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The Sunset Ride of a TV Reformer:
Nicholas Johnson's Career as a Flower in The Petrified Forest

Lawrence Leamer

Harper's Magazine

December 1973, pp. 22-32

NOTE from Nicholas Johnson 31 years later: Although reproduced here for the sake of historical completeness, I believe this article contributes the least of real value of any of the reproduced articles to an understanding of either my role at the FCC (1966-1973) or my personality and evaluation of that role. As I read it, aside from a number of simple factual errors, the author's efforts at cute writing (or "gonzo journalism") are not very well executed and over the top, the efforts at pop psychiatry bear no relationship whatsoever to my own (or others') memories of the time, the point of view and impressions with which he arrived, and departed, are more akin to those of a fiction writer than journalist.

By contrast, the Len Zeidenberg Broadcasting "retrospective" is clearly a "critical" assessment from a trade publication that had attacked me in a variety of ways with some consistency over the seven years of my term. But it represented an effort to "report" rather than "imagine," and to provide some factual balance as well.

Given my experience, it had been my habit to trust, and talk to, reporters who asked for appointments — especially those I had dealt with before — without "checking them out." I had found the journalists I dealt with to be a pretty honorable lot. With Leamer, one of (if not "the") last before I left, my luck finally ran out.

— Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, Iowa, October 26, 2004

DURING ONE OF HIS LAST days at the Federal Communications Commission, Nicholas Johnson took a headline from a newspaper story (“FCC: 'The Broadcaster’s Friend’“), taped it to the lapel of his old tweed jacket, and marched through the stark corridors of the FCC. He walked the halls, a tall, nearly six-and-a-half-foot tall, boy-man, slouched over so far his shoulders seemed almost to touch, wearing a narrow tie, and cuffed khakis riding his ankles. Johnson seemed lost that day, this great gawky rube with 14C shoes and ham hands; and yet with almost a dancer’s litheness, a hollow, pallid face sensitive to the point of asceticism, and eyes almond-shaped, heavy-lidded, reflecting all the weight of his thirty-eight years. His term as commissioner was up in June, but President Nixon did not immediately appoint a successor, and he stayed there all during the summer and early fall in a bare office, stripped of staff, thinking and planning and brooding. It was as if he risked leaving not only government but life itself.

Larry Gage, one of his assistants, looked at Johnson those last months and said that “Nick has been through more these seven years than anyone in the history of the world,” and if Gage sounds like an aging aide-de-camp fingering his general’s campaign ribbons in the last days of his ascendency, he has earned the right to hyperbole. Johnson had, indeed, gone through an incredible decade. For seven years Johnson rained down on the broadcasters a plague of dissents. He became famous, much admired, the most celebrated advocate of citizen action in the federal government, but among broadcasters he was roundly despised, and Broadcasting, the industry trade magazine, predicted that when his term ended there would be "dancing in the streets.’’

But in autumn, in his final days in office, nothing happened; no dancing in the streets, no last invectives from the kept editorial writers of the trade press, no movement to reappoint Nick Johnson, nothing but silence and unconcern. Nick Johnson no longer seemed to matter, not to many of his friends and certainly riot to his enemies. Nick Johnson remained preeminently a man of the 1960s, a figure who embodied the extravagant rhetoric and ambition and media drumbeating of a decade. He became such a paradigm in part because he was older. Like Timothy Leary or Charles Reich, he stood far enough from the soothsayers of youth to view them through a prism of longing, to take their ideas and feelings and to become a public prophet, to merchandise their private virtues.

Johnson had been the most radical appointed official in Washington, but, by the time his term expired, being a radical was no longer fashionable. Abbie and Jerry had been turned off (Abbie most literally by a drug arrest in New York); Rolling Stone had suited up in gray for the l970s, the go-go kids of Wall Street were finished, and only in the Nixon Administration did the Youth Revolution succeed, with Jeb Magruder and John Dean making Americans wish once again for the wisdom of experience. Johnson found himself shouting in an empty stadium. He did not know what he really had accomplished at the FCC, though he was always ready with a list of his achievements, but he just did not know, and he spent hours those last weeks brooding about his experiences and wondering what it had all really meant.

