The speech JFK was going to give on the day he died warned about the need for a fair and independent press.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Col. Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just started campaigning for reelection in the fall of 1963. He was on a two-day, five-city (Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin and Dallas) tour of Texas. He and his political advisors had stressed the importance of winning Florida and Texas. The trip to Texas was Jacqueline Kennedy’s first public appearance after the loss of their baby, Patrick, in August. The trip also involved trying to repair a feud between Texas Democratic Party leaders that could jeopardize his winning Texas.
“Dallas, in my estimation, was the most singular city in America during the years prior to the assassination,” said Bill Minutaglio, co-author of “Dallas 1963,” a newly released book detailing the city’s striking political extremism. “You had the world’s richest man, H.L. Hunt, oil billionaire, pouring millions of his own dollars to basically overthrow Kennedy. I don’t think overthrow is too harsh a word.”
Beyond Hunt lay a cast of characters sharing a searing hatred of Kennedy, whom they condemned as everything from anti-American to anti-Christian to a communist.
Among the most strident Kennedy critics in Dallas was Edwin Walker, a former general – he had been relieved of his command for publishing right-wing screeds in an Army newspaper – who helped organize deadly demonstrations against integration at the University of Mississippi.
Perhaps the most influential adversary in the city was Ted Dealey, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, who despised Kennedy with such fervor he personally excoriated the president during a White House luncheon.
“They were virulently, virulently anti-Kennedy and anti-LBJ,” Minutaglio said. “They considered LBJ to be a traitor and a Judas.”“
While the newspaper gave JFK a proper welcome and condolences after his death, what Dealey had previously written in the newspaper he had inherited from his father, was far from welcoming:
“But the most critical difference between father and son was reflected on the editorial page. Gone was the sense of moderation. The editorials began to take on Ted’s personality—strident and shrill, outspoken and mean. Ted Dealey was a red-baiter, a supporter of Joe McCarthy, an unforgiving opponent of the United Nations, an enemy of social welfare and unions and federal aid, and so was his newspaper. In the News’ editorial columns, the Supreme Court was a “judicial Kremlin.” Liberals were fools, dupes, or fellow travelers. U.S. recognition of Russia, an action that G. B. Dealey had applauded, was a “Queer Deal.” Ted Dealey’s Dallas News never strayed far from its free-enterprise gospel, not even when it was speaking to the high rate of traffic deaths in Texas. The accidents, it observed, resulted from “the same human qualities that made America great – willingness to risk, driving energy, rugged individualism.”
Just as G. B. Dealey’s editorial page had changed the Dallas of an earlier era, Ted Dealey’s shaped his. The public life of the city turned ugly in the fifties and sixties. The art museum took down a Picasso after a barrage of calls protested that the artist was a communist. When the museum board resisted attempts to close a photography exhibit that included Russian photographers, the News headlined its story “MUSEUM SAYS REDS CAN STAY”. Police pressure forced all local bookstores to take Tropic of Cancer off their shelves. In 1960 Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were spat on during a campaign visit to the Adolphus Hotel. Four days later John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, an event that led to Ted Dealey’s most notorious public acts.”
Sound familiar? The parallels to today’s partisan political press are very eerie.
This is the text of President Kennedy’s speech that he never gave.
“In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason – or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.
There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternative, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.
But today other voices are heard in the land – voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality . . . At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the single greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”
When you combine this undelivered speech with the one JFK made on April 27, 1963, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, “The President and the Press,” you recognize how prescient he was about what the news business had become. It has only gotten worse since then.
“I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers– I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed– and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First (emphasized) Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution– not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply ‘give the public what it wants’ – but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
President Kennedy was defending the First Amendment rights of the man and his publication whose vicious and hateful attacks would contribute to his death. But, in his speeches, was President Kennedy warning about the “military-industrial press” in the same way President Eisenhower warned him and us about the “military-industrial complex” in Eisenhower’s farewell speech?
The idea and the need of a free press to be the lights of learning and reason and to talk sense to the American people (and the world) haven’t changed. While the method of transmission has changed – with the Internet, 24/7 cable /satellite TV and radio news, talk radio, the blurring of news and entertainment, and the politically ideological media in all, added to print – the mission of the press has not changed. The responsibility and impartiality needed to be lights of learning and reason has not changed, either.
The IRS just changed the nonprofit status of “charitable organizations” that were really political campaign fronts. It is time to change the status of false-front ideological media from news to entertainment, or maybe just to “FAUX NEWS.”
In Part 2, we’ll discuss media concentration, the watering down of government oversight of the press and their effects on the quality of news and public discourse.