TV And The Politics Of The Early 1970s
The election of Richard M. Nixon as president of the United States was a watershed in American history. With his appeals to "the Silent Majority," and for "law and order," Nixon was a moderating influence on the reformist energies awakened in the United States by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. With Nixon, the legacy of progressivism—the spirit of social reform and reorganization that began with "Theodore Roosevelt and reappeared in the policies of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson—came to a halt.
To Nixon and his administrators, inner-city riots were acts of insurrection to be met with increased power. Marching antiwar protesters were, in the view of Nixon's attorney general, reminiscent of the anarchistic mobs whose hostile demonstrations precipitated the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Dissidence was considered disruptive. Activism was disloyal. To a great degree, moreover, the new administration blamed television for the social disorder that marked the United States when Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969.
During the first years of the Nixon presidency, the TV industry endured the wrath of the administration. Most articulate among the critics of the medium was Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Mouthing bitter condemnations and alliterative phrases, the vice president articulated the frustration and disgust he perceived in "Middle America."
Agnew's attack on television—particularly on TV news—began with his speech to Midwestern Republicans meeting in Des Moines on November 20, 1969. Here the Vice-President spoke of the "virtual monopoly of the whole medium of communication" possessed by the three national networks. According to Agnew, because of this domination the news which Americans viewed nightly was determined by "a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers and ... filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases."
If the evening news showed images of protesters and urban violence, Agnew argued that this was a function of biased newsmen working for undemocratic and insulated TV news operations. If viewers were upset by continuing pictures of campus unrest, antiwar marches, lawlessness on picket lines, police brutality, and the apparent bankruptcy of the American political system, these were only new stereotypes created "in the studios of the networks in New York" by a "small and unelected elite." In Agnew's view, much of the racial violence in the United States was a result of network glorification of "embittered" black radicals. In words reminiscent of those used to ban Paul Robeson decades earlier, Agnew railed against newsmen who elevated Stokely Carmichael "from obscurity to national prominence."
Instead of recognizing such anger as an expression of black frustration and social impotence, the Vice-President assailed television news for giving the false impression that "the majority of black Americans feel no regard for their country," and for preferring "irrational" radicals over "rational" moderates. In Agnew"s argument, the networks had decided that "one minute of Eldridge Cleaver is worth ten minutes of Roy Wilkins."
Most importantly, Agnew broadened his critique by inviting the American people to "let the networks know they want news straight and objective." He castigated network executives, and then reminded them of the power of the president in matters of licensing stations. Although the motives were dissimilar, not since Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" speech in 1961 had such threats against license renewal been publicly pronounced by a government official. And Agnew's target was obvious: the "tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government."'
These were menacing words to network television. But Agnew was not finished. Writing in TV Guide six months later, the he again brandished his stick—but this time he also produced a carrot. Agnew now blasted network news as "manufactured news: revolutionary theater brought into millions of living rooms by the networks." But he extended the prospect of administration approval for those networks responding favorably to his criticisms:
I feel sure that most of the leaders of this great industry are willing to accept the responsibility of citizenship along with its benefits. And I am confident that in the next few years, the television industry will emerge as an even more powerful and beneficial influence on all of our lives.
By mid-1970, it was clear that Agnew's comments were not isolated expressions of the new administration's desire to exert a moderating influence on American television and culture. There were other manifestations of what Variety termed a "state-managed ... subtle reign of terror" emanating from the White House. Nixon's chief adviser, H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, announced his belief that there was a conspiracy involved in news critical of the Nixon administration. "Somewhere in the jungle labyrinth of Manhattan Island," he told an audience at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1970, "there is a secret nerve center where, every Sunday afternoon, an enormously powerful group of men gather to decide what the Eastern Establishment media line for the coming week will be." Agnew, himself, was not silenced. He informed a Houston audience that "wild, hot rhetoric pours out of the television set and radio in a daily torrent."
President Nixon stayed above the public debate over television. Yet, his exploitation of presidential access to network TV time was most disconcerting to his political foes. In particular, to explain his actions in widening the Vietnam war to include Cambodia, Nixon made frequent prime-time appearances in speeches and press conferences in the spring of 1970. Although Democratic opponents of his war policies demanded equal free time to respond, such largess was not forthcoming from the networks. When critics of the president wanted national TV exposure, they usually had to purchase it on one of the national networks.
