Agnew speeches sparked move toward soft news

Posted Nov. 12, 2009, at 6:22 p.m.

It remains the most influential indictment of American journalism ever made. Forty years ago today, this famous figure began railing against the corporate media. “A broader spectrum of national opinion should be represented among the commentators of the network news,” he argued, explaining that “men who can articulate other points of view should be brought forward, and the American people should be made aware of the trend toward the monopolization of the great public information vehicles and the concentration of more and more power over public opinion in fewer and fewer hands.”

American democracy’s perilous dependence on the corporate, capitalist media had previously been detailed. Critics such as Upton Sinclair and artists like Orson Welles had warned of the dangers posed by concentrated media power. But this critic was a national politician, and his prominence insured the wide distribution of his populist critique. This spokesman for democratic media reform was none other than the Republican vice president of the United States, Spiro Agnew.

The attacks on the media perfectly encapsulate the cynical brilliance of the Nixon administration. Scripted by Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire, and vetted by President Richard Nixon, Agnew’s speeches (there were several) began in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 13, 1969. They proved remarkably successful. Agnew appeared on the cover of Time and Life magazines, special features on his criticism aired on all three national broadcast networks, and invitations to speak to civic and community organizations flooded his office.

The speeches were notable for both their content and style. No successful national politician had so forthrightly attacked The New York Times or CBS News. Stylistically, the speeches were filled with insults (barely) cloaked in peppery, alliterative phrases. But hidden beneath Agnew’s name-calling was a far more serious in-dictment of media consolidation. This part of the speech — now largely forgotten — changed the American media landscape forever.

In the newsrooms and executive offices of American media organizations the attack led to a great deal of internal self-examination. At CBS News, Charles Kuralt already had been assigned (“On the Road”) to report back on rarely reported aspects of America, and shortly after Agnew’s speeches NBC News sent two reporters out to do the same thing. A survey of local television stations revealed that 115 of 123 stations had started “a serious search” for more “good news items” after Agnew’s attack. Local news turned more toward soft news and light features, beginning a move away from critical reporting that has continued to this day.

The New York Times responded by implementing the OpEd page after years of internal debate. John B. Oakes, the editorial page editor of the Times who conceived the idea of the OpEd page (basing it upon a commentary page in the old New York World called the Page Op), had tried to launch the innovation for more than a decade. The publisher agreed only after the White House’s criticism could no longer be ignored. Oakes later described Agnew as typical of the oppositional voices he wanted represented in the Times. The first edition of the OpEd page featured both a critical assessment of Agnew’s speeches and an unflattering caricature of the vice president.

Both Agnew and Oakes professed a belief in the value of a diverse marketplace of ideas, but they held divergent philosophical views on the media’s social role. Oakes believed the media should lead and teach, invigorating the public sphere with fresh perspectives and ideas. For Agnew, the media’s responsibility was to be re-sponsive to the masses. This essential question — whether the news media should lead public opinion or reflect it — remains unresolved four decades later. But with the rise of the blogosphere, Fox News, the decline of journalistic authority and the fragmentation of audiences, Agnew’s vision clearly holds the upper hand.

Were Agnew alive today, he would undoubtedly be pleased by his contribution to the current media environment. Never have the American media been bombarded by such constant criticism — from both the right and the left. The motivations, assumptions and biases of professional journalists are closely and constantly examined, and the authority of their work has correspondingly eroded.

This was Agnew’s ultimate goal; he envisioned a future where journalists would be called down “from their ivory towers to enjoy the rough and tumble of public debate.” Relishing the cacophony and name-calling incited by his speech, Spiro Agnew would have loved the blogosphere. For better or worse, we live in his world.

Michael Socolow is an assistant professor in the department of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

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