“The Power of the Media”

was a speech Lyndon B. Johnson delivered in Chicago to the National Association of Broadcasters the morning after after he withdrew from the 1968 Presidential race. According to Richard D. Heffner, editor of A Documentary History of the United States, 7th ed.,

[Johnson’s] speech on the role of new electronic media in American life and politics, … significantly pointed to broadcasting as an instrument of political activism, an interpretation not previously shared by most Americans who considered the medium essentially as an entertainment.

(Tip of the Cowboy hat to David Axelrod whose recent requests prompted me to look back at more  crappy old stuff.) 

Heffner’s Documentary provides truncated versions of almost all of the documents. The full text of Johnson’s remarks to the National Association of Broadcasters is here. And it is from that site I’ve cobbled together what, to me, are the most telling passages.  

But the real problem of informing the people is still with us. …

How does a public leader find just the right word or the right way to say no more or no less than he means to say–bearing in mind that anything he says may topple governments and may involve the lives of innocent men?

How does that leader speak the right phrase, in the right way, under the right conditions, to suit the accuracies and contingencies of the moment when he is discussing questions of policy, so that he does not stir a thousand misinterpretations and leave the wrong connotation or impression?

How does he reach the immediate audience and how does he communicate with the millions of others who are out there listening from afar?

The President, who must call his people and summon them to meet their responsibilities as citizens in a hard and an enduring war, often ponders these questions and searches for the right course.

You men and women who are masters of the broadcast media surely must know what I am talking about. It was a long time ago when a President once said, “The printing press is the most powerful weapon with which man has ever armed himself.” In our age, the electronic media have added immeasurably to man’s power. You have within your hands the means to make our Nation as intimate and as informed as a New England town meeting.

Yet the use of broadcasting has not cleared away all of the problems that we still have of communications. In some ways, I think, sometimes it has complicated them, because it tends to put the leader in a time capsule. It requires him often to abbreviate what he has to say. Too often, it may catch a random phrase from his rather lengthy discourse and project it as the whole story.

How many men, I wonder, Mayor Daley, in public life have watched themselves on a TV newscast and then been tempted to exclaim, “Can that really be me?”

Well, there is no denying it: You of the broadcast industry have enormous power in your hands.

You have the power to clarify and you have the power to confuse. Men in public life cannot remotely rival your opportunity–day after day, night after night, hour after hour on the hour–and the half hour, sometimes–you shape the Nation’s dialogue.

The words that you choose, hopefully always accurate, and hopefully always just, are the words that are carried out for all of the people to hear.

The commentary that you provide can give the real meaning to the issues of the day or it can distort them beyond all meaning. By your standards of what is news, you can cultivate wisdom–or you can nurture misguided passion.

Your commentary carries an added element of uncertainty. Unlike the printed media, television writes on the wind. There is no accumulated record which the historian can examine later with a 20-20 vision of hindsight, asking these questions: “How fair was he tonight? How impartial was he today? How honest was he all along?”

“How fair was he tonight? How impartial was he today? How honest was he all along?” Crappy olden days!

All I mean to do, and what I am trying to do, is to remind you where there is great power, there must also be great responsibility. This is true for broadcasters just as it is true for Presidents–and seekers for the Presidency.

What we say and what we do now will shape the kind of a world that we pass along to our children and our grandchildren. I keep this thought constantly in my mind during the long days and the somewhat longer nights when crisis comes at home and abroad.


As I sat in my office last evening, waiting to speak, I thought of the many times each week when television brings the war into the American home.

No one can say exactly what effect those vivid scenes have on American opinion. Historians must only guess at the effect that television would have had during earlier conflicts on the future of this Nation:

–during the Korean war, for example, at that time when our forces were pushed back there to Pusan;
–or World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, or when our men were slugging it out in Europe or when most of our Air Force was shot down that day in June 1942 off Australia.

But last night television was being used to carry a different message. It was a message of peace. It occurred to me that the medium may be somewhat better suited to conveying the actions of conflict than to dramatizing the words that the leaders use in trying and hoping to end the conflict.

