When President Nixon learned in September 1971 that "liberal" commentators Robert MacNeil and Sander Vanocur would anchor a new Public Broadcasting Service television program, he deemed it "the last straw." The White House "requested that all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately."
According to documents made public by the federal government yesterday, Nixon and members of his White House staff explored several options to either eliminate or take over control of public television.
One of the documents, among 10,000 pages released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by several groups including the Carnegie Commission, was a memo from White House aide Jon Huntsman to other aides, including H. R. Haldeman.
Marked "Confidential, Eyes Only," the memo summarized a news report that MacNeil and Vanocur would anchor a weekly political program on PBS in 1972.
"The above report greatly disturbed the President, who considered this the last straw," the memo said. "It was requested that all funds for Public Broadcasting be cut immediately. You should work this out so that the House Appropriations Committee gets the word."
In response to that memo, White House aide Clay T. Whitehead, Nixon's chief adviser on telecommunications policy, said such a cutoff was impossible under existing law. "Our efforts, therefore, must be directed to legislative action for 1973 and beyond," he said.
But in a subsequent memo, presidential adviser John Ehrlichman dismissed legislative action, and said "the best alternative would be to take over the management and thereby determine what management decisions are going to be made. Obviously, this is an uphill fight, but seems to me to be the only feasible path to accomplish your ends."
In still another memo, staffer Charles Colson told co-workers not to state their plans "so explicitly" in memos. "This is a serious mistake for whatever records this piece of paper might ultimately end up in or, perish the thought, should it get out."
Several memos referred sarcastically to the MacNeil-Vanocur show as "liberal hour," and one said that future PBS budget cuts "will enable us to reduce drastically the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding of the offensive commentators next summer."
A memo from Whitehead warned that "no matter how firm our control of CPB management, public television at the national level will always attract liberal and far-left producers, writers and commentators."
Whitehead proposed shifting federal funding from the national PBS to the local public broadcasting outlets as a means of influencing the network.
The documents released yesterday also revealed several attempts by the Nixon White House to discredit Vanocur and MacNeil.
In a memo to Haldeman in November, 1971, Whitehead said "we planted with the trade press the idea that their obvious liberal bias would reflect adversely on public television.
"We then began to encourage speculation about Vanocur's and MacNeil's salaries," Whitehead added, and under pressure CPB officials finally revealed that they were making $85,000 and $65,000 respectively.
Whitehead said that, in the following two weeks, "We will quietly solicit critical articles regarding Vanocur's salary coming from public funds (larger than that of the vice president, the chief justice, and the cabinet) and his obvious bias."
Whitehead said he would also "quietly encourage station managers around the country to put pressure on CPB to put more balance in their programing or risk the possibility of local stations not carrying these programs."
Nixon had a long feud with the CPB, and at one point in 1972 even vetoed funding for the network.