Spiro Agnew's Media Legacy: Trump, Obama and Time Magazine

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The late Vice President Spiro Agnew, President Nixon’s famous-in-the-day number two, would recognize exactly what he was seeing had he been reading Time magazine in December of 2008 and then again in December of 2016.

The difference in the treatment of Presidents Obama and Trump by the media can perhaps be best symbolized by two Time magazine covers in December of 2008 and 2016. Both men were newly elected presidents of the United States. Both were selected as Time’s “Person of the Year.”

And there the similarity stops.

On the 2008 cover there is a smiling Obama. On the 2016 cover the image is of an unsmiling, grim-looking Trump. The smiling Obama cover, other than bearing the title “Person of the Year”, is caption-less. The Trump cover similarly headlines “Person of the Year.” But aside the image of the unsmiling new president is this caption:

Donald Trump: President of the Divided States of America

The Obama story opens with a reverent paean to the physical layout and contents of his transition office before getting to a description of the new president, gushing over his “Obi-Wan Kenobi calm” and “soothing monotone.” The magazine rhapsodizes on Obama “ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth — the one about boundless opportunity — has plenty of juice left in it.”

The Trump story? That opens on a, um, slightly different note. It begins:

This is the 90th time we have named the person who had the greatest influence, for better or worse, on the events of the year. So which is it this year: Better or worse? The challenge for Donald Trump is how profoundly the country disagrees about the answer.

….For reminding America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year.

Got that? Obama was “Obi-Wan Kenobi” but Trump is a demagogue, a feeder of “furies” and a live-streamer of “fears” who is just possibly the worst person on the entire Planet Earth in the preceding year. (For more on the two Time "Person of the Year" issues, see NewsBusters.) This in a year when ISIS was beheading children., among other horrors.

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Obama, on the Time cover barely a month before his selection as Person of the Year and right after winning his first presidential election, was photo-shopped as a smiling FDR. Trump is depicted as, no kidding, “sinister”, possibly another “Joe McCarthy and Charles Coughlin”, the latter the vitriolic, rabidly anti-Semitic Catholic priest who was a 1930’s radio personality. (Depicted as a right-wing populist, Father Coughlin was in fact a hardcore left-winger. But of course.)

One could go on here. But these dueling Time Person of the Year covers of two newly elected presidents of the United States eight years apart symbolize a harsh reality: there is a vivid and stark difference in the wider liberal media between the coverage of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Obama, as MSNBC’s Morning Joe Scarborough noted, came into office hailed as a political “Black Jesus.” Trump was compared in the pages of the Washington Post and elsewhere  to, really, Adolf Hitler.

Over at the Daily Caller there was this write-up of the White House view as expressed by press secretary Sean Spicer. The headline:

Spicer Unloads: The Media Has A Double Standard For Trump, Obama

Among other things, the Daily Caller said:

WASHINGTON — Sean Spicer unloaded on the media at the press briefing Thursday because he believes reporters are holding President Trump to a different standard than Barack Obama.

The press secretary argued that there was no similar outrage over a president weighing in on judicial matters when Obama did it during his State of the Union in 2010. In that address, Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Citizens United.

…’There is clearly a double standard,’ he continued. ‘There was no outrage from this briefing room. He is free to speak his mind. Where has this outrage been for the last 10 years? The part of the reason he got elected is because he speaks his mind. He is not going to sit back when he feels very passionately about something, like this executive order. He’s concerned and he is doing what he can to keep this country safe, and there has been a lot of activity to stand in the way.’

All of which is doubtless dismissed by the media. But here’s the problem, as succinctly captured in this headline from USA Today:

Poll shows Trump administration is more trusted than the news media

Yes, you read that right. The poll in question is from Emerson College. And over here at Breitbart is this interesting detail: 

A poll conducted by Emerson College shows voters see the Trump administration as more truthful than media.

A majority of registered voters, 53 percent, said the media are untruthful, while 39 percent said they were untruthful.