When Johnson arrived at the commission in mid-1966, at the age of thirty-two, he may have appeared young in everything but assurance, yet he represented the finest flower of the meritocracy. He had already served for twenty-eight months as Maritime Administrator, upsetting the more sedate bureaucrats of that agency with his energy and dedication. Some mornings as he walked from the bus stop to his office, he timed the trip with a stopwatch, walking up the corridor in cleated shoes, his staff hearing the click-click-click-click of the taps an instant before he rushed through the door to begin his typical twelve-to-fourteen-hour day.

Married at seventeen to the one girl, the only girl, he had mortgaged his youth on his future. They had had a child, and they had lived the scruffy life of student-parents, managing an apartment building, managing part-time jobs, scheduling their days, scheduling their evenings, him finishing up, getting out in three years, Phi Beta Kappa, moving on, moving up, the University of Texas Law School, law review editor, clerking for Justice Black, on to teach administrative law at Berkeley, teaching more courses than anyone had ever taught before, up to Covington and Burling, the most prestigious Washington law firm of them all.

During Johnson’s first year and a half on the FCC, newspapers often referred to him as the former professor, the scholar, the don. He was the good liberal, talking a technocratic poetry, full of visions of “a new era of cooperation between government and business." He was much like Daniel Ellsberg in his early years, brilliant but narrowly brilliant, seeking to rationalize, to streamline the FCC, to staff the agency with the best young lawyers, to clean house.

AT THE FCC JOHNSON witnessed what he considered an aberration of democratic government. He had already seen what had happened over at Maritime when he had tried to turn down the spigot of subsidy funding and he had infuriated the shippers, the unions, and members of Congress from seaport areas. And here the FCC was supposed to he allocating broadcast frequencies, setting the rates for the Bell System and other common carriers, determining broad policies, all in the public interest. A whole sub-government had developed around the FCC, however — the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association; Broadcasting, the trade magazine; the Washington lawyers of the Federal Communications Bar Association; the public-relations consultants — an organism wrapped so closely around the commission that it often was hard to see just where the government ended and the sub-government began.

Johnson did not rapidly become “the shrill and frequent critic of the actions of his elders” as Broadcasting charged. He felt his way toward the dissenter’s role slowly. But his forcefulness, his originality, represented the greatest threat to the broadcasters; to them lethargy at the FCC represented health. To them regulation was the handmaiden of tyranny, and they feared Johnson and his good intentions. Commissioner Kenneth Cox was saying many of the same things, calling for heightened public impact, but he wasn’t saying them the same way. Cox was a shy, reclusive man with all the charisma of a sleeping owl.

Some of Cox’s friends within broadcasting came to him and warned him that Johnson had begun to get the reputation of a headline hunter. “I went and told Nick about it,” Cox says, “and Nick said that the minority on the FCC had always carried on their battle in a closed manner, writing dissents that are listened to only by broadcasters. He said that he wanted to break out of that. He wanted to create a public base.”

Johnson had made, then, what would prove the crucial decision in his career at the FCC. He would not play the role of the lonely dissenter, the prod, the conscience, member of a noble minority of three or two or one. He would go outside the agency, outside the sub-government. He would forge a constituency, an interest group, with publicity as his main building blocks.

Early in the decade the civil rights struggles already had proven the extraordinary power of publicity. Films on the network news programs of Negro demonstrators being beaten could do more to further integration than years of traditional organizing. The antiwar movement also came to depend on such moral witnessing, on great gatherings of the people in Washington, first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, gatherings that were rites of passage entitling the novitiates to full membership in the Movement. Nick Johnson may himself have been part of only a small coterie of advocates devoted to improving television but he knew, he truly knew, that there were tens of millions of Americans out there waiting to have the word laid on them.

JOHNSON CALLED his first book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, a title that could have fitted his every speech, his every article. He described the broadcasting industry as “without question the single most economically and politically powerful industry in our nation’s history,” and went on to write that this greatest of communications media had become little more than a huckster for Madison Avenue, ignoring the ghettos and the young, caricaturing the nation’s realities, perverting the very soul and marrow of American life.

