In my family room, I sit in a big leather chair where my Kindle Fire and the remote from my television are within easy reach. I imagine that many people have a similar place to read, browse the web, or simply watch television. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the C-SPAN 2 schedule and found Vice President Spiro Agnew’s November 1969 speech calling the broadcast networks “unelected elites” who held a bias against the Nixon administration’s policies. He concluded that the network monopoly was really a trial judge swaying public opinion. All three major networks interrupted their normal programming to carry the speech, which meant that 40 million viewers were all watching the same broadcast. In 1969, the public expected the news would be unbiased and separate programs; such as “Meet the Press”, would carry the political analysis in a fair manner. Television was working out its “rules of the game” with the Oval Office.
Nixon had every right to be concerned. He did not fare well in the first televised presidential debate with John Kennedy, who would build an outstanding relationship with the networks. The Johnson administration would later preside over the first televised war. By 1969, the country was tired of reports from Vietnam and the political unrest at home. Nixon did not establish a warm relationship with the networks, and thought it traitorous they would not support his leadership, prompting Agnew’s speech. Although Nixon and Agnew would not end their terms in office well, the idea of a liberal bias in media remained a concern into the Reagan administration.
The networks heard the criticism and adjusted the rules. Sam Donaldson, an ABC reporter that covered the Reagan administration, once told a C-SPAN class at The Cable Center that Reagan made a terrible gaff at an event, but none of the three networks covered it on the evening news. There was no conspiracy; it was simply a matter of courtesy respecting the Office of the President of the United States. By the end of Reagan’s terms in office, that courtesy would evaporate as cable programming and the Internet would cast a brighter light on politics. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama would have a considerably different relationship with television and an expanding media that now includes the Internet. The competition forced new views about fairness and a particular slant to the news became commonplace, as innovative outlets angled for something that would distinguish them from the others.
The millennial generation often sees the news through the eyes of Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, redefining the lines between entertainment and information. The rules continue to change and we are all adjusting. The faithful watch programs dedicated to various political philosophies and somehow, we seem less tolerant of other viewpoints. The bias remains forty-five years later, but in a different form. The relationship between the President and the media will continue to evolve, and though we may not know it, we will find the capacity to change as well. Agnew could not have imagined the world we live in today. There is no doubt the relationship between the Presidency and media will continue its relentless, ever-changing pace as we develop the innovations of tomorrow.
(Larry Satkowiak is president and CEO of The Cable Center, the nonprofit educational arm of the cable industry. The Center preserves cable’s enduring contributions to society, strengthens relationships between cable and academia and unites the industry around the advancement of exceptional customer service. www.cablecenter.org)