Alliterative Illusion

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Alliterative Illusion

Spiro Agnew's most famous line was not meant as an attack on the press.

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Spiro Agnew famously derided reporters and commentators as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” David Broder, Helen Thomas, Tom Wicker, and countless other journalists have cited the quotation as a classic example of the Nixon administration’s assault on the press. But they’re all wrong, Norman P. Lewis writes in American Journalism (Winter 2010).

Vice President Agnew did give two speeches in 1969 that condemned the national press as biased and error-ridden. President Richard Nixon fine-tuned the language in one of them and declared proudly, “This really flicks the scab off, doesn’t it?” “Nattering nabobs,” however, came in a 1970 speech  in San Diego, when Agnew was campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections. The “nabobs” were opponents of Nixon administration policy, especially in Vietnam.

“You have it right—the Agnew speech in San Diego, which I wrote, criticized the defeatists in general rather than the press in particular,” speechwriter-turned-columnist William Safire e-mailed Lewis in 2006. (Safire died in 2009.) “I suppose many in the media delighted in being attacked by Agnew and so assumed they were his target in that speech. Over the years I would occasionally point this out, but it’s tough to go up against a myth.”

Press coverage at the time of Agnew’s speech placed the phrase in its correct context. But less than a year later, a Newsday columnist cited “nattering nabobs” as an attack on the press. The New York Times and Time soon followed.

“Journalists who wear the ‘nattering nabobs’ phrase as a badge of honor,” Lewis observes, “are merely proving that Agnew was right about their penchant for repeating inaccurate information.”