Certainly, it is more “dramatic” to show policemen and rioters locked in combat than to show men trying to cooperate with one another.

The face of hatred and of bigotry comes through much more clearly–no matter what its color. The face of tolerance, I seem to find, is rarely “newsworthy.”


Part of your responsibility is simply to understand the consequences of that fact-the consequences of your own acts, and part of that responsibility, I think, is to try–as very best we all can–to draw the attention of our people to the real business of society in our system–finding and securing peace in the world–at home and abroad. For all that you have done and that you are doing and that you will do to this end, I thank you and I commend you.

I pray that the message of peace that I tried so hard to convey last night will be accepted in good faith by the leaders of North Vietnam.

I pray that one time soon, the evening news show will have, not another battle in the scarred hills of Vietnam, but will show men entering a room to talk about peace.

That is the event that I think the American people are yearning and longing to see.

President Thieu of Vietnam and his Government are now engaged in very urgent political and economic tasks which I referred to last night–and which we regard as very constructive and hopeful. We hope the Government of South Vietnam makes great progress in the days ahead.

But some time in the weeks ahead-immediately, I hope–President Thieu will be in a position to accept my invitation to visit the United States so he can come here and see our people too, and together we can strengthen and improve our plans to advance the day of peace.

I pray that you and that every American will take to heart my plea that we guard against divisiveness. We have won too much, we have come too far, and we have opened too many doors of opportunity, for these things now to be lost in a divided country where brother is separated from brother. For the time that is allotted me, I shall do everything in one man’s power to hasten the day when the world is at peace and Americans of all races–and all creeds–of all convictions-can live together–without fear or without suspicion or without distrust–in unity, and in common purpose.

United we are strong; divided we are in great danger.

In speaking as I did to the Nation last night, I was moved by the very deep convictions that I entertain about the nature of the office that it is my present privilege to hold. The Office of the Presidency is the only office in this land of all the people. Whatever may be the personal wishes or preferences of any man who holds it, a President of all the people can afford no thought of self.

“The Office of the Presidency is the only office in this land of all the people. Whatever may be the personal wishes or preferences of any man who holds it, a President of all the people can afford no thought of self.”

At no time and in no way and for no reason can a President allow the integrity or the responsibility or the freedom of the office ever to be compromised or diluted or destroyed because when you destroy it, you destroy yourselves.

I hope and I pray that by not allowing the Presidency to be involved in divisions and deep partisanship, I shall be able to pass on to my successor a stronger office–strong enough to guard and defend all the people against all the storms that the future may bring us.

You men and women who have come here to this great progressive city of Chicago, led by this dynamic and great public servant, Dick Daley, are yourselves charged with a peculiar responsibility. You are yourselves trustees, legally accepted trustees and legally selected trustees of a great institution on which the freedom of our land utterly depends.

The security, the success of our country, what happens to us tomorrow–rests squarely upon the media which disseminate the truth on which the decisions of democracy are made.

An informed mind–and we get a great deal of our information from you–is the guardian genius of democracy.

So, you are the keepers of a trust. You must be just. You must guard and you must defend your media against the spirit of faction, against the works of divisiveness and bigotry, against the corrupting evils of partisanship in any guise.

For America’s press, as for the American Presidency, the integrity and the responsibility and the freedom–the freedom to know the truth and let the truth make us free–must never be compromised or diluted or destroyed.

The defense of our media is your responsibility. Government cannot and must not and never will–as long as I have anything to do about it–intervene in that role.

But I do want to leave this thought with you as I leave you this morning: I hope that you will give this trust your closest care, acting as I know you can, to guard not only against the obvious, but to watch for the hidden–the sometimes unintentional, the often petty intrusions upon the integrity of the information by which Americans decide.

“… this great progressive city of Chicago, led by this dynamic and great public servant, Dick Daley… .”

In any society, all you students of history know that a time of division is a time of danger. And in these times now we must never forget that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

 True enough.