The Good News Hoax of 1970

In the late 1960s, American headlines were full of bad news. The war in Vietnam was dragging on with a mounting death toll, and back in the States, there were almost daily protests and demonstrations.

Many blamed all this bad news on the policies of the Nixon administration, accusing it of engaging in a pattern of deception and escalation. President Nixon, however, refused to accept this criticism, and he fought back by directing his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, to go on the offensive. It became Agnew's job to be Nixon's attack dog, verbally lashing out at all the opponents of the administration.

Agnew embraced this job with a passion. With the help of speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, he unleashed a tirade of alliterative invective against the President's critics. He denounced war protestors as "pusillanimous pussyfooters" allergic to America, while he accused liberal elites of being "supercilious sophisticates" who supposedly condoned the violence that had occurred during some anti-war demonstrations.

Agnew also directly attacked the media, which was unusual since politicians had traditionally adopted a deferential attitude toward members of the press. But Agnew believed that the media no longer represented the views of ordinary Americans. He felt that it had become an undemocratic propaganda tool echoing the beliefs of a small group of liberal elites who sought to undermine conservative policies.

One of the ways the media did this, Agnew alleged, was by focusing exclusively on bad news rather than good. The truth, according to Agnew, was that the economy was doing well and most people supported the policies of the Nixon administration — but one would never know this, he said, by listening to the media. Instead, the press painted a picture of a nation in crisis, and they did this by dwelling obsessively upon every piece of bad news.

Agnew first detailed this argument in a speech he gave on November 13, 1969 in Des Moines, Iowa:

Bad news drives out good news. The irrational is more controversial than the rational. Concurrence can no longer compete with dissent. One minute of Eldridge Cleaver is worth 10 minutes of Roy Wilkins. The labor crisis settled at the negotiating table is nothing compared to the confrontation that results in a strike — or better yet, violence along the picket lines. Normality has become the nemesis of the network news.

Now the upshot of all this controversy is that a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news. A single, dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes in the minds of millions the entire picture. The American who relies upon television for his news might conclude that the majority of American students are embittered radicals; that the majority of black Americans feel no regard for their country; that violence and lawlessness are the rule rather than the exception on the American campus. We know that none of these conclusions is true.

Agnew later produced another one of his alliterative phrases to sum up this argument. The critics of the president, he said, were a bunch of "nattering nabobs of negativism" who focused relentlessly on bad news because it confirmed their negative bias, thereby blinding them to the reality that the Nixon administration enjoyed broad support.

A Good News Newspaper
Agnew's remarks received a frosty reception from the press. Spokesmen from all three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) warned that Agnew seemed to be threatening to introduce government censorship.

Democratic congressman Andrew Jacobs defended the media, arguing that it couldn't be expected to ignore bad news. "Balanced news coverage," he said, "requires that broadcasters indiscriminately report the good news... the bad news... and the Agnews."

But Agnew's call for a focus on good news didn't go entirely unheeded. For at least one reporter, it seemed to be inspirational. This was seen in an advertisement that appeared in Editor & Publisher in early 1970:

Reporters, editors and subscribers wanted for a new newspaper which prints only good news. 'Good News,' a ding-dong newspaper. Please send resume.

Such an obscure announcement might have escaped general notice, but the advertiser made sure it didn't by sending a copy of directly to Spiro Agnew. While Agnew didn't respond himself, his office did send an encouraging note back to the would-be reporter of good news:

Although he can in no way endorse a commercial venture, the Vice President is most appreciative of the thinking behind your new publication and has relayed his good wishes for the good news.

"Just for the laughs alone"
Unfortunately for Agnew, the good news newspaper was not to be. In June 1970, it was revealed to be a hoax. Barry Wanger, a 23-year-old assignment editor for the Hartford Times came forward as the perpetrator. “It was a hoax," he said. "I thought people would get it right away. But I got 12 very serious replies, including one from the vice president."

Among the other replies he received were one from a reporter from Virginia who wrote, "I believe a good news newspaper would provide an escape, freshness, and euphoric wholeness for the reader."

Another reply came from a reporter at an Arkansas Air Force Base who sought a position at the Good News newspaper, explaining that he was nearing his discharge and "wanted to keep abreast of the happier things in life."

"I never intended to operate such a paper," Wagner further explained. "It’s ridiculous to print just good news. People wouldn’t read it, for one thing. And the world just isn’t full of good news."

The ad had cost Wagner $12.30 to place, but he insisted the money had been worth it "just for the laughs alone."

Posted on Mon Sep 02, 2019