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Nixon Hoped Antitrust Threat Would Sway Network CoverageBy Walter Pincus and George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 01, 1997; Page A01
The best way to intimidate the nation's three major television networks, President Richard M. Nixon concluded in 1971, was to keep the constant threat of an antitrust suit hanging over them.
"If the threat of screwing them is going to help us more with their programming than doing it, then keep the threat," Nixon told a White House aide in a tape-recorded Oval Office conversation recently transcribed for the first time. "Don't screw them now. [Otherwise] they'll figure that we're done."
Preoccupied with unfavorable treatment by the news media, Nixon frequently sought ways to retaliate or at least to counterbalance negative portrayals.
White House tapes transcribed for The Washington Post and Newsweek further reveal a president obsessed with efforts to improve his image and eagerly plotting to discredit his detractors. The newly transcribed tapes among 200 hours of conversations released by the National Archives after a long court battle bolster other Nixon archival records, which were compiled before the taping system was installed in February 1971 and which show that some schemes were devised in the earliest days of Nixon's presidency.
Nixon's previously unpublished pronouncements about the television networks occurred during a July 2, 1971, discussion with aide Charles W. Colson, who played a central role in pressuring the news media to change their critical coverage of the Nixon administration.
Colson told Nixon that whether filing an antitrust case against ABC, NBC and CBS "is good or not is perhaps not the major political consideration. But keeping this case in a pending status gives us one hell of a club on an economic issue that means a great deal to those three networks ... something of a sword of Damocles."
Nixon responded, "Our gain is more important than the economic gain. We don't give a goddam about the economic gain. Our game here is solely political. ... As far as screwing them is concerned, I'm very glad to do it."
Although Attorney General John N. Mitchell wanted to file an antitrust suit against the networks because of their monopoly ownership of prime-time programs, according to the Nixon-Colson tape transcript, Nixon decided to have Mitchell "hold it for a while, because I'm trying to get something out of the networks."
Colson then regaled the president with a description of how NBC had readily agreed to carry a prime-time special about the wedding of Nixon's daughter, Tricia, just days after all three networks had covered the June 12, 1971, White House wedding live. Colson had organized a nationwide network of Republicans and then prompted them to inundate NBC with telephone calls demanding a reprise of the wedding. Colson had then persuaded Gulf Oil Co. to sponsor the broadcast.
In describing his accomplishment to Nixon, Colson said NBC would never have run the half-hour wedding special if Nixon hadn't met with the network president, Julian Goodman, and other NBC executives a week earlier, a meeting at which Nixon complained about how "biased" most commentators and reporters were. Following that June 8 meeting, Colson declared, "Julian Goodman jumped out of his chair" to air the wedding again in prime time.
Colson contrasted the quick change of heart with NBC's attitude toward a speech Nixon had given the previous fall at Kansas State University, when the president denounced the outbursts of violence plaguing college campuses. The Reader's Digest publishing company had offered to buy time from NBC to air that speech, Colson said, but the network declined.
"This time," Colson added, "they couldn't oblige us fast enough."
The June 21, 1971, half-hour wedding special drew more than 10 million viewers. "Not bad considering it was a rerun of something 60 million people had watched before," Colson observed the day after the show ran in a note to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman.
As for the antitrust actions, the White House kept the Justice Department from filing suit until April 1972, at which time the government accused the networks of monopolizing prime-time entertainment with their own programs. The suits were dismissed in 1974 after the Nixon White House refused to turn over subpoenaed records. The Ford administration renewed the complaints and subsequent consent decrees curtailed prime-time productions by the networks.
Colson's orchestrated telephone barrage was part of Nixon's media strategy. For instance, in a memo to White House aide Patrick J. Buchanan on June 24, 1969, five months after Nixon took office, Haldeman wrote, "The president feels very strongly that we need to develop a 'Letters to the Editor' and 'Calls to Broadcasters' program somewhere within the administration."
The president wanted "a thorough and efficient Nixon network whose task will be to really raise hell with the people who unfairly take us on, and pour praise on those who take a more productive viewpoint," Haldeman continued. Buchanan originally set up the operation at the Republican National Committee, where plans were made to generate letters "on a moment's notice to either national publications or to the networks as soon as word came from the White House," according to a memo from Buchanan to Haldeman.
But it was the president's TV image that was paramount "really all that matters" Haldeman stressed in another memo, written Jan. 14, 1970.