Most of that had been said a hundred times before in the journalism of the liberal elite, but not often so trenchantly. Johnson, however, went far beyond a simple diagnosis. For he believed that under the light of public scrutiny the festering institutional corruptions of the FCC would cure themselves. In his final chapter, “Reforming Television,” he pointed out that individual television stations holding three-year licenses are only the temporary users of the public airwaves, and he as much as suggested that citizen groups jump in and challenge license renewals. Johnson had several other ideas — a citizens’ commission on broadcasting to monitor performance; free access to the airwaves for citizen groups; increased funding for public television — all ways to forge commercial broadcasting into a quasi-public utility within the free enterprise system.

To publicize his ideas Johnson developed into an extraordinary speaker, intimate and folksy; in the last six months of 1970, he appeared before thirty-one groups. He courted reporters, greeting them with instant intimacy, pushing his truths on them, packaging his ideas in neat, irresistible little chunks, then asking to see their quotes. He set up a computerized typewriter in his back office to send his letters and releases out across the country. He had a part-time employee clipping newspaper and magazine articles, keeping him informed, keeping him with it.

Johnson chose his assistants with enormous care. He brought in young Ivy League law graduates, some of whom might just as easily have been legal clerks for Supreme Court justices. He gave them great freedom for the year they stayed with him, and he sucked out their ideas, their energy, their passion, and merged them with his own. He burdened them with work and they kept at it, the best of them, for they were feeding both their idealism and their ambition, doing work they believed in, and beginning what could easily prove extraordinary careers.

The output of Johnson’s office was astounding. Media monopoly, racial problems and the broadcast media, cable television, computers, dishonest advertising, corporate censorship, telephone rates — Johnson spoke or wrote on practically every area that touched on communications. His dissents, written as Justice Black thought legal decisions should be written — intelligible, stripped of legal mumbo jumbo — were themselves educational tools.

Here, as everywhere else, Johnson made it clear that he believed he was serving “on a commission whose standards are no standards, whose administrative policies are the non-policies of avoidance and deference, and whose members are quite frozen into public-interest timidity by their long years of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil decision-making.” And here, as nowhere else, those who called Johnson overwrought, over emotional, only had to go to the court records to see how often his had been the judicious decision.

WHEN THE FCC VOTED 4 TO 3 to approve a merger between ABC and ITT, Johnson filed his first opinion, an eighty-five-page dissent laced with an anger rarely found in legal briefs. “The majority treatment of this case," he wrote, “in my judgment makes a mockery of the public responsibility of a regulatory commission that is perhaps unparalleled in the history of the administrative process.” The Justice Department itself finally filed suit against the merger and ITT backed down.

Decision after decision, time after time, Johnson and his staff filed their lengthy dissents. He sat in the commission hearing rooms listening to the story of how WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, had outraged the black citizens who make up 40 percent of that community’s population, ignoring their problems, blacking out a Today Show episode of whites attacking black civil rights demonstrators, cutting away from a network interview with an NAACP leader. Here was as outrageous a misuse of a broadcasting license as had been heard before the FCC, and yet the commission twice voted to let WLBT keep its license. Eventually,, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the order and took the license away, a landmark decision. The courts turned other FCC decisions around, too, chastising the majority, and Johnson continued to prod.

“Nick accomplished what nobody has ever accomplished before,” says Al Kramer of the Citizens Communications Center, a public-interest group. “He took an institutional problem, and he made it into a very sexy political issue.” Johnson met with foundation heads and liberal leaders, and he was extraordinarily effective in convincing them of the importance of television. He met privately with Kramer and Ralph Nader and other consumerists. He had soon become as much an advocate of consumerism as the other commissioners were of the broadcasting establishment.

