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Nixon hated PBS, however his Watergate scandal put it on the map

Fifty years in the past this week, the Public Broadcasting System was launched, giving one other viewing option to a TV viewers that grew up with the three-network hegemony of ABC, CBS and NBC.

Nonprofit academic TV stations had been round because the mid-1950s, and lots of of them shared their regionally produced packages reminiscent of “The French Chef” with Julia Child. It was the formation of PBS in 1969 and its official launch on Oct. 5, 1970, that united these retailers right into a community that aired packages throughout the nation concurrently, giving them nationwide clout.

While the service introduced Child and progressive packages reminiscent of “Sesame Street” to wider audiences, the early years of PBS had been fraught, largely on account of a battle over whether or not the service needs to be within the information enterprise. It didn’t assist that PBS was depending on authorities funding throughout the presidency of Richard Nixon, whose hostility and mistrust of the media is barely rivaled by the present occupant of the Oval Office.

But a giant hit present can change all the pieces for a tv community. For PBS, it was the Watergate hearings.

By the time PBS went on the air, Nixon was already at conflict with the TV information divisions he believed had been biased in opposition to him. His administration even issued threats about denying broadcast license renewals for TV stations in the event that they did not get in line. He didn’t need one other nationwide information outlet criticizing his presidency, particularly one receiving federal funding.

“I think it was primarily the fear of a fourth, as he saw it, ‘liberal’ network,” stated Robert MacNeil, the founding anchor of public tv’s nightly newscast “PBS NewsHour.”

There was even dissent over offering information among the many operators of native public TV stations, who had been content material with providing largely controversy-free academic and cultural programming for his or her communities. “It was widely believed in the educational television world that to introduce news or public affairs would create such animosity that funding would dry up,” MacNeil recalled.

In the early 1970s, information-hungry TV viewers largely trusted the three networks’ half-hour night newscasts such because the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.” Live, steady protection of breaking information occasions — now a staple of cable information and the web — was uncommon. Washington protection largely consisted of journalists delivering brief stories whereas standing in entrance of the White House.

In May 1973, a Senate choose committee opened hearings on the actions of Nixon’s reelection marketing campaign, lower than a 12 months after the bungled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters within the Watergate advanced in Washington.

Robert MacNeil, proper, and Jim Lehrer had been first teamed to cowl the Watergate hearings for PBS in 1973.


While the inquiry that ultimately revealed the involvement of the president’s reelection committee within the break-in and the cover-up by Nixon was of significant significance, the business TV networks had been in a quandary over how a lot of the hearings to current stay. Gavel-to-gavel protection meant preempting common programming and shedding promoting income.

At one level, ABC, CBS and NBC went to a every day rotation of steady protection; one community confirmed the hearings whereas the others caught to their recreation reveals and cleaning soap operas.

But for noncommercial PBS, the hearings had been a chance. For 47 days and nights in 1973, the service lined each minute of the proceedings and, for viewers who missed the continuing daytime saga in that pre-DVR period, reran them in prime time. This created the inspiration for PBS’ nightly information program “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” which exists immediately because the “PBS NewsHour.”

“Going wall to wall and covering every minute of the Watergate hearings really helped put PBS on the map,” stated Judy Woodruff, the present anchor of this system.

MacNeil had been a veteran journalist with the BBC; throughout an earlier stint with NBC News he supplied on-the-scene reporting of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He first joined PBS as host of its weekly dialogue program “Washington Week In Review” and was slated to cowl the 1972 presidential marketing campaign for the brand new community alongside Sander Vanocur, who had additionally labored at NBC.

President Nixon with stacks of transcripts of the White House tapes in an April 29, 1974, address.

President Nixon with stacks of transcripts of the White House tapes in an April 29, 1974, deal with.

(Associated Press)

But Nixon seen Vanocur as an acolyte of Kennedy, who had defeated him within the 1960 presidential race. The administration led a marketing campaign to discredit the hiring of the anchors, leaking tales about their salaries that had been being paid by taxpayers ($65,000 for MacNeil and $85,000 for Vanocur — greater than the vice chairman or the chief justice of the Supreme Court). The White House referred to as for cuts to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the federal government funding arm for PBS.

Vanocur stop, and the plans for protecting the 1972 marketing campaign by no means got here to fruition. But when the Watergate hearings had been scheduled, PBS acquired sufficient assist from its stations to cowl them.

Jim Karayn, a PBS government from Los Angeles, teamed MacNeil up with Jim Lehrer, a former Dallas newspaper journalist. Lehrer had been working behind the scenes within the PBS public affairs unit, the place his duties included getting stations to run a program about venereal illness, a subject business networks declined to cowl.

