How enterprising journalists at a Florida television station derailed the confirmation of a US Supreme Court nominee, and what the President did in retaliation

Carswell Judge G Harold

President Richard Nixon’s 1970 nomination of Florida Circuit Court Judge G. Harrold Carswell of Tallahassee to the US Supreme Court appeared to be in the bag. In announcing the nomination, presidential spokesman Ron Zeigler said “Carswell’s personal and judicial background . . . were investigated (and) the judge received a complete clearance.”

That blanket statement wasn’t enough for the journalists of Jacksonville’s WJXT Channel 4. Investigative reporter Ed Rodder went to Carswell’s hometown of Irwinton, Georgia, scoured public records and newspaper articles, discovering a speech Carswell made when running for the Georgia state legislature in 1948, containing the following three paragraphs:

“I am Southern by ancestry, birth, training, inclination, belief, and practice. And I believe that segregation of the races is proper and the only practical and correct way of life in our states. I have always so believed and I shall always so act.

“I shall be the last to submit to any attempt on the part of anyone to break down and to weaken this firmly established policy of our people.

“I yield to no man, as a fellow candidate or as a fellow citizen, in the firm vigorous belief in the principles of white supremacy and I shall always be so governed.”

Rodder’s report on the newly found speech was picked up by Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News January 21, 1970, setting off a firestorm of controversy and Carswell’s denial of racial prejudice. After months of investigations and hearings, the US Senate rejected Carswell’s nomination “by a surprising 51–45 vote that touched off pandemonium in the staid and ornate old chamber,” reported the Associated Press. “Wild clapping, cheers and a few scattered boos from the galleries greeted Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s solemn announcement of the tally that marked President Nixon’s second straight defeat on a nomination of a Southern judge to the high court.”

Two years later the Nixon presidency was embroiled in the Watergate scandal, uncovered and advanced by reporters from the Washington Post, which also happened to own the station that derailed the president’s Supreme Court nomination, WJXT Channel 4, as well as Miami’s WPLG Channel 10.

On October 27, 1972, Chuck Colson, Nixon’s self-described “hatchet man,” sent a memo to another White House staffer: “Please check for me when any of the Washington Post television station licenses are up for renewal.” Then, between December 29, 1972, and January 2, 1973, three separate license challenges were filed against WJXT, and one against WPLG. Some of the challengers had direct ties to the president.

“Of all the threats to the company during Watergate . . . the most effective were the challenges to the licenses to our two Florida television stations,” wrote Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post, in her autobiography, Personal History.

Florida attorney Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte was lead counsel in the Washington Post Company’s successful defense of its stations’ licenses. Later, while president of Florida State University, he wrote a heartfelt piece for the Poynter Institute about Graham and her fight to keep her company’s television stations. The article is reprinted in my book, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, and is especially relevant in today’s atmosphere of media bashing.

For the record, Bob Schellenberg was the general manager who led WJXT through the license challenge; Jim Lynagh was GM of WPLG.

This is just one of many stories of solid journalism and community service in my book, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting. Please click here to buy the book

 

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