A Rememberance of Courage

August 20, 2002
Category: Archive

Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte is president of Florida State University, but in a previous incarnation he was a practicing attorney and was involved in a number of First Amendment cases. Among those cases was the defense against the license challenge of the Washington Post television stations in Florida at the time of the Post’s revelations during the Watergate scandal. He is a former president of the American Bar Association, dean of the FSU College of Law, and a member of the Florida House of Representatives.

He has received numerous awards, including the 2001 Wickersham Award from the Friends of the Law Library of Congress and a l985 Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his work in opening of court proceedings to electronic journalists.

At Poynter’s request, he has written a piece about Katharine Graham and her fight to keep the Post TV stations.
— Gregory Favre/Poynter

By Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte
President, Florida State University

Sandy D’Alemberte
When I think about a life of law practice and the possibility that some of that work actually was useful, I think about a handful of cases and two of them were cases where important media institutions were threatened with extinction. It is fitting that I now receive an invitation from one of those clients–the Poynter Institute–which was subject to a hostile takeover attempt by the Bass investment interests in 1990, to write about the other, earlier, experience, the defense of the Post-Newsweek Stations of Florida television licenses in the Watergate period.

The occasion, of course, is the death of Kay Graham whose steadfastness in the Watergate period has already attracted many column inches of deserved praise.

The piece that I might add to the story is the perspective of a lawyer who worked with a large team to resist hostile challenges to the licenses of the two television stations owned by the Washington Post in Florida — WPLG in Miami and WJXT in Jacksonville.

The Federal Communications Commission reviewed all the television licenses in a given state at a single time. Applications for Florida were up for review beginning in early 1973 just after Richard Nixon had been reelected in a landslide victory despite the early revelations about Watergate. Many of these reports came from the Washington Post’s investigation.

The process allowed a period of time for challengers to compete for the licenses. This was serious business. A television station is an expensive operation–cameras, broadcast towers, transmitters, etc. cost a lot–but the actual value of the station is not in the equipment but in the license. If the station were to lose its license, the equipment would be sold in a fire sale and enormous loses would be posted by the license-holder.

The Washington Post Company’s interest in television dated back to 1953 when it paid $2,470,000 for the Jacksonville station and it subsequently acquired the CBS station in Washington, WTOP. In 1969, it paid $20,000,000 for the Miami station. Many in the industry thought that it had paid too much particularly for the under performing Miami station but the television subsidiary, Post-Newsweek Stations, Inc., set about to build a great station. That effort was already underway by the end of 1972 and the commitment of the Post to quality was not in doubt.

In 1973, there were some 30 television stations in Florida and only two were challenged. These two, WJXT in Jacksonville and WPLG in Miami, were both owned by Post-Newsweek and the story of these challenges is worth repeating.

Given the circumstances, there cannot be much doubt that the motivation for the challenges was to punish the Washington Post and its gutsy owner, Kay Graham, for its tenacity in conducting the Watergate investigation. The circumstances were telling–only two Florida stations were challenged, the challenges were made to stations that were better managed than most of the unchallenged stations, and the challengers had close political ties to Nixon and Agnew. Later, the Watergate tapes revealed a White House discussion about the fact that the television stations were coming up for license renewal and John Mitchell’s memorable prediction that Kay Graham was “going to get her tit caught in the wringer.” President Nixon was clearly in on the plan to punish the Post and he said: “The main thing is the Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one. They have a television station…and they’re going to have to get it renewed.” About the upcoming deadline for filing applications for licenses, President Nixon said, “It’s going to be goddamn active here…Well, the game has to be played awfully rough.”

The challenges appeared suddenly between late December, 1972 and early January 1973 and the assembly of contestants, recently organized corporations with no experience in broadcasting but considerable experience in Republican politics, gave away the game. Indeed, it may have been intended to make the threat explicit, although the challengers’ rhetoric was all about the benefits of “local control” and “management closer to the community.”

To any knowledgeable observer, the challenges were not directed to the quality of these stations. Indeed, most people knowledgeable about television recognized an extraordinary commitment by the Post which provided great managers, a strong budget commitment to local news stories, and programming that related to the major community problems. Real investigative journalism came to local television and the stations began to gather awards.

Kay Graham and her team of television managers made the same commitment to quality television that she made to a quality newspaper and the achievement was impressive. By 1975, I doubt that any list of the top ten local television stations in the country could have omitted WPLG and WJXT.

The difference was that newspapers did not require licenses from the government and that television stations did.

The challenges required Katharine Graham to bet the franchise. When we look at the balance sheet of the Washington Post Company in 1973, there is no doubt that the Nixon partisans were attacking the Post at a very vulnerable point. In addition to the substantial legal fees involved in fighting the challenges, the company’s stock value was greatly reduced when news of the challenge hit the market. The stock price dropped from $38 a share down to $16 or $17 a share in the months after the challenges were filed.

As things turned out, the attack failed. There were a number of factors. The FCC was not so malleable as the Nixon partisans had hoped. In that, we need to remember the heroism of Randolph Thrower, the Commissioner of the IRS, who resigned earlier in protest to the effort to politicize his agency. Dean Burch, Chair of the FCC behaved with comparable integrity despite his former role as Chairman of the Republican Party. The FCC acted with integrity and the licenses were renewed.

The management of the stations deserve credit for their performance as well. In the face of falling stock values, the company responded in a way quite unlike other news organizations in similar circumstances — it put more resources into repairing the stations and became more aggressive in its news coverage, editorial, policy and public affairs programming.

But Katharine Graham’s courage was the most telling factor. There have been many tributes celebrating her decisions to go ahead with Watergate coverage and to print the Pentagon Papers but the license challenges were another case. Here, the net worth of the Washington Post Company was on the line and there was every reason to figure out ways to trim the sails and to accommodate.

Katharine Graham was at her combative best during the challenge. She wanted to hear no talk of compromise (and, when the challengers ultimately folded, she railed against payment of their legal fees, the typical end game to make the challenges go away). She fussed about the very idea of the challenge and, at one point, endorsed the idea of a young lawyer who, unfamiliar with FCC procedure, suggested that a motion for summary judgment be filed even though such a procedure was not authorized.

Her idea was that the television stations should press forward and become great stations and she insisted that this was the way to face the challenges.

Her combative attitude endured even when her old friend, the Miami lawyer Louis Hector, told her that she had to make a series of public appearances, talking to community leaders to personally show her commitment to Miami. She braced herself for these performances and successfully told the story of why the Post interests came to Miami to acquire a station which took its call letters from her husband’s name — WPLG: Philip L. Graham – and to make it a station worthy of his name.

The story of the license challenge is not different from the story of Watergate or the Pentagon Papers. It is the story of a shy but exceptionally committed woman who came to love journalism and its role in American life and who threw herself into the fray. American journalism is lucky to have had Kay Graham.

American television and the whole system of regulating television is lucky to have had Kay Graham. Had she folded, we would be at a very different place.