Variety is celebrating its 115th birthday and, amid all the upheaval of 2020, it’s good to remember that the entertainment industry has survived constant change and adaptation. That’s reassuring. However, many past articles are upsetting because they’re a reminder that the fight for equality and honesty have also been constant.
In 1974, Variety carried a column that could have been written this year. It began: “TV has survived the most powerful assault ever waged on the medium from men in the highest places in the government.” The reason for this, wrote the columnist, is that “the White House had a twofold aim: Destroy the credibility of the TV news media; and intimidate those in charge so much that they would not dare criticize actions of the Administration.”
Reporter Dave Kaufman was referring to “the all-out attack initiated by the Nixon Administration about three years ago against TV news.” All news organizations were under fire, but “the sharpest attacks were directed at TV because of its impact.”
Among the salvos fired by the government were claims that the news media were putting out “vicious” and “distorted” stories, without giving specific examples of its claims. This was the ’70s version of Donald Trump with his accusations of “fake news.”
Kaufman wrote that the war on the media was fought both in public (via such statements as Agnew’s) and behind the scenes, by operatives such as counsel to the president John Ehrlichman demanding that CBS fire correspondent Dan Rather. It’s not as extreme as Trump demanding that Attorney General Barr prosecute people on Trump’s enemies list, but it obviously comes from the same place. When the facts of Watergate were revealed, “the public lost whatever confidence it had in the attackers.” Agnew was forced to resign, many high-level administration execs wound up in prison and Nixon stepped down a month after this column was written.
Kaufman added that TV reporters deserved no credit for the collapse of the White House’s negative strategies. “Even during the intense heat of it all, networks were frantically covering [press briefings and public statements] of those attacking TV, as if they were supplicants seeking favor of their masters.”
Modern-day lapdogs in the D.C. press are not new. In 1966, after Lyndon Johnson traveled to Asia, Variety reporter Bill Greeley wrote that the administration had set up “traps” about what it wanted the reporters to cover, and the reporters complied, apparently unaware (or uncaring) that they were being manipulated into reporting “news” that was often misleading.
The White House was angry at the media, feeling betrayed by newsies’ on-air criticisms of policies on Vietnam. Network reps also felt betrayed, claiming the White House gave misleading “guidance” on the content of upcoming speeches. For example, the networks cleared time for a speech from LBJ that was promised to be “an important statement on domestic and foreign policy.” It turned out to be “a clearcut slam at congressional Republicans. The webs felt they had been whacked,” Greeley wrote.
Referring to the war on the media, Kaufman optimistically wrote, “What made it dangerous was the utter failure of the Administration to realize that in a free society, one does not seek to destroy a free press, nor does one intimidate it through callous, cynical misuse of power.”
It’s a war still being fought in the 21st century.