Through his appointive powers, Nixon in his first years also exerted a moderating influence via the Federal Communications Commission. His appointment of Dean Burch, former aide to Senator Barry Goldwater, as chairman of the FCC did little to allay suspicious TV executives. By the end of 1970, furthermore, the FCC had already made its influence felt on network news. The commission rigidly refused to allow the networks more than three hours of prime-time programming, thus quashing plans to expand news coverage to a full hour. Further, rigid enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine compelled stations to present counter-arguments to every controversial subject covered. Applying stricter rules of libel to documentary programming also helped steer broadcast journalists away from muckraking.
Several broadcasting executives attested to the moderating influence emanating from the FCC. According to Vincent T. Wasilewski, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, "the FCC is so restrictive, demanding that the opposing sides of everything that is controversial be sought out and presented, that broadcasters are finding it easier to avoid controversy."' A similar protest was heard from Hartford Gunn, Jr., head of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In his view, broader application of the Fairness Doctrine and other FCC decisions could "mean commercial TV will be forced by pure economics to stay out of controversial political waters." He explained that "When presenting political and topical programs means uncontrolled loss of valuable air time and large legal expenses for lengthy FCC fairness hearings, the stations will simply stop presenting those programs."
As well as those questioning the implications of FCC decisions, there were several articulate critics of the Nixon administration and its battle against television news. The president of CBS News, Richard Salant, protested in 1970 against "an official smear campaign under way to dissuade us from telling the truth as we see it."' Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas charged that Vice President Agnew had successfully "intimidated the media," and he cited as an example the diminishing of anti-Agnew editorials in the Washington Post when that newspaper's TV station in Miami, WPLG-TV, had its license renewal challenged before the FCC.
Nicholas Johnson, an outspoken member of the FCC and an appointee of Lyndon Johnson, was even more strident in his criticism of Nixon and the attack on network TV. According to Commissioner Johnson, the networks by late 1969 had already capitulated to the Nixon administration. He charged that by failing to provide live coverage of demonstrations by the National Mobilization Against the War, corporate television had surrendered to the government's desire to suppress dissent by denying it video coverage. In Commissioner Johnson's words, "Broadcasters are kept off-guard by the one-two punch of barely camouflaged intimidation and acts of censorship, together with the promise of an economic payoff for those who cooperate."
Video news operations were especially affected by the government's campaign against TV. Throughout the early 1970s, a popular reaction to stories of crime, protest, warfare, rioting, and other evidences of national disarray was the demand that television start reporting "good news." Understandably confused and tired of nightly reports of turmoil, many Americans demanded news that was not distressing. Although someone as influential as Reuven Frank, president of NBC News, could argue that those who want TV news "to make a better world" are seeking to use the television news reporter "as a conscious instrument of social control," the criticism continued.
On the local level, network affiliates and independent stations responded more favorably to mounting public and governmental pressure. At KHJ-TV, Los Angeles, for example, news director Baxter Ward announced in May 1970 that the station would no longer show pictures of campus violence. The new station policy was to cover campus demonstrations to the point of physical confrontation. Then, "if it reaches a point of ugliness," according to Ward, "we'll cover our cameras and leave.""
More successful than simply avoiding violence, however, was the conscious creation of warm, friendly feelings in the minds of viewers. This was the goal of the so-called "Happy Talk" or "do-good" news format developed most profitably by local ABC outlets. Stations now relaxed their dedication to covering "doom and gloom" news and offered instead a blend of solid stories and light, uplifting features, presented by bantering anchor-people, entertaining reporters, and joking sports reporters and weathermen. Happy Talk news did not avoid important events, but it made actualities more palatable to viewers who wanted a little entertainment and informality in the delivery of their news. This format, which media critic Ron Powers described as "exaggerated joviality and elbow-jabbing comradeship," first emerged in 1969 at WLS-TV in Chicago. It quickly was adopted by other ABC stations throughout the nation. In the process, it made ABC outlets the most popular local news operations in most American markets.
The debate over television and its relationship to social turmoil in the United States had a particularly chilling effect on the role of blacks in the medium. As early as 1969, local stations reported diminishing advertiser interest in programs featuring African Americans or focusing on minority realities. "It just isn't chic anymore," according to a spokesman for WNEW-TV, New York City, "for advertisers to sponsor a black show." This attitude caused many to wonder if the surge in racial programming in the late 1960s emanated more from feelings of guilt following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the issuance of the Kerner Commission report, than from a solid commitment to bias-free informational and entertainment programming.
