing some serious pressure. And Nixon delivers this major speech in his political career, right, this great silent majority speech. But he doesn’t get the reaction that he wanted from certain—from certain sectors, right? So, tell us a little bit about that speech and the reaction that he received.
Dale Cressman: Well, he gave it in the first place because, as you said, things were not going well. There were lots of negative things in the press, and people — political observers were saying, and Time magazine and Newsweek magazine and things, that he wasn’t up to the job and Vietnam was weighing him down. And the moratorium was going on. This is where protesters encouraged people to take one day off each month, the 15th, and so Pat Buchanan encouraged him to give a speech defending himself and his Vietnam policy.
And so, he worked very hard, writing his own speech. He claims to have come up with this brilliant term “the great silent majority.” In fact, Buchanan claims that he coined it during the campaign and William Safire told Tim Naftali that it was an old term that meant dead people.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: In order to join the silent majority, it meant you were in the cemetery.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: Um, so, he gives this speech and it’s a success with the public. But the White House had built it up to be such a big speech that it ended up not breaking any news. And so, when the commentary came on afterward on the networks, in which the anchormen would discuss what the President had said before the next scheduled television program, the commentary was negative.
And—and they particularly were sensitive toward ABC. One, because they hated Frank Reynolds. They thought Frank Reynolds was very negative toward the campaign when they were running for president, and also because Averell Harriman, who was a negotiator for LBJ for the Vietnam War and was a Democrat, was a guest on ABC’s post-speech coverage, and Nixon took great offense to that.
And they didn’t like the idea of anchormen discussing the speech afterwards, anyway, because they wanted their message out there without any kind of filter. A quote I didn’t use, but I rather enjoy, was David Brinkley said, “How else are we supposed to fill the time, organ music?”
Ken Ward: [Laughter] Well, and I think that points to this broader theme in this period of journalism, right, this turn to interpretation or this shift that happens, especially in these couple of presidencies right here. Can you speak to that a little bit and sort of the change that we were seeing in journalism at this time?
Dale Cressman: Yeah, they go—a number of people, Matt Pressman and others, have pointed to how the press kind of transitions from being stenographers to being more critical. I mean, just, it was just a few years earlier, it was during 1963 that the press started noticing and doing stories—in fact, there was a cover story in Newsweek—that the White House was doing, you know, was manipulating them. That it was trying to shape coverage. This was considered scandalous during the Kennedy administration.
It’s within that context that this is happening, and, and so, you’ve—you’ve got someone, Richard Nixon, who was vice president and before that in the Senate, before that in the Congress, with a much more pliant press. And so, he already comes in hating it, and we’re in this period of time when, when journalists are seeing their role expanding to critiquing, and the White House was not having it.
The White House, they did not—it should be pointed out, they did not see the press just as critical of them, as every president back to George Washington has seen them. The Nixon administration was unique in that, like Trump, Nixon and his people saw the press as a partisan enemy, as an opponent to be beaten.
It wasn’t just — they didn’t conceive it as, you know, they had a role to play in a constitutional democracy to, you know, with a free press to criticize. They saw them as an opponent that needed to be beaten, and they had a strategy for it.
Ken Ward: And so, what was that strategy in this episode, right? Nixon gives the speech, the speech goes well with the public, but the administration doesn’t like the press response. So, how does the administration respond?
Dale Cressman: Well, they had kind of—right from the beginning, they had this plan that they would criticize, they’d get on reporters, they would call up their bosses and, and complain about every single story.
And Jeb Magruder at one point writes a memo called “The Shotgun Versus Rifle Memo,” in which he says, “Look, the shotgunning process that you’re doing is just not efficient. We need to do something that’s more targeted. Instead of complaining about every single story, we need to do things like sic the FCC on broadcasters and threaten then with antitrust suits and, and, and things of that nature.”
But Nixon still wanted them to go after people. And so, they did. So, they—they had kind of a carrot and stick approach where they would punish reporters, complain to their bosses, but also would have these behind-the-scenes meetings with network executives where they would try to get them to be more pliant.
Ken Ward: Interesting. So, what was Agnew’s role in all of this, then?
