When America Actually Trusted the Media
When America Actually Trusted the Media

When America Actually Trusted the Media

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2022

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and John Mitchell in the Oval Office in 1971. National Archives

19. Agnew led a direct attack on the American media during the first Nixon Administration

Under Agnew, and with the support of senior Nixon Administration officials, the American news media came under attack as it never had before. Agnew referred to the media as a “small and unelected elite”. According to the Vice-president, it was up to the media moguls to decide, “…what forty-to fifty million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world”. In Agnew’s estimation, what they chose to present in their printed pages and televised broadcasts was decidedly un-American. Agnew defined what he called a “credibility gap” opening between the “the national news media and the American people”. The Nixon Administration did far more than just deride the media in speeches and press essays. Journalists had their White House press credentials pulled in response to what the President felt was negative coverage.

Some journalists found themselves suddenly the target of continuing Internal Revenue Service audits and investigations. The White House tapped phone lines, including for calls not made to the offices of the administration. Agnew’s attacks rang a bell with conservatives, especially those who continued to support the war in Vietnam and opposed the changes over Civil Rights and desegregation. In 1973, after Nixon and Agnew had won a second term in a landslide, Agnew was revealed to have accepted bribes and kickbacks from contractors while in office as governor of Maryland. He also evaded federal taxes on the money. By then, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate Scandal. Agnew resigned as Vice-president and pleaded guilty to tax evasion in a plea deal. Nixon later claimed that Agnew had been hounded from office by a vengeance-driven media. In a 1980 memoir, Agnew claimed the White House “coerced” him into resigning.

When America Actually Trusted the Media
Since the resignation of Richard Nixon, attacks on the media by political partisans have increased steadily. Wikimedia

20. Americans’ trust or distrust of the media depends on their political views

Since the scandals of the Nixon Administration, many others have plagued the federal government. There were the Abscam Scandal, the arms for hostages scandal (Iran-Contra), the 1980s Savings and Loans crisis, the Whitewater Investigation, and many more. The media covered them all, and since the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle in the 1980s in great detail. Still, whether that coverage has been trusted by the people has depended in large part on individual political orientation. Just as it has since the first press attacks during the Washington Administration, a large body of Americans trusts the media when they are told what they want to hear. When they are not, the media is labeled as biased, likely to provide slanted, or even blatantly false information, based on their own political positions and beliefs.

To firm conservatives, the American media is hopelessly biased towards liberals and socialism. To far-left supporters, the media is conservative and supportive of authoritarianism. Neither side trusts the media outlets they have determined are aligned with the other. Americans no longer obtain their news from trusted sources such as Walter Cronkite, or professional journalists. Instead, the bulk of their “knowledge” comes from entertainers, trained in fields other than journalism. Or, it comes from social media, repetition of unverified claims which gain momentum through internet sites. Yet the media still fares better than Congress when it comes to public trust. In a 2016 Pew Research poll, about 24% of respondents said they trusted national news organizations either “not too much” or “not at all”. In the same poll, 69% expressed distrust of Congress.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“American newspapers during ratification, 1787-1788”. Article, Center for the Study of the American Constitution. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Online

“About Gazette of the United States”. Article, Chronicling America. Library of Congress, Online

“National Gazette”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“American Newspapers, 1800-1860. An Introduction”. Article, Illinois Library. Online

“America’s Manifest Destiny”. Exhibit, Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Online

“John Brown’s Day of Reckoning”. Fergus M. Bordewich, Smithsonian Magazine. October, 2009

“Our Story”. Article, Associated Press. Media Online

“Horace Greeley: American Journalist”. Article, Britannica Media Online

“The New York Times”. Article, New World Encyclopedia. Media Online

“Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper”. Article, American Antiquarian Society. Media Online

“William Lloyd Garrison”. Article, National Park Service. Media Online

“Joseph Pulitzer: American Newspaper Publisher”. Article, Britannica Online

“US Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895-98”. Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Media Online

“Remember the Maine”. Tom Miller, Smithsonian Magazine. February, 1998

“Muckrakers of the Progressive Era”. Article, Students of History. Media Online

“History of Commercial Radio”. Article, Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Media Online

“Beginnings. Excerpt from ‘That’s the Way It Is'”. Charles L. Ponce de Leon, University of Chicago Press Media. Media Online

“The Huntley – Brinkley Report”. Article, Treasure State Lifestyles (Montana). Online

“The most trusted man in America”. Richard Galant, CNN. June 5, 2012. Online

“When the Revolution was Televised”. Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic. April 1, 2018

“Attacks on press recall Agnew’s ire”. Theo Lippman Jr, Baltimore Sun. July 9, 2006

“Spiro Agnew and the Des Moines Speech”. Charles Holden, Des Moines Register Media. November 10, 2019

“Spiro Agnew and the corruption defense”. Jonathan P. Baird, Concord Monitor. December 27, 2018

“The Iran Contra Affair 1986-1987”. Larry J. Sabato, Washington Post Special Reports. 1998. Online

“Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies, Trusted Voice of TV News”. Douglas Martin, The New York Times. July 17, 2009