November 13, 1969 – Vice President Spiro Agnew on the Power of News Media to Shape Debate

Spiro Agnew (1918 – 1996) served as the 39th Vice President of the United States from 1969 to 1973 under President Richard Nixon.

In 1973, Agnew was investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy. He was allowed to plead no contest to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967, with the condition that he resign the office of Vice President. Nixon replaced Agnew as Vice President with House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency after Nixon resigned from the White House over the Watergate scandal.

Agnew was known for his scathing and alliterative criticisms of political opponents, including “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Most of these were written by White House speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan.

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One speech he gave, on this day in history, has been named to the list of Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century. It concerned television news coverage, and his words remain relevant today. He said in part:

I want to discuss the importance of the television medium to the American people. No nation depends more on the intelligent judgment of its citizens. And no medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on such vast power. So nowhere should there be more conscientious responsibility exercised than by the news media. The question is, “Are we demanding enough of our television news presentations?” “And are the men of this medium demanding enough of themselves?”

A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that’s to reach the public. . . . They decide what 40 to 50 million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and in the world. We cannot measure this power and influence by the traditional democratic standards, for these men can create national issues overnight. They can make or break by their coverage and commentary a moratorium on the war. They can elevate men from obscurity to national prominence within a week. They can reward some politicians with national exposure and ignore others.

And in the networks’ endless pursuit of controversy, we should ask: “What is the end value — to enlighten or to profit?” “What is the end result — to inform or to confuse?” “How does the ongoing exploration for more action, more excitement, more drama serve our national search for internal peace and stability?”

You can read the entire speech here.

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