Dale Cressman: Well, after the November 3rd speech, the great silent majority speech, Buchanan—Pat Buchanan comes up with the idea of putting Agnew out on the road to give a speech going directly at networks and, and, and making the accusation that it’s this small group of people that are, have an outsized influence on what millions of people see.
And so, they scheduled a speech for him to give just a few weeks after Nixon’s speech, tamer than what we hear from Trump.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: But what networks heard was a real threat, because back then, the FCC had real teeth. And, and—and so, Pat Buchanan wrote the speech. At the time, it was — the White House said this was all Agnew’s doing, but, but Buchanan wrote it, and Nixon approved. And they went and invited themselves to a GOP—a regional GOP convention in Des Moines, and, and then they let the networks know that they were gonna have this critical speech, a speech critical of the networks.
The networks did not have anyone in Des Moines for this. It was a complete surprise. There was a PBS station with a black and white feed and when the networks were notified, ABC was the first one—there’s some dispute over this, but to me, it looks like ABC was the first to make the decision to cover it. And ultimately, all three networks pre-empted their West Coast feeds of their newscast to give live coverage to Agnew’s speech. And Agnew said, “Look, I don’t even know if my word will reach anyone because the networks get the final say on this.”
But indeed, the networks covered it live, and it was big news the next day in The New York Times. It was above the fold. And Agnew encouraged people to write letters and telegrams to the networks to complain, and they do—thousands of people do this.
And Hagerty, during—for ABC, very helpfully gives this information to the White House to let them know how, how things are going over.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: And Agnew, it must be said, he—he wasn’t a particularly valued member of the team. Nixon didn’t really trust him that much, but conservatives loved him. And by criticizing the media, it gave him increased relevance. He fed off of this. And so, he continued giving speeches, and then he went after the print media and he kind of went on this, this long war [Laughter] against the media that, that, that conservatives ate up. And at a certain point, the White House was even saying, “You know, let’s cut back on this. Let’s not, you know—let’s save some of this for when we need it, for when the elections come.”
Ken Ward: Uh huh.
Dale Cressman: Um, but—but it did give him increased relevance.
Ken Ward: Well, and so, so, in, in the paper, you—and you note other people use this term as well, but you sort of call this approach Agnewism, right? Can you, um—can you clarify, like, are there, are there particular traits of Agnewism that we might look for in, you know, other, other political realms? Um, how—how could we boil what he was doing down?
Dale Cressman: Well, it was—it was vilifying the press and, and television. And television was more vulnerable than the press because it’s licensed by the FCC. But it’s turning—turning reporters into political enemies, treating them as though they were partisans. And, and this is the part that I think we can see in today’s environment, although the media environments are entirely different.
We’ve not, since then, seen a president treat reporters or broadcasters as a political opponent. And I think that’s what Marvin Kalb was referring to when he termed—termed it Agnewism.
Ken Ward: Okay, I understand. So, so, how does the story progress for folks like Reynolds and Smith at ABC? Um, how does this relationship with the Nixon administration and these attacks by the Nixon administration on broadcasters like ABC, how does that play out?
Dale Cressman: Well, we have to remember, back then, they did commentary at the end of the newscast, something we don’t see now. And the White House loved Howard K. Smith’s commentaries because he was supportive of them. In fact, he was friendly with Nixon, would visit Nixon at the White House and would be invited with his wife to dinner at the White House, and so forth. On the other hand, Frank Reynolds, they hated his commentary and complained about it constantly.
Well, in 1970, ABC comes across an opportunity to hire Harry Reasoner, who was on 60 Minutes, which was still a news show at CBS, but Harry Reasoner had not negotiated a contact, was liking it at CBS. ABC gets an opportunity to hire him, and now they’re faced with, “What do we do? Who do we—we’ve gotta use Reasoner. Do we take Frank Reynolds off, or do we take Howard K. Smith off?” And the official story was that Howard K. Smith was more unique and that Frank Reynolds and Harry Reasoner were kind of interchangeable. And so, they pulled Frank Reynolds.
Now, Reynolds believes this is because of the White House’s pressure, political pressure. Elmer Lower, the president of ABC News, when he was alive, and Bill Sheehan, both told me this was—there was no political pressure, this was done strictly based on research, on audience research that they did it.
