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Richard Nixon vs. the Media

Richard Nixon vs. the Media

by William H. Benson

March 9, 2017

     Lyndon Baines Johnson was ensconced in the White House when the war in Vietnam was raging and spinning out of control. The nation’s media—the newspapers and television—reported to the public the war’s horrific battles, and the numbers killed each week. It was an ugly time.

     On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite offered “a rare, brief, and potent editorial” on the war at the close of his television news broadcast. He said that the U.S. should cease the fighting now.  ‘[T]he only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”     

     In the White House, LBJ watched Cronkite’s editorial and then remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” meaning that if he ran, he would lose the 1968 election. Two weeks later, on March 12, LBJ announced he would decline to run for a second term. Walter Cronkite, a member of the unelected media, helped lead Johnson out of the Presidency.

     The British historian, Paul Johnson, said that Johnson’s “will to win the war sagged at this time,” mainly because of “media criticism, especially from its East Coast power-centers.” He also said that, “The trouble with the Washington establishment was that it believed what it read in the newspapers—always a fatal error for politicians.”

     If Johnson had difficulty with the media, his successor into the Oval Office, Richard Nixon, initiated an all-out war. His animosity for the press was reciprocated. Each loathed the other.

     In 1962, Nixon had run for California’s governor and lost. After the election, Nixon lashed out at the press. “Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” That proved not true, because he won the 1968 Presidential election, and endured several press conferences thereafter.

     Nixon displayed a paranoid attitude towards the press. He told his staff, “Remember, the press is the enemy. When news is concerned, nobody in the press is a friend. They are all enemies.”

     One commentator at the time said, “The men and the movement that broke Lyndon Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard Nixon in 1969; breaking a president is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time round.”

     Paul Johnson remarks that, “It was something new for the American media to wish to diminish the presidency.” Instead of “goading a comatose legislature” into action, the press now scrutinized and attacked the President, convinced that “something was going on.” Johnson said, “The anti-Nixon campaign, especially in the Washington Post and the New York Times, was continual, venomous, unscrupulous, inventive, and sometimes unlawful.”

     On June 13, 1971, Nixon and his staff were startled to read the “Pentagon papers,” in the New York Times, “a 7,000 word survey of American involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War Two until 1968.” Its author was Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand Corporation employee.

     Convinced that White House employees had leaked certain information to Ellsberg, Nixon’s staff assembled an anti-leak unit that received the name “Plumbers.” It was a short step then to criminal activities: breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and into the Democratic Party’s campaign office in Washington’s Watergate Hotel.

     Nixon learned of these events afterwards, but then he participated in the coverup, a mistake that led to his impeachment and forced his resignation.

     Our current president, after just weeks into the job, decided to attack the media, because he did not appreciate all that he read in the newspapers and saw and heard on television. He lashed out at the reporters and called them “dishonest,” peddlers of “fake news,” and said the press “is out of control.”

     He then labelled the media, “the enemy of the people,” a quick phrase that the twentieth century’s most vicious tyrants pinned on anyone who dared to question their authority. Senator John McCain remarked that an attack upon the press’s veracity and legitimacy is “how dictators get started.”

     On February 25, the president announced he will not attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at the end of April. Only one of him against dozens of reporters.

     When a hostile press confronts a president, some, like Johnson, will rollover and die, but others, like Nixon, will declare war. Journalists, though, when provoked, can and will fight back. “If anything, ‘journalism as an institution has reasserted itself’ in the Age of Trump.” Today the media is convinced that “something is going on” between Trump and Putin, and they will leave no stone unturned.

     Nixon learned too late Mark Twain’s maxim, “Never pick a fight with people who buy printers ink by the barrel.” Breaking a president is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the third time around. One wonders who will win this war, Trump or the media?