Nixon's aides paid close attention to daily coverage. In the summer of 1970, for example, the White House conducted weekly surveys of network news, calculating to the second how much air time was devoted to pro-Nixon and anti-Nixon stories. "NBC and CBS have given us a hard time on the economy and the [Vietnam] War," according to a May 1970 memo sent to Colson from another aide. In covering the U.S. economy, NBC earned two "favorable" ratings from the White House, along with 15 "negative" and four "balanced" ratings.
With Nixon's support, Colson visited each of the network presidents in the fall of 1970. Colson expressed pride in one memo to Nixon about how hard he had pressed CBS regarding the way "they slanted the news." Noting the "obvious fear" the networks displayed, Colson surmised that "they're obviously concerned about the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]." In a Sept. 20, 1970, memo to Haldeman, Colson added, "[The networks] are very much afraid of us and are trying hard to prove they are 'good guys.'"
"He [Colson] started very low-key, but the tougher he got, the nicer the networks seemed to get," a Nixon memo to Haldeman observed.
The president subsequently invited network executives individually to Washington. All three networks, Nixon was reminded in a memo before the ABC meeting, were having "some economic problems, which have been accentuated by the ban on cigarette advertising."
In the spring of 1971, CBS was especially sensitive in light of complaints over "The Selling of the Pentagon," an expose» of Defense Department public relations activities. House of Representatives investigators subpoenaed CBS president Frank Stanton for all "outtakes" and other materials left out of the broadcast.
Facing a contempt of Congress citation for refusing to comply, Stanton turned to the Nixon White House for help. He sent a message to Colson in early July through Sandy Lankler, a lawyer who represented CBS and who also was Maryland state Republican chairman. Colson jotted his notes of the conversation on a legal pad: "If we'll help on subpoena, Stanton will cut a deal will 'play ball' with us."
Although a House committee voted to cite Stanton for contempt, the issue was subsequently buried in a vote by the full House in a legislative maneuver arranged by CBS lobbyists, according to memos in the archives and media accounts.
In a phone conversation with Lankler that Colson taped on the day of the House vote, Colson took credit for saving Stanton. He and the CBS lawyer subsequently agreed that Colson would call Lankler once or twice a month, tell him the stories the White House wanted covered and the stories considered unfair; Lankler then would pass the word to CBS headquarters in New York, according to a transcript Colson had made of the taped discussion.
"The deal is that all we ask for is honest coverage and, goddam it, we're going to be looking to you and Frank Stanton to see that we get honest coverage because we have been consistently screwed by CBS," Colson said, according to the transcript. "All we want is to be able to call you and say, 'Sandy, you guys just screwed us again. Fix it.'"
Lankler took Stanton to a meeting with Colson July 15 to nail down the arrangement. According to a memo on the meeting that Colson sent Haldeman, Stanton acknowledged the White House had been badly treated and at one point said he was taking "several steps to correct 'the situation.'"
Closely monitoring CBS's news coverage in the following weeks, Colson believed that he detected a favorable tilt toward the administration.
"I don't know that I can stand it," Colson sarcastically told Haldeman in a July 23 memo. "CBS Morning News yesterday gave us a sickeningly favorable report on the casualty situation [in Vietnam]. ... I don't know what's next, but at the rate they are going, they might even start having [anchor Walter] Cronkite praise the vice president [Spiro T. Agnew]. I'll bet this is really paining these guys."
Lankler has since died. In a new book, "Fighting for the First Amendment Stanton of CBS vs. the Congress and the Nixon White House," which was written with Stanton's cooperation, the former CBS president is quoted as saying he was "apprehensive" about the meeting with Colson because it might be "misconstrued." Stanton "listened to Colson's complaints about CBS coverage, noted them and said he wanted to hear any pitches they wanted to make in the future," according to author Corydon B. Dunham. But Stanton "made no commitments about news coverage," Dunham adds.
Network coverage of the burgeoning Watergate scandal ignited White House wrath anew. A CBS report on the scandal less than a week before Nixon's 1972 reelection provoked an Oval Office discussion on the morning of Oct. 28, a newly transcribed tape shows.
"Despicable," Haldeman told Nixon in describing the report. When Colson entered the office, Nixon said, with apparent sarcasm, "I was telling Bob [Haldeman] how beautifully you're controlling CBS."
After the White House conveyed its anger to CBS, network chairman William S. Paley called Colson on Nov. 3.
"Paley was pleading," Colson exulted in a memo to Haldeman. "He sounded like a whipped dog and was almost on the verge of tears. My voice was steely cold. ... Chalk up one for our new task of destroying the old establishment."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company