By Jody Brumage
“This is a matter of the greatest importance to the American people as it involves the use of the public property – the Nation’s airwaves, to deliberately deceive the public.” – Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr., 1971.
In the spring of 1971, Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr., burst into headlines and newscasts across the country when he initiated an investigation and levied subpoenas against CBS for footage used in the production of their 1971 documentary The Selling of the Pentagon. Controversial from its first airing in February 1971, The Selling of the Pentagon sought to illuminate the massive spending of tax dollars to support pro-military propaganda during the Vietnam era, an issue that had been debated in Congress and in the press for over two years by the time CBS aired the documentary. The production of the program, especially the alleged manipulation of taped interviews featured in the documentary, raised serious questions about media bias from Congress.
Shortly after the program debuted, the Department of Defense asked CBS to hand over footage used in the production of the documentary. The network agreed to supply the final cut of the documentary, but refused to send unused footage. In response, Staggers, the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee Chairman since 1966, used the Subcommittee on Investigations, which he also chaired, to open an investigation into CBS and call Dr. Frank Stanton, the network’s president, before a congressional hearing. CBS replied to Staggers by offering the script and film of The Selling of the Pentagon to his committee, but refused to comply with subpoenas demanding unused footage.
On June 24, 1971, Stanton appeared before Staggers’ subcommittee and testified that he had the duty to uphold the freedom of the press in the context of broadcast media. When asked by Staggers whether or not he planned to hand over the requested materials, Stanton replied “based on the advice of our counsel and our own conviction that a fundamental principle of a free society is at stake, I must respectfully decline, as President of CBS, to produce the materials covered by the subpoena of May 26.” After four hours of exchanges between Stanton and Staggers, the hearing ended with CBS continuing its refusal to hand over any unused footage from the documentary.
Stanton discusses the case in the first 8 minutes of the interview.
Following the hearing, the Subcommittee on Investigations voted to hand the case over to the full Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. On July 1, the full committee voted to refer the case to the House and to ask for a charge of contempt against CBS and Stanton. On June 30, during the committees’ proceedings, the Supreme Court issued its decision New York Times Co. v. United States, allowing the New York Times to print the Pentagon Papers, thus setting the stage for a very public debate on the first amendment freedom of the press.
On July 8, 1971, Staggers took his committee’s report to the House floor and delivered a speech decrying the documentary and CBS’ refusal to comply with his committee’s subpoenas. Staggers distributed a letter to the members of the House explaining his position and requesting support for his investigation. The letter, entered into the Congressional Record at the request of Staggers, charged that:
“The refusal of CBS and Dr. Frank Stanton to comply with the duly authorized and lawful subpoena of the Special Subcommittee on Investigations constitutes a grave challenge to the Congressional right to legislate. This threat to our Constitutional duty cannot be over-emphasized. The position asserted by CBS would require Congress to legislate without full understanding of the abuses it is trying to cure. Furthermore, the CBS position would prevent enforcement of any laws which Congress might enact directed against calculated manipulation of the news.”
The House of Representatives made its decision on the matter on July 13, 1971. Despite an attempt to prevent the issue from being brought to the floor by Congressman Sam Gibbons (D-FL), Staggers spoke in defense of his committee’s actions, stating that America’s airwaves were public property and thus subject to congressional oversight. During the debate on the House floor, the opposition cited the report as an affront to first amendment protections of the press. Finally, a motion was made to recommit the report, throwing the matter back into the committee.
The House voted 226 to 181 to recommit the committee’s report which voided the subpoenas. It was a major defeat for Staggers, and the committee never attempted to bring the issue back to the floor. Within a few months of the House action, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, Jr. (D-NC), asked Staggers to testify during its own hearings on the First Amendment’s application to broadcast media. While Staggers declined to participate, citing his busy schedule with the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, it is apparent that Congress had realized the need to reexamine laws which governed the press within the context of the emergence of televised broadcast media. For his own part, Staggers held hearings in his committee to encourage journalistic integrity, as evidenced by a letter from Washington D.C.’s Metromedia from the year after the CBS controversy.
Historians continue to argue whether or not CBS corrupted footage used in its controversial documentary. In the Journalism field, the 1971 conflict between CBS and Congress is marked as a landmark victory for the freedom of the press.
Jowett, Garth S. “The Selling of the Pentagon.” Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Representative Staggers (WV). “CBS Contempt of Congress.” Congressional Record 117:18-19 (July 8, 1971). p. 23922 – 23926.
Representative Staggers (WV). “Proceeding Against Frank Stanton and Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.”Congressional Record 117:18-19 (July 13, 1971). p. 24720 – 24753.
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