Deep down in a cache of documents at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum sits a 15-page memorandum entitled “A Plan For Putting The GOP On TV News.”
The ideas underpinning the memo fueled massive changes in both media and political strategy during the past half-century. Those changes, in turn, explain why Republicans have reacted with so little alarm to the findings of the Mueller report. President Trump, unlike Nixon, has a media bulwark to shape perceptions of political events and to prevent the formation of a national consensus on his unfitness for office.
The intersection of television and politics was still in its relative infancy in 1970, but in the Nixon plan, his aides expressed a clear and cold-eyed understanding of television’s power: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.”
This knowledge prompted Nixon’s aides to propose a media strategy that would avoid “the censorship, the priorities, and the prejudices of network news selectors and disseminators.” The plan was to have a team in the White House that would produce and edit “pro-administration, videotape, hard news actualities” and then ship them daily to the top two local newscasts in each of the 40 largest local TV news markets. The centerpiece of the segments would be remarks from U.S. senators on the “hot” issues of the day.
This cutting-edge strategy may seem surprising coming from Nixon’s White House, for conventional wisdom holds that Nixon was bad at television, and with good reason. Nixon suffered a bruising loss to John F. Kennedy in the first presidential election to include a broadcast TV debate. Afterward, Nixon pinned his loss on Kennedy’s camera-ready style, dismissing television as a “gimmick.”
By the time he entered the Oval Office in 1969, Nixon had a very different understanding of the medium. During the campaign, he met television producer Roger Ailes just before a guest appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show.” Nixon made what seemed to be a joke about how a man has to rely on the gimmick of television to be elected president. Ailes, the show’s producer, did not hold back.
“I told him, I’m sorry, sir, but I disagree with you. Television is certainly not a gimmick. It’s here to stay, a major means of communication, instant sight and sound around the world, and you should understand how to use it,” Ailes recounted in a 1970 interview with U.S. News & World Report. “Mr. Nixon stopped for a minute and looked at me. I thought maybe I’d lost him. But he shut his briefcase and said, ‘Explain that to me.’ For the better part of the next hour he asked me questions about television.”
The rest is TV and political history. Ailes not only advised Nixon on how to improve his on-air performance, but he also orchestrated political events that were strategically designed down to the last detail to maximize their impact on broadcast TV.
Although Ailes did not write the memo uncovered by Cook, the president’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, routed it straight to him for feedback. Ailes enthusiastically scribbled all kinds of comments and questions in the margins — and also expressed his interest in actually producing pro-Nixon news segments.
The original plan outlined a system for creating news stories that would ship to local stations all over the country, a strategy more akin to the recent model of Sinclair Broadcast Group than a national cable network like Fox News Channel.
In 1974, Ailes started running Television News Incorporated (TVN). Owned by the conservative multimillionaire Joseph Coors, TVN was pretty close to the early vision of the Nixon staff. According to a report by Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson, it was at TVN where Ailes picked up the term “fair and balanced.”
TVN failed relatively quickly. It would only be with the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s that conservative broadcast media took off. In 1996, Ailes joined with media mogul Rupert Murdoch to launch Fox News, forever changing the political news landscape and giving conservatives the sort of television exposure dreamed of by Nixon and his staff.
While the format was different from what they proposed, it enabled conservative framing of the news and offered an alternative transmission belt that did not require going through mainstream journalistic gatekeepers.
Fast forward 20 years: A New York reality television star runs for president. He does not need the training Nixon did. Donald Trump could actually train other candidates to simplify a message, reflexively repeat it and masterfully manipulate the media to maximize exposure. But even with these skills, the rise of conservative media has proved crucial for Trump.
It is eerie when you consider the range of common practices shared by Nixon and Trump: secret payoffs to silence people, banning certain reporters from the White House, the use of “law and order” as a political weapon, the use of racist language, a proclivity for secretly recording conversations — and being investigated by their own government for obstructing justice.
At the time Nixon was being investigated over Watergate on live TV, he did not have the national broadcast mouthpiece Trump has in Fox (along with conservative talk radio and digital outlets).
This change has been critical. These outlets have insisted the misdeeds uncovered by Robert S. Mueller III actually exonerate Trump and that the whole investigation is a partisan “witch hunt.” In the hours following the release of the Mueller report, hosts like Fox’s Tucker Carlson breathlessly declared victory on behalf of Trump. Crucially, Carlson extended his commentary to another conservative media theme, one that would have made Nixon smile: “These are hysterical children. They should not be in journalism. But they are. In fact, they run journalism! And they have no plans on giving up their power.”
This practice of running down the media fuels a world in which Trump can dismiss any reporting he dislikes as “fake news” — and have millions of right-leaning Americans believe him. As a result, no one believes Trump risks suffering the same fate as Nixon. Nixon resigned after key GOP House and Senate members told the president he had lost their support, making impeachment inevitable. It seems wildly unrealistic today to expect any Republican will break ranks to demand accountability from the president.
The irony of a claim like Carlson’s is that, even if one conceded to his assertion that mainstream journalists are in the bag for the left, he wildly overstates their power — and understates Fox’s. The GOP now has its own partisan cheerleader, and it has made all the difference.
If Trump is able to avoid resigning his office over the next 18 months by retaining the fealty of enough members of the GOP, to a great degree he will have Nixon and Ailes to thank for it.