Fighting for the First Amendment: Stanton of CBS vs. Congress and the Nixon White House

By Wetherington, Roger V. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Fighting for the First Amendment: Stanton of CBS vs. Congress and the Nixon White House


Wetherington, Roger V., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Fighting for the First Amendment: Stanton of CBS vs. Congress and the Nixon White House. Corydon B. Dunham, with a foreword by Walter Cronkite. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997. 233 pp. $24.95 pbk.

This is a fascinating report of the 1971 battle by the CBS president, Frank Stanton, against a congressional subpoena for outtakes of the CBS documentary Selling of the Pentagon.

The dispute arose over congressional concerns about CBS's editing techniques, particularly its selection and rearrangement of quotes in interviews. Some members of the House, led by Congressman Harley O. Staggers, feared that CBS distorted the facts and manipulated the public.

From Stanton's perspective the central issue was constitutional - whether broadcast journalists had the same right as the print media to report on government without congressional review of news judgments. The author, Corydon B. Dunham, a former general counsel and executive vice president of NBC, writes: "First Amendment protection means reporters may make mistakes without investigation and sanction. If there is no such protection but rather government investigation of claimed errors, the atmosphere will be one of deterrence."

He warns that the same questions apply today to the Information Superhighway.

The author is clearly knowledgeable about the broadcasting business - broadcast law, federal regulation, relations between networks and their affiliates, advertising, audience measurement, and management. He and his subject, who was president of CBS for nearly thirty years, clearly know far more than Stanton's opponents did about television and how to make a TV documentary. For me, in fact, one of the book's startling revelations was how little members of Congress knew about the workings of television in the early 1970s.

Much of the material here has been published before; it is drawn from books, congressional records, and White House files disclosed during the Watergate investigations. What is new is Dunham's series of interviews with White House officials, members of Congress and their staffs, and leading figures in the media, especially Stanton and the documentary s producer, Peter Davis. Davis, as part of CBS's strategy, was not allowed to defend his editing decisions in 1971.

Also apparently new is the confirmation by Charles W. Colson, special counsel to President Nixon, that the president had privately given House Republican leaders the "green light" to pursue the confrontation with CBS. Publicly Nixon said he did not support the congressional subpoena.

Dunham's interviews with Stanton are reproduced extensively here, with paragraphs of direct quoting.

Although the account of Stanton's views is often uncritical, with virtually no quibble from Dunham, the author does let Stanton's critics speak for themselves. Congressman Staggers, a Democrat of West Virginia and chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, is described as knowing little about broadcasting. But he is also portrayed as "a warm and effective politician, personable," religious and determined to uphold the dignity of the House and the right of Congress to investigate television news.

For Staggers, the issue was "a moral question" that had "nothing to do with constitutional niceties," Dunham writes.

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