Why is this so? Let’s rocket back in time to November 13, 1969. Vice President Spiro Agnew is giving a speech to the Mid-West Regional Republican Committee Meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. Not exactly a barn burning event. Yet the media was out in force to cover Richard Nixon’s vice-president. Why?  Here’s an excerpt that will make it immediately clear what caught the attention of all those media outlets of the day once they were informed of what Agnew was going to say.

I think it's obvious from the cameras here that I didn't come to discuss the ban on cyclamates or DDT.

I have a subject which I think if of great importance to theAmerican people. Tonight I want to discuss the importance of the television-news medium to the American people.

No nation depends more on the intelligent judgment of its citizens. No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on 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?

…Every American has a right to disagree with the President of the United States, and to express publicly that disagreement.

But the President of the United States has a right to communicate directly with the people who elected him, and the people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a Presidential address, without having the President's words and thoughts characterized through the prejudice of hostile critics before they can even be digested.

When Winston Churchill rallied public opinion to stay the course against Hitler's Germany, he did not have to contend with a gaggle of commentators raising doubts about whether he was reading public opinion right, or whether Britain had the stamina to see the war through. When President Kennedy rallied the nation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, his address to the people was not chewed over by a round-table of critics who disparaged the course of action he had asked America to follow.

The purpose of my remarks tonight is to focus your attention on this little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every Presidential address, but more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation.

First, let us define that power. At least forty-million Americans each night, it is estimated, watch the network news. Seven million of them view ABC; the remainder being divided between NBC and CBS. According to Harris polls and other studies, for millions of Americans, the networks are the sole source of national and world news.

…How is this network news determined? 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 is to reach the public. This selection is made from the 90 to 180 minutes that may be available. Their powers of choice are broad. They decide what forty to fifty-million Americans will learn of the day's events in the nation and the world.

…We cannot measure this power and influence by 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 local obscurity to national prominence within a week. They can reward some politicians with national exposure, and ignore others. For millions of Americans, the network reporter who covers a continuing issue, like ABM or Civil Rights, becomes, in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury.

…A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official, or the wisdom of a government policy. One Federal Communications Commissioner considers the power of the networks to equal that of local, state, and federal governments combined. Certainly, it represents a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.

What do Americans know of the men who wield this power? Of the men who produce and direct the network news, the nation knows practically nothing. Of the commentators, most Americans know little, other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence, seemingly well informed on every important matter.

And on Agnew rolled. The speech was unprecedented - and it was more effective than even the Nixon White House could have possibly imagined. What Spiro Agnew accomplished with that speech in Des Moines was to quite openly and publicly turn the tables on the mainstream media by casting doubt on their ability to tell the truth in an unbiased fashion. From that moment on, the media - television networks and newspapers and magazines all - found their credibility increasingly under assault. This before Fox News and talk radio - and the Media Research Center - were even a gleam in the conservative eye.

Now? This 48-year-long fight against the perceived bias of the American media has not only taken its toll on the media. It has ratcheted up the perception with a majority of the American people (as the Emerson poll illustrates) that, as shown by those eight-year-apart Time cover stories on Presidents Obama and Trump, the media is not just hopelessly and routinely but determinedly biased against Republicans and conservatives, with any Republican president or presidential nominee a sitting duck. Particularly, now, President Trump.

The difference this time? The difference is that the Trump White House - led by the President himself - is forcefully fighting back. Directly and routinely singling out various outlets and questioning everything from the accuracy of specific facts to the reporting of specific reporters.

How will this end? The betting here is that it won’t end. For the duration of the Trump White House the media writ large and writ small is going to be given what might me called “extreme vetting” by this White House. There will be an endless back and forth between president and press that once upon a time would have been unthinkable.

And wherever he is, one suspects the late Vice President Agnew, who almost fifty years began the practice of directly taking on the media, is smiling.