But Reynolds believed right to the end of his life that it was political. And there’s a telling incident that, that I got into that kind of lends credence to it that even if Elmer Lower, who was president of ABC News, and Bill Sheehan, the vice president of ABC News, who was directly over the newscast—even if they didn’t feel political pressure, it’s quite possible that, that those above, Goldenson, the head of the network, and Hagerty did. And there’s this incident in which Reynolds does commentary on J. Edgar Hoover. Remember, J. Edgar Hoover has approved ABC’s showing of this television drama, The FBI.
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Dale Cressman: Well, Reynolds does commentary on an interview that J. Edgar Hoover gave to The Washington Post about a book written by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. He says Clark was the worst attorney general that he had ever served with, even worse than Bobby Kennedy. And we know that Hoover hated Bobby Kennedy.
Well, Reynolds says Hoover just doesn’t like criticism, and he calls him an untouchable, and says that even if Eliot Ness had he found Hoover’s bathtub full of gin wouldn’t have pulled the plug.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: And that ticks off Hoover, because Ness is his—was, was a rival during Prohibition. Uh, Hoover and Ness were rivals.
So, Hoover calls up ABC and says, “That’s it. No more FBI”—on, you know, the series. “We’re pulling our, our approval, our cooperation. You can’t have that series anymore.”
And according to the FBI documents, Marty Pompadur calls him up and says, “Look, we agree with you. Reynolds is vicious, we’ve had problems with him. We’re gonna get rid of him, don’t worry about it.” That doesn’t assuage Hoover, so Hagerty flies to Washington and there’s this very detailed account in the FBI documents of this meeting in which Hagerty begs—according to the document, begs Hoover to allow them to keep the show. Hagerty claims he’s still kind of running ABC News—which I wish I had known that when Elmer Lower was still alive because that would’ve come as news to Elmer Lower.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: And—and Hagerty apologizes to Hoover and says, and basically represents that Reynolds was fired because of this incident. So, Hoover says, “Okay, fine, you can keep the series.” And, and—and it should be noted, these two were very close. In a TV Guide article that Hoover wrote before he died, but it was published after he died, he said that it was because of Hagerty in part that ABC got the TV show, that he had been approached by many others to do the show, but it was only because he trusted Hagerty.
So, Hagerty was very, very close to, you know, Ronald Ziegler, the press secretary. I mean, in the article, there’s even a picture of, of, of him sitting at Nixon’s desk in the Oval Office. He was quite close to them.
Ken Ward: Interesting. So, we’re running short on time, but are—are there lessons from this story that maybe journalists today or politicians today or even ordinary citizens might want to take away from all of this?
Dale Cressman: That’s a good question. I think we’re—we’ve been in the danger zone the past few years with the press losing credibility because we’ve had a president who believed it worked for him to criticize it.
And how we get back, how journalists get back that credibility will be an interesting thing. Uh, it’s interesting to note that after Watergate, after Nixon’s demise, journalism enjoyed a lot of popularity. Our journalism schools were full. That’s not the case right now.
So, it’s hard to say. Although there are similarities, the media environments are so different, it’s hard to know what lessons to really draw.
Ken Ward: Sure, sure—that’s fair. Okay, so, I have one last question, and that’s a question we ask all of our guests—why does journalism history matter?
Dale Cressman: [Laughter] Boy, that’s a good one.
Ken Ward: [Laughter]
Dale Cressman: That’s a 30-minute conversation.
Ken Ward: That’s right.
Dale Cressman: Yeah, journalism history because—for example, the students that we’re teaching now, they have no idea how important the press has been, how important broadcast journalism has been to our democracy. All they know is what they’re seeing people’s opinions of it in social media. And although—you know, we’ve, as many people have documented in the journal, you know, we’ve had partisan presses before and, and, and, and and so forth.
At least it was recognized that a free press was something that was important for democracy. And, and, and I don’t know that our students really get that in the current environment.
Ken Ward: Interesting, interesting. Well, we’ll leave it there. Dale, I’ve really appreciated and enjoyed our conversation today. Thanks for being on the show.
Dale Cressman: Thanks for having me.
Ken Ward: That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter, @jhistoryjournal—that’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow—good night, and good luck.