Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said yesterday that the "elite media" who produce the nation's leading newspapers and network television shows are "profoundly out of step with the ideals and goals of the American people."
"They are produced by men and women, who, if they do not hate American virtues, they certainly have a smug contempt for American ideals and principles," Helms told a major conservative gathering.
"The real threat to freedom, the real threat to freedom of speech and the real threat to our constitutional system is on our TV screens every evening and on the front pages of our newspapers every day," he added later.
Attacks on the news media are a standard part of Helms' stump rhetoric. But Helms' remarks yesterday had further importance because they came while he is working with a campaign to buy stock in CBS to counterattack the networks' "liberal bias."
He urged those attending the 12th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering that President Reagan addressed later, to join the stock-buying effort. The campaign is being run by Fairness in Media Inc., a North Carolina group led by one of Helms' longtime political allies, Carter Wrenn.
Responding to Helms' speech, Edward M. Joyce, president of CBS News, accused the three-term senator of engaging in a "transparent attempt to control the nation's information flow."
"This is not the first time in recent history when we in journalism have been under attack from a group which wants its narrow ideological bias to control the press and ultimately the country," Joyce said. "These groups don't just want their voice to be heard; they want theirs to be the only voices to be heard."
Although mentioning other news organizations, Helms, a former TV commentator and newspaperman, centered his attacks on The Washington Post and CBS.
"CBS has its camera on you, Jesse," someone shouted as the senator stepped to the podium to address representatives of some of America's main conservative organizations. "You're the big boss."
Helms said he often wonders why news accounts are so different from events that "I personally witnessed early that day or the day before." Sometimes, he said, "I tell my wife there must have been two meetings of the Foreign Relations Committee: the one I attended and the one I read about in The Washington Post."
Helms also suggested that public figures may need stronger weapons to combat "character assassination" by the media, and said he would like to see legislation passed to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's New York Times v. Sullivan decision of 1964. That decision required public figures in libel cases to prove that reporting on them was motivated by malice.
That decision, he said, created "an impossible standard of justice for victims of libel" and promoted arrogance in the media. Public figures, Helms said, now are "fair game, free game. Take a potshot. Run them down. Kill him. Assassinate his character."
The North Carolina Republican said he does not want the media "to be a conduit for conservative views," but he would like "an even bite at the apple." All that Fairness in Media Inc. is saying, he added, "is that maybe there ought to be a board of directors at CBS, ABC and NBC that would simply insist on objectivity."
At one point in his address, Helms looked at reporters in the back of the room and said, "I don't want to offend any of you fellows back there. Good luck to you, and I hope your dog comes out and wags its tail when you come home tonight."
Later, he gave two reporters a ride in his car back to their offices.