Selling of the Pentagon, was an important documentary aired
in primetime on CBS on 23 February 1971. The aim of this film, produced
by Peter Davis, was to examine the increasing utilization and cost
to the taxpayers of public relations activities by the military-industrial
complex in order to shape public opinion in favor of the military.
The subject was not new, and had been heavily discussed in the press
and debated in Congress. The junior senator from Arkansas, J. William
Fulbright had first raised the subject in a series of four widely
publicized speeches in the Senate in December 1969. In November
1970, Fulbright published his book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine,
and this formed the core around which the network constructed its
version of the Senator's ideas. While the controversial nature of
the subject-matter was clearly understood by the producers, and
a strong reaction was anticipated, the virulence and the direction
of this reaction could not have been foreseen. In the end, the furor
surrounding The Selling of the Pentagon would serve as a
significant benchmark in evaluating the First Amendment Rights of
the broadcast media.
documentary, narrated by Roger Mudd, concentrated on three areas
of Pentagon activity to illustrate its theme of public manipulation:
direct contacts with the public, Defense Department films, and the
Pentagon's use of the commercial media--the press and television.
From the opening sequence of "firepower display" at Armed Forces
Day in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, culminating in the last "mad
minute" when all the weapons on display are fired simultaneously,
through the middle section which showed clips of the anti-Communist
film Red Nightmare, to the closing section which detailed
how the media are "managed" by the Pentagon, the documentary unveiled
a massive and costly public relations effort to improve the public
perception of the military. However, these facts, while open to
some subjective interpretation, were not the real cause of the dispute.
The real issues of contention centered around how the producers
had "re-constructed" several key interviews and speeches shown in
the documentary. The first controversial sequence involved a lecture
by army Colonel John A. McNeil, which began with Mudd's voice-over
noting that "The army has a regulation stating 'Personnel should
not speak on the foreign policy implication of U.S. involvement
in Vietnam.'" McNeil was then shown delivering what appeared to
be a six sentence passage from his talk, which made him seem to
be contravening official military regulations. In fact the sequence
was reconstructed from several different passages over a wide range
of pages, and taken out of context in places.
The second of the controversial interview sequences was with Assistant
Secretary of Defense Daniel Henkin on the reasons for the public
displays of military equipment at state fairs and shopping centers.
Again, many of Henkin's answers were taken out of context and juxtaposed,
making him appear, in television critic Martin Mayer's words, "a
weasler and a fool." Henkin, as was government policy, had made
his own tape recording of the interview and was therefore able to
demonstrate how skillful editing has distorted what he had actually
complaints about the show began only 14 minutes after it went on
the air with phone calls to the network. The outcry in subsequent
days was centered around two main sources: Rep. F. Edward Hebert,
chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Harley
O. Staggers, chairman of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign
Commerce and of its Special Subcommittee on Investigations. On 23
March 1971, CBS ran the documentary again, and this time followed
it by 20 minutes of critical remarks by the vice president, Spiro
T. Agnew, Rep. Hebert and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, with
a rebuttal by CBS News president Richard Salant. This did not satisfy
the politicians, and on 7 April Rep. Staggers caused subpoenas to
be issued to CBS demanding the record of the production of the documentary.
next move was up to CBS, and on the afternoon of 20 April the network
responded to the first executive session of the Special Subcommittee
on Investigations through its deputy general counsel, John D. Appel.
CBS disputed Representative Staggers's comment that "the American
public has a right to know and understand the techniques and procedures
which go into the production and presentation of the television
news documentaries upon which they must rely for their knowledge
of the great issues and controversies of the day." The network had
voluntarily submitted the film and complete script of The Selling
of the Pentagon, but refused to supply the outtakes, draft notes,
payments to persons appearing, and other material that had been
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) refused to become involved
in the case, and the subcommittee held a series of hearings which
included testimony from Assistant Secretary Henkin, and Col. John
A. McNeil (who had in the interim filed a $6 million lawsuit against
the network). On 24 June at the subcommittee's third meeting, the
star witness was Dr. Frank Stanton, the president of CBS. Stanton
claimed that he had "a duty to uphold the freedom of the broadcast
press against Congressional abridgment" and he pointed out the differences
between print and broadcast journalism. He noted that these issues
would not arise with the print media, but "because broadcasters
need government licenses while other media do not, the First Amendment
permits such an intrusion into the freedom of broadcast journalism,
although it admittedly forbids the identical intrusion into other
press media." There was a provocative exchange between Representative
Springer over the definition of "the press," with the congressman
trying to prove, with the aid of a 1956 edition of Webster's New
Collegiate Dictionary, that broadcasting was not part of "the
press." Stanton testified for more than four hours, and in the end
he refused to submit to the subcommittee's subpoena.
In the midst of the furor concerning The Selling of the Pentagon,
an even more important First Amendment issue was thrust upon the
public scene. On 13 June the New York Times published the first
installment of the series of what became known as The Pentagon
Papers. This case moved rapidly through the courts, and on 30
June the Supreme Court, by a vote of six to three, allowed the unrestrained
publication of those documents.
was against this background that on 28 June the subcommittee voted
unanimously to refer the entire case to its parent Committee on
Interstate and Foreign Commerce. On 1 July the full committee voted
25 to 13 to report the matter to the House, with a recommendation
that the network and Stanton be cited for contempt. Stanton could
not but help notice the contrast between the two decisions: "This
action is in disappointing contrast to the Supreme Court's ringing
reaffirmation yesterday of the function of journalism in a free
8 July Staggers made his bid for House support with a floor speech
and a letter to members of Congress. On 13 July in a surprisingly
heated debate, the issue came to a head. In the end one of the committee
members, Representative Hastings Keith introduced a motion to recommit
the resolution to the committee, which was asked to report back
to the floor legislation that would more adequately express the
intent of Congress and give authority to the FCC to move in a constitutional
way that would require the networks to be as responsible for the
fairness and honesty of their documentaries as for quiz shows and
other programs. After a roll call vote, the resolution was approved
226 to 181, effectively negating the contempt citations. Staggers
commented: "The networks now control this Congress." Stanton, as
was to be expected, was extremely pleased by what he felt was "the
decisive House vote."
was the final outcome? Was the vote really that decisive? On 15
July Representative Keith followed through on his promise and introduced
legislation that would have prohibited broadcasters from staging
an event, or "juxtaposing or rearranging by editing" without indicating
to the public that this had occurred. The proposed legislation never
made it to the floor. The final outcome was a victory of sorts for
CBS specifically, and broadcast journalism in general, for never
in modern history had the House failed to sustain the vote of one
of its committees to cite for contempt.
The Selling of the Pentagon was a milestone in the development
of the television documentary, not so much for what it contained,
but because it represented a clear statement that the networks could
not be made to bend to government control in the technological era.
The Selling of the Pentagon
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable
23 February 1971
Fullbirght, J. William. The Pentagon Propaganda Machine.
New York: Liveright, 1970.
Irvine, Reed J. "The Selling of the Selling of the Pentagon."
National Review (New York), 10 August 1971.
Jowett, Garth S. "'The Selling of the Pentagon': Television Confronts
the First Amendment." In O'Connor, John, editor. American History/American
Television; Interpreting the Video Past. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Martin. About Television. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Rogers, Jimmie N., and Theodore Clevenger, Jr. "'The Selling of
the Pentagon': Was CBS the Fullbright Propaganda Machine?" Quarterly
Journal of Speech (Falls Church, Virginia), October 1971.
F. Leslie. "'Selling of the Pentagon' and the First Amendment."
Journalism History (Northridge, California), Spring 1975.
Broadcasting System; Stanton,
on Television; Wallace,