To build a public constituency he had to couch his issues dramatically and simply, so when he called the FCC “corrupt” the professional staff took it personally and began to hate him. Then, in December 1970, he gave a speech in London in which he implied that Dean Burch, the new FCC chairman, was part of a Nixon Administration strategy to control the press, a speech rich in detail and anecdote, strung together by innuendo. Burch, the only commissioner who equaled Johnson in inteligence and energy, and a man whose conservatism was by no means a code word for reaction, was infuriated. Burch could no longer stand to listen to him, and at commission meetings, when Johnson went on and on in that Movement drawl of his, Burch would interrupt, call him “childish,” and tell him to stop repeating himself.

NICHOLAS JOHNSON had moved outside the system. Many young professors, journalists, foreign-service officers, and lawyers revolted during the late 1960s but most of them understood the elegant pas de deux of dissent, dancing to success past their more stolid contemporaries. They meant what they said surely, but they understood the parameters, the gossamer edge of propriety.

Johnson unfortunately had a gift of metaphor, of deadly satire that he employed with abandon in his speeches, chastising and ridiculing the commission. His staff tried to prune the invective from his speeches, but frequently he would go off in his own words. He came to thrive on applause, on attention, far more so than most politicians. When he went up to the Hill to testify, he was a delight, a showman, witty and ironic and eminently quotable. He was constantly experimenting with his style, tinkering around, finding what would work best before the largest audience. In this he was like so many of the 1960s pundits who did not or could not distinguish between propagation and thought, ultimately failing both as propagators and as thinkers.

There was an ironic and inexorable logic to Johnson’s career once he decided that the media would be his ultimate weapon; much as in the antiwar movement, each failure, each setback, each frustration only escalated his rhetoric. Johnson tried to build a broad movement, but like Reich and Hoffman — and to a lesser extent, the McCarthy and McGovern activists — he felt an implacable hostility toward the unsaved and the unknowing.

In the capital, politicians of substance have their personal wounds quickly cauterized and sewn up. Johnson was not like that; his personal life lapped over into his professional life. He knew that well enough, and he gave in to it. He grasped at youth. He left his wife and took a simple apartment. He began cooking his own food and biking to work and he stopped buying clothes. He grew his hair long, covering his bald spot. He laced his speeches with rock lyrics — he even wrote some lyrics himself, though he did not often have time to listen to rock music.

Johnson believed in this new generation, and in the spring of 1971 it all came together in his speech at Yale, “The Careening of America, or How to Talk Back to Your Corporate State.” Charles Reich — also a law professor and a former law clerk with Justice Black — had just written The Greening of America.

“At my office I was surrounded not only by machinery — copying machines, electric typewriters, dictating machines, and so forth — but also by people paid to operate them for me, answer my telephone, and bring my coffee,” he told the two hundred Yale students in Strathcona Hall that spring evening in 1971. “I had, in short, taken very nearly all my life support activities — ’my life’ — and cut them up into bits and pieces which I parceled out to individuals, corporations, and machines around me. The upshot was there was very little of it left for me to live.” Johnson went on to tell the students how they should manage their lives. “If you start looking around for simplification, ways to make you less possession-bound and give you more chance to participate in your life, the opportunities are endless. . . . Bread can be toasted in the broiler of the stove. Carving knives and tooth brushes really need not be electrically powered. Put fruit and vegetable waste in a compost heap instead of down an electric disposal. I took up shaving with a blade, brush, and shaving soap. It’s kind of bloody, but it’s more fun.”

THE LAW REMAINED the hard center of Johnson’s intellect, but he had wrapped about it scraps of ideas from Erich Fromm, Paul Goodman, Marshall McLuhan and Rollo May, Robert Rimmer and Alvin Toffler, Vance Packard and Thomas Wolfe, quotes from Hesse and Ou Yang Hsiu and Rilke and Adelle Davis and Thoreau, until his intellect risked becoming like a cheap, imported base ball, perfect in appearance but soon breaking apart spilling rag stuffing out across the playing field.

Nick Johnson had taken the dogmas, the, truisms of youth and used them a the driving engine of his ambition. He had rock music playing in his outer office, but those who were close to him realized that his professional life had changed very little. He believed in this new ethic, this counterculture, counter-America, but he believed in accomplishment as well. He believed in openness, in letting it all hang out, in speech and life-style, but he was the least candid of men.