On the network level, it was apparent by the end of 1970 that in all types of shows black interests were being ill-served by developments in the new decade. Most of the new series launched in the fall of 1970—many of which featured or starred African-American talent—failed to gain popularity. According to network analysts, this failure was the result of too many dramatic series seeking to be relevant.
Relevancy—social and political reality brought into a TV story line—may have been popular with viewers in the 1960s, but in the new era it was apparently a liability. Real-life dramas, with or without black characters, died a quick death in the ratings. Clearly, the American public demonstrated a new distaste for issues-oriented entertainment. James E. Duffy, president of ABC, attempted to explain the collapse of relevancy programming when he spoke to a group of broadcasters in late 1970. According to hin, "We have been roundly scored, spanked, slaughtered, slandered.... Did we overreact to, overpromote, overkill `relevancy'—both the word and the concept? Yes, my friends, we did."
As is apparent from the preceding chapter, socio-political relevancy was a significant factor in the TV drama of the 1960s. Instead of routine plots in which good invariably triumphed over evil, protagonists on programs like The Bold Ones, East Side/ West Side, The Name of the Game, and Star Trek often faced perplexing realities that prevented total triumph. For example, on East Side/West Side the hero might have won his own personal battle against ghetto life—but the ghetto endured, and viewers could expect that similar problems would continue.
On a science fiction series like Star Trek, the relevant issue might have been philosophically or allegorically stated. Such was the case in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," a Star Trek episode telecast on January 10, 1969. This program concerned the destructive nature of racial hatred and pitted two adversaries, one man whose face was black on the right side, white on the left, and another man with the opposite pattern of coloration. As representatives of two warring races, these men pursued each other through centuries until their hostilities had destroyed all other life on their planet. As the story ended with these sole survivors continuing their senseless battle in space, the implications for contemporary America were obvious.
In the new decade, however, problems of racial prejudice, social injustice, and an insensitive bureaucracy became increasingly unpopular with viewers. Instead of moral lessons and social insights, Americans now preferred escapism in their television entertainment. No longer responding to heroes who might capture evildoers but were overwhelmed by social problems and inequitable standards, viewers now wanted champions who triumphed weekly over thoroughly negative antagonists. As Les Brown perceptively noted in Variety in 1972, "Doctors can save a patient every week, and lawyers can get a client off a bad rap, but no single politician or social worker can correct social injustices or change the system that produced them."
Just as the death of relevancy helped ensure the stifling of series or stories treating serious issues affecting African Americans, the practical disappearance of the news documentary in the early 1970s further helped to isolate blacks from meaningful video exposure. There seems little doubt that the demise of the documentary was related to the popular mood which swung the 1968 election to Richard M. Nixon and which was soon manipulated by the new administration to moderate TV criticism of social realities.
Tellingly, in late 1969 a report issued by Columbia University noted that during the previous television season, "documentary programming in the traditional sense of the term had hit a new low." And by the 1971-1972 season, the three networks aired only sixteen documentaries treating major issues, only four of these focusing on busing and other aspects of black-white race relations.
One reason for this development was that in their newscasts and newsmagazine shows, networks increasingly presented distilled analyses instead of half-hour and full-hour documentaries exploring a single subject in depth. Also, in an atmosphere of political circumspection, when neither sponsor nor network wished to be identified with liberal or with conservative political values, financing for such programming was not often forthcoming. In the words of one network documentarian, "You can't get a documentary on the air unless you get a sponsor, and if you get a sponsor, you've got to do a bland show."
Ironically, in the previous decade the television documentary had been one of the strongest vehicles for explaining social problems. Its disappearance left African Americans with issues still unresolved, and with much less access to public opinion through network nonfiction programming. It is interesting, too, that these developments occurred at a time when blacks were placing their trust in television as the social institution most sympathetic to their plight. According to a Lou Harris poll in the summer of 1971, 43 percent of American blacks felt that TV had a genuine concern for their desire for equality. Video ranked ahead of the Supreme Court (39 percent), the federal government (30 percent), and newspapers (27 percent).
Within a few years, social concern for African Americans was gone from television. As blacks passed through the 1970s, the range of utilization and characterization they might face in TV was obvious. At best, they could hope for an occasional breaking of form which might permit a program, movie, or series to reintroduce relevancy into an otherwise escapist medium. As a norm, however, blacks could anticipate benign neglect in which video entertained its mass audience without reference to African Americans or the nation’s racial problems. At its worst, television might abandon its residual concern for social issues and review older, more derisive formats and stereotypes. To a great degree, the history of blacks in TV during the 1970s and into the 1980s is marked by a fluctuation between these postures.