Friday, January 24, 2014

Nixonland 6: A Free Press

On page 438 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein contrasts the criticism of the media by Richard Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, with Thomas Jefferson’s approach:

“A querulous American press—-far more opinionated, nasty, and partisan than anything Nixon would have to suffer—-predated American government.  Thomas Jefferson used to lay out the most scabrous articles about him in the White House antechamber where emissaries of foreign potentates waited to be received by him.  They would stride forth, waving the pages: Mr. President, are you aware of the things they’re writing about you?  Jefferson found nothing so delightful.  Yes, he would reply, and they’re welcome to say it, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  This is what America means.  But Agnew argued these gentlemen of the media were a usurping cabal.”

I thought of the miniseries John Adams as I read this.  In one scene, Secretary of State Jefferson has a hard time getting interested in a cabinet meeting.  He had just been in France, where revolutionary fervor was in the air.  Because he was so excited about the movements against French authoritarianism, the tedious day-to-day details of running the American government were not of particular interest to him.

Jefferson valued the American experiment and the freedom that accompanied it.  Consequently, he loved freedom of the press, even when the press was attacking him.  I admire Jefferson for this.  But I can also understand Agnew’s criticisms of the media.  Here President Nixon would be, laying out an agenda before the American people, and, before the American people could even digest it, the pundits would be nitpicking what Nixon said and saying that Nixon was wrong.  I don’t think that the media should be an arm of the government, as exists within many dictatorships.  But I do believe that people should be exposed to different perspectives when they turn on the news.

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