Together the duo logged tons of of hours on the air throughout the hearings, which introduced dramatic exchanges into the nation’s dwelling rooms every day.

The real-time drama — together with White House counsel John Dean’s assertion that there was “a cancer on the presidency” and Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield’s revelation {that a} recording system was put in within the Oval Office — enthralled audiences throughout the day. Sen. Howard Baker’s query — “What did the president know and when did he know it?”— is as memorable as a line from a traditional movie.

MacNeil and Lehrer had been on the air day and evening to supply commentary. MacNeil, a Canadian who spoke in a clipped, erudite method and Lehrer, a Kansas native with a comfortable drawl from his years in Texas, blended splendidly for a crew that got here collectively by chance. They grew to become shut pals as properly.

Viewer response was super. The stations’ scores shot up and contributions from viewers poured in. Meanwhile, viewers writing to the business networks complained how the protection interrupted their favourite cleaning soap operas.

“Nixon vetoed the funding bill, cut our funding and now he’s giving us our best programming,” Karayn informed Time journal in 1973. “It’s sort of like being reborn.”

Nixon resigned in August 1974. But the unintended enhance he gave to PBS public affairs programming endured.

“Bill Moyers Journal,” the PBS collection that started in 1972 and was fronted by the Johnson administration’s former press secretary, was elevated by its protection of the Watergate scandal and made its host one in every of tv’s most revered information commentators.

In 1975, PBS gave MacNeil carte blanche to develop a nightly information program. He launched “The Robert MacNeil Report,” which was designed as a complement to the community night newscasts. While CBS’ Cronkite or NBC News anchor John Chancellor devoted a couple of minutes to every story, MacNeil analyzed a single matter for a full half-hour each weeknight.

The program made its debut on New York public station WNET and by the next 12 months went nationwide when the Washington-based Lehrer joined this system as co-anchor. It was rechristened as “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” and in 1983 expanded to an hour, making it the primary hourlong night newscast on broadcast community tv and a signature collection for PBS.

While TV information modified over the a long time, “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” remained true to its authentic mandate of offering sober, critical dialogue of home and worldwide points. When the trial of O.J. Simpson grew to become a dominant TV information story in 1995 — driving up the scores for the business networks — the “NewsHour” devoted scant consideration to it exterior of the decision.

News anchor Judy Woodruff on the set of the "PBS NewsHour"

News anchor Judy Woodruff on the set of the “PBS NewsHour.”


“They were very serious people,” stated Richard Wald, a former information government for NBC and ABC. “In private, Lehrer was very funny and famous for telling wacko stories. I never at any time heard him say something funny on the air.”

The anchors, free from the stress to ship scores, by no means apologized when critics instructed this system didn’t chase the preferred tales or observe the developments of ad-supported TV information packages and channels.

“The mission from the beginning has been to cover what has the potential to change people’s lives,” stated Woodruff. “That’s what Jim and Robin did in the beginning, and that still holds today.”

MacNeil, who stepped away from the anchor desk in 1995, is aware of that sustaining this system’s temperate method has not gotten any simpler.

“It is more difficult for the ‘PBS NewsHour’ to run political discussions — which our original report helped to invent — and keep the the argument civilized and coherent,” he stated. “That effort can make the ‘NewsHour’ seem tame while for the red-meat audience, Fox News or MSNBC or CNN are more exciting.”

The “NewsHour” has advanced over its future. In 2013, following the retirement of Lehrer, who died in January, this system grew to become the primary community newscast to be anchored by two ladies, Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill.

It has tailored to new video platforms, streaming full packages without cost on demand by means of PBS station websites, Facebook and YouTube. In 2019, this system added a West Coast newsroom out of Arizona State University that gives updates after its first airing within the Eastern and Central time zones.

In the period of political tribalism on cable information, the place viewers can discover channels and hosts suited to their specific persuasion, the “NewsHour” — which averages round 2.three million viewers an evening, in accordance with Nielsen — has remained politically even-handed. And that’s the best way PBS viewers prefer it.

Research agency GfK present in a 2019 survey that 28% of PBS viewers determine as Republican whereas 33% stated they had been Democrats and 34% stated unbiased — in step with the breakdown for the complete U.S. grownup inhabitants.

Federal funding for PBS has been focused by Republican politicians over the a long time. Those efforts have largely failed because the service has assist from constituents again house who come from each side of the political spectrum regardless of the heightened polarization within the nation.

“I think that people just assume that we lean one way or another and we don’t in terms of the audience,” stated PBS Chief Executive Paula Kerger. “I think that’s important because I do think people are really looking for a place where people who have different perspectives are coming together.”

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