The 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 said.
The 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.
The 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 subpoenaed.
The 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.
It 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 society."
On 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."
What 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.
-Garth S. Jowett
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.
Mayer, 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.
Smith, F. Leslie. "'Selling of the Pentagon' and the First Amendment." Journalism History (Northridge, California), Spring 1975.