In March 1972, Johnson went out to Iowa to decide if he should run for the Senate. He announced his decision from the backyard of the family house in Iowa City, first raging against the war in Vietnam, against pollution, against corporate corruption, saying what an honor it was that so many Iowans had asked him to run, and then concluding that "the decadent state of big-money control of government is so rampant today that efforts to work from with in the system may be as futile as they are demoralizing . . . it is basically unfair to have to fight a campaign against such enormous amounts of money and the odds it creates.” He had yearning in his voice, for he wanted it both ways; he wanted the laurels of the Establishment and the moral purity of the reformer, and lie returned to Washington to serve his final two years at the FCC.

Johnson had become a truth-monger. He had said everything he had to say about television, and he had said it a hundred times. He still testified on tile Hill, but they had heard it all before. Johnson had his quotes, his ideas, written on three-by-five cards, and the cards were worn and yellowing. He was repeating himself and he knew it. He jogged, he exercised at dawn, he rode his bike to the office, he was in fine condition, but underneath the layers of energy and drive, he was exhausted. He had been touted as a college president or a law school dean, but the whole youth timing was fading, and he was no longer a prime candidate. He got an agent for books, another for speeches, and he went out looking for foundation money to finance a national public-interest broadcast group, but most of the major foundations were not interested. He had no end of people who wanted to use him — hustlers looking for grants, Gallery magazine wanting him to do a column — but he had no one whose advice he trusted.

Even some of those within the FCC who over the years were critical of the way he went about reform were saddened by his leaving, for they realized that once he left, the FCC would become even more overtly a captive of the industry. “I don’t understand what has been happening to him," one administrator said. "Nick has been effective. His ideas have achieved a great credibility. Perhaps, once your ideas have become institutionalized, more is expected of you. Perhaps you have to become kookier and kookier, and perhaps in the end no matter what you do the media aren't interested."

The young lawyers working with consumer groups to change television understood more than anyone what Johnson had accomplished. "No one has done more than Nick," Al Kramer said. "In an ideal world I don't know what I would have him do now, but I do know that he's going to be punished for doing the job he was supposed to do. And I suppose that's a horrible commentary on our society that a man like Nick Johnson may well have no future."

TO WASHINGTON'S POLITICAL establishment this was all an object lesson. One of the capital's most powerful lawyers, an adviser to Presidents, loyal to the laws of power, not of party, a man who has won the hard currency of his wealth himself by his knowledge of Washington and its ways, spoke of Johnson behind the shield of "not for attribution." He patronized Johnson with a gentleness that could as easily be credited to disdain as to sympathy. "Many people would rather have an issue. They'd rather be the advocates. He probably tried to get these issues, but the process of change is one of compromise toward constructive ends. That's not Nick's style. As for his future -- a college presidency? Never. No, I suppose he can work in a public-interest law firm."

When I last talked to Johnson before he left the FCC, he sat barefoot in his office rocking chair reading an article about to appear in The Yale Law Journal. One aide had gone on vacation to Michigan, another on a Caribbean cruise, boxes cluttered one of the rooms, and it seemed as if the rooms themselves were turning back into the somnolent quarters that graced the rest of the FCC. He sat there among souvenirs — a geisha girl in a glass box, Japanese prints, awards on the wall. I asked him why he had said nothing against the Vietnam war until President Johnson left office, and Nick Johnson went on and on justifying himself far more than he had any need to. I asked him about his future, and he went on and on detailing opportunities and saying it did not matter anyhow and that I would be doing myself and my magazine a disservice if I speculated on his future. He said that he didn't feel under any pressure to do anything in particular after he left, and he pulled his pocket watch out of his pocket after twenty minutes or so and said I would have to finish up. And as I was leaving he reminded me that he would like the right to respond to any critical comments about him. Of course, I said. Of course.


Laurence Leamer is a free-lance writer. His Harper's article, "Bangladesh in Morning," received an award from the Overseas Press Club for excellence in foreign reporting.