How many readers here remember the title of this piece, or who uttered those words?
How many remember the name Spiro Agnew?
I am old as dirt, and I remember.
Agnew was Richard Nixon’s Vice President. The former governor of a corrupt political establishment in Maryland, he was no advocate of media honesty. Quite the opposite. I have always attributed those words to him, but he didn’t come up with them. They were penned by William Safire, a White House speechwriter at the time. I always thought better of Safire, and was disappointed to learn that he put these words in Agnew’s foul mouth.
As Will Bunch[i] said:
“The words that William Safire penned and that Spiro Agnew mouthed actually had enormous impact that has lasted until this day. They helped foster among conservatives and the folks that Nixon called ‘the silent majority‘ a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, a mistrust that grew over two generations into a form of hatred.
It also started a dangerous spiral of events — journalists started bending backwards to kowtow to their conservative critics, beginning in the time of Reagan, an ill-advised shift that did not win back a single reader or viewer on the right. Instead, it caused a lot of folks on the left and even the center to wonder why the national media had stopped doing its job, stopped questioning authority.”
Bunch had a lot more to say about Safire, as you can read here:
Here’s one excerpt that bears repeating:
“Today, the vast majority of Americans of all political stripes — conservative, liberal, centrist — don’t believe the “nattering nabobs of negativism, a.k.a. the mainstream media, in record numbers. In the long run, a New Media is emerging that may ultimately prove to be better than what it is replacing, but in the meantime the cost to America in the journalism that was lost during the run-up to the Iraq war and Wall Street’s hijacking of the U.S. economy is incalculable.”
Bunch wrote that in 2009. The “New Media” that has emerged has not proven to be better. It is infinitely worse…QAnon, Newsmax, and all the other far-Right-Wing conspiracy peddlers have caused confusion, fear and hate in our society.
It would be interesting to hear what Safire would say today about those four words that he penned fifty years ago. They started a decline of political discourse in this country that has degenerated into confrontation and demonization, especially during the last four disastrous Trump years. Will we ever recover, as a nation, to civil political disagreement, and a search for compromise and accord?
[i] Will Bunch, currently a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of a popular political blog called “Attytood,” which has a progressive bent and a national readership, has been covering presidential races since Reagan’s re-election in 1984. He has won numerous journalism awards, sharing the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting with the New York Newsday staff.