From Agnew to Trump: Trying to Make TV News Buckle

Will networks sacrifice principles for access?

Donald Trump’s tirade at network executives and anchors could have been intended to shape TV coverage of the reality-show president, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Donald Trump’s tirade at network executives and anchors could have been intended to shape TV coverage of the reality-show president, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:00am

The rhetoric was more graceful than Donald Trump can normally muster, but the sneering and searing attack on a “small, unelected elite” retains a contemporary zing.

Forty-seven years ago this month, Vice President Spiro Agnew unleashed the modern media wars with a red-meat speech in Des Moines, Iowa, written by Pat Buchanan. Agnew’s target: “a small group of men, numbering no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators and executive producers … [who] decide what 40 or 50 million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world.”

The resentment had long been building within Richard Nixon’s White House at the broadcast networks, which were then personified by Walter Cronkite at CBS, and David Brinkley and Chet Huntley at NBC. The immediate trigger was the dismissive network commentary after a televised Nixon speech on Vietnam with Eric Sevareid on CBS likening it to the discredited policies of Lyndon Johnson.

Even then — in the golden age of television news — the networks buckled in the face of the White House assault. Agnew’s speech was shown live on all three networks. CBS banned instant analysis after presidential speeches for five months — and all three networks opted to summarize Nixon’s 1970 State of the Union address rather than scrutinize it. As Thomas Johnson, a University of Texas journalism professor, notes, “Studies suggest that after Agnew’s Des Moines speech, the networks ran fewer stories that made judgments.”

No student of history, Trump is probably only dimly aware of the Agnew precedent. But after years sitting across tables with bankers who wanted to send him into bankruptcy, Trump has become a ranking expert on human weakness. That was the implicit agenda when the president-elect held an off-the-record meeting last Monday at Trump Tower with two dozen network executives and anchors.

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Instead of the expected off-the-record press conference (which, in itself, is a contradiction in terms), the unelected media elite were treated to a Trump temper tantrum about their “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. David Remnick in The New Yorker quoted one participant at the meeting saying about Trump, “He truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment. He doesn’t. He thinks we’re supposed to say what he says and that’s it.”

The news stories about the Trump meeting — all forced to rely on anonymous sources — were filled with media bravado. After being subjected to Trump’s tirade, a TV figure told Remnick, “I really am offended. This was unprecedented. Outrageous!”

Forgive me for a moment of cynicism, but I worry that this unprecedented and outrageous Trump gambit will partly shape TV coverage of the reality-show president. For all the preening egos on TV screens, few in the news business should feel proud about television’s role in the 2016 campaign.

Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, captured the bottom-line reality of television news when he confided at a Morgan Stanley-sponsored conference in February that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS.” Then, he added, in words that should be emblazoned on the cover of the inauguration program, “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on Donald. Keep going.”

It was not just Moonves.

During the primaries, all three cable networks would stop everything just because Trump was sighted in the same ZIP code as a microphone. Then there was the decision by the network Sunday shows to allow Trump — and only Trump — to call in rather than appear in person. Add to the mix, journalistically repugnant stunts like CNN hiring Corey Lewandowski as an on-air commentator, even though he continued to advise Trump and labored under a nondisclosure agreement.

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Back in 1969, the biggest weapon that Nixon could, in theory, brandish against the three broadcast networks was FCC regulation of their immensely profitable owned-and-operated TV stations. These days, there are additional potential pressure points such as government scrutiny of the proposed merger between Time Warner Cable (which owns CNN) and AT&T.

Please don’t misunderstand: It’s not that broadcast journalists slant their coverage based on these implicit economic threats. But it is easy to imagine how nervous TV news executives could foster a climate of opinion in which there are constraints about going too far in the criticism of the new president. Nothing overt, mind you, just a few well-placed hints about balance.

Every incoming president — even one who directed outpourings of hate at the media pen during his rallies — gets a honeymoon period. Part of it reflects a sense that many viewers and readers crave a post-election moment of national unity. This is the tone that is set by the breathless coverage of the inauguration pageantry.

But television, in particular, needs more from President-elect Trump. The credibility of each network depends on having a constant procession of top Trump advisers and appointees appear on its news shows. The threat of a White House blackout would almost certainly send news executives scurrying to the White House to discuss how to repair relations.

What makes Trump different from other modern presidents is that he appears to derive most of his knowledge of the world from obsessive watching of cable TV. No one in television knows what show, what correspondent, what commentator will set off a Twitter war or worse. For all the invocations of journalistic principle in an age of Trump, there is also the continuing fear that TV news will embrace another time-honored principle — better safe than sorry.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.