How Spiro Agnew Helped Invent Conservative Punditry

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In my recent column The state of conservative media, I began with a brief recounting of the rise of conservative media. It included some high points like the launch of National Review, Rush Limbaugh’s appearance in the late 1980s, Fox News’ arrival in the mid-1990s, and the rise of blogs like Red State in the 2000s.

But, of course, that’s simplistic. One unlikely, but important, catalyst for center-right journalism wasn’t mentioned: Spiro Agnew.

During a 2012 talk, Pat Buchanan — who wrote some of Agnew’s speeches — recalled that allegations of liberal bias in the media lodged by Nixon’s then-vice president led to the mainstream media’s inclusion of more conservative voices:

While much of the media denied the accusation of bias, Buchanan said the controversy sparked by the criticism from Agnew and others prompted many newspapers and TV talk shows to feature more conservative opinion writers. He cited the rise to prominence of conservative media stars like George Will and James J. Kilpatrick and noted that William Safire, his fellow speechwriter in the Nixon White House, became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Buchanan’s career followed a similar path, leading to a widely syndicated column and several years as co-host of the former CNN show, Crossfire. He remains a fixture on the syndicated program, The McLaughlin Group. Today, he said, a larger, more diverse media both reflect and perpetuate the fragmentation he described. [Bold mine]

Vic Gold, Agnew’s former press secretary, corroborated this story: “It was triggered by Agnew,” he said over the phone. “If Agnew had never made those speeches, they’d never have come along.”

Author and historian Craig Shirley agrees. “The Nixon White House, via Spiro Agnew, guilted the daily newspapers into developing and carrying more conservatives,” he said in an email.

So why didn’t the media just ignore the speeches? Before the scandal that triggered his resignation, “Agnew’s numbers were way ahead of Nixon’s,” Gold recalled. There was also a profit motive, which served entice the media to continue hiring conservative opinion columnists. “They saw that — when they developed [conservative] columnists, people liked it,” Gold said.

So, as it turns out, some credit might belong to an unlikely champion for the cause of diversity in the newsroom. And, according to Gold, this wasn’t something the vice president had to be goaded into, either. “Agnew relished the fight,” he said.