After Covington, a Paean to Spiro Agnew

In 1969, Richard Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew launched a stunning onslaught against the media in this speech in Des Moines. The more time goes on – and the more dangerous misrepresentations like the one in Washington DC recently – the more I realize its importance in history.

Spiro’s point was that the President has the right to communicate with the Republic without his message being twisted beyond recognition before it even reached them. An administration cannot censor anybody, but it has the same right to question the character and prejudices of the media barons as much as they do with the politicians.

The small class that is the media elite have the immense power to shape our discourse and decide what people learn of current events. How does one measure that power? What kind of scrutiny ought it be subjected to? “For millions of Americans” Agnew said, “the network reporter who covers a continuing issue… becomes, in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury.”

But judges are subject to clear legal restraints and accountability, as are Presidents and legislators. What should we demand of the media in a democracy, where the intelligent judgement of citizens matters? Are there appropriate checks and balances? And what happens when a free press appears to be sewing division among the citizenry and actively harming our discourse, rather than enlightening?