Talking Back to TV: Spiro Agnew
More than eight years after Minow officially brought exciting criticism to governmental regulation, Vice-President Spiro Agnew moved on another front. This time the assault was political and partisan as the Vice-President renewed a critique not heard since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal: that national broadcasting was politically biased, and newsmen, specifically, were skewing the truth to which viewers were entitled.
Speaking for the conservative Republican presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Agnew blasted the way political news and events were handled on TV. He decried the fact that network news was prepared by "a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers ... and a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases." He assailed the commentators who dissected Nixon's speeches as soon as the chief executive finished a televised address to the nation. The "President of the United States has a right to communicate directly with the people that elected him," Agnew asserted, "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 president's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested."
Written by White House aide Patrick Buchanan, Agnew's speech was one of the first shots fired against established broadcasting by the New Right political movement. But beyond the partisan agenda he was articulating, the vice president raised fundamental questions about the appropriateness of vital information being filtered through a few people in fewer networks. Whatever their protestations of journalistic professionalism and political fairness, Agnew was correct to say that "no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers" were the ones who decided "what forty or fifty million Americans will learn of the day's events in the nation and the world."
Agnew's tirade went to the core of a national television and a national culture that were controlled by three like-thinking corporations. Granted, Agnew was politically motivated, but his critique had implications beyond conservative Republicanism. His was the anger of the disenfranchised, the frustration of the minority without a place on popular TV. Agnew argued that the medium needed to serve more people; that it needed alternatives to the homogenized viewpoint developed in New York City and then presented to a richly variegated nation as the single truth.
Like Minow and Henry, Agnew received little support within the industry, many feeling that he, too, was about to assume the mantle of "cultural czar." That he received considerable popular acclaim, however, raises questions about TV and the depth of its public support. Within two months of his speech, for example, a Gallup poll rated Agnew the third most admired man in the nation, behind only Richard Nixon and Billy Graham. While much of Agnew's acclaim can be adduced to partisan political feelings, the fact remained that many millions of viewers were upset enough about what the networks offered that they found Agnew's critique valid.
Despite the misgivings of Minow and Agnew, national television would continue to play an informational role in American life. No matter that the evening "news" was little more than headlines and a few short "in-depth" stories; this was the network news service that mesmerized millions nightly. And a poll in 1971 revealed that Americans preferred TV to newspapers as the source of "most of your news"—and by a margin of 40 percent for TV to 20 percent for newspapers, they found television the "most believable" medium for news.
No matter that the documentary was never a prominent part of the national schedule; network documentary units such as
ABC News Close-Up, CBS Reports, and NBC White Paper continued to produce long-form analyses, some of them stunning in their artistry and candor—and millions watched. It was not pure intellectual commitment, however. At NBC, for example, motivation for increased documentary production, according to one executive, emanated from a desire to exploit the rising popularity of newscasters Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and the need "to placate critics in the trade and government who did not think television was designed as an opiate and an outlet for 'sex and violence.'" Such flexibility, however, led to a renaissance of the documentary—rising from 178 programs in 1958 to 336 in 1961, 447 the following year, and 396 in 1963. However, with the death of President Kennedy, the crisis passed, and output dropped precipitously, to 290 in 1966 and 251 by 1968.2s
There was, however, National Educational Television and eventually the Public Broadcasting Service. By the end of the 1960s ETV/PBS, with 185 stations (compared to 160 for ABC, 193 for CBS, and 215 for NBC), constituted a virtual fourth network, albeit lowly viewed and relegated in great part to UHF channels. Public stations also were cash-poor. Proscribed from accepting paid commercials, the stations were dependent on donations solicited from viewers plus stipends received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit, private organization created in 1967 to oversee noncommercial broadcasting. As the entity that established PBS in 1969, CPB would receive funding from Congress but remain greatly dependent on sizable donations from major U.S. corporations.
Nevertheless, in an age of inner-city rebellions and lunar explorations, political assassinations, youthful alienation, international warfare, and domestic confrontations, the ability of television to cover important events live was appreciated by the American audience. Not only did several million people view documentaries about contemporary problems and issues, but also, as revealed in Table 7. 1, the citizenry overwhelmingly used television to participate in the most compelling events of the times.
|Table 7.1 |
Top Special Events of the 1960s
|1960|| Kennedy-Nixon election results: viewed in 91.8 percent of TV homes; average: four hours, thirty minutes|
|1961||Kennedy inaugural address: in 59.5 percent of TV homes|
|1962||John Glenn's orbital flight: in 81.4 percent of TV homes; average: five hours, fifteen minutes|
|1963||Kennedy assassination/funeral coverage: in 96.1 percent of TV homes; average thirty-one hours, thirty-eight minutes|
|1964||Johnson-Goldwater election results: in 90.6 percent of TV homes; average two hours, fifty-one minutes|
|1965||Gemini-Titan IV launch: in 92.1 percent of TV homes; average: four hours, forty-seven minutes|
|1966||Congressional election results: in 84.4 percent of TV homes; average: six hours, ten minutes|
|1967||Johnson's State of the Union address: in 59.6 percent of TV homes; average: one hour|
|1968||Democratic National Convention in Chicago: in 90.1 percent of TV homes; average: nine hours, twenty-eight minutes|
|1969||Apollo XI moon landing: in 93.9 percent of TV homes; average: fifteen hours, thirty-five minutes|
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