Ominous Parallels for a Free Press

Two hundred years ago, "Jemmy" Rivington, a popinjay Tory editor whose anti-liberal scallawaggery would have delighted Spiro Agnew or Richard Nixon, founded "Rivington's New-York Gazetteer."

With his ornate cane, his velvet clothes, his rich Englishman's air of snootiness, Rivington's manner alone would have made him a hate object for 1773's scruffy liberal patriots. But he was also a helluva writer, and his witty barbs and protective air toward the Tory community drove the patriots to hysteria.

Predictably, they hung him in effigy. Rivington ran a wood-cut of the hanging and advised the revolutionary ruffiians that "The Printer....has considered his press in the light of a public office," and therefore he would print-and-the-Sons-of-Liberty-be-damned.

In the name of freedom, the Sons of Liberty mobbed him and all but destroyed his presses. Rivington rolled up his fine cambric sleeves and went on printing. When the Revolutionary War finally broke out, Rivington was arrested and forced on pain of permanent prison to sign a loyalty oath to our young and proudly free nation. Broken at last, he did, and died a bookseller in New York.

And how little has changed--just the colorations, and the fact that the wrecking mob uses the White House as its headquarters. For it is Richard Nixon (and now with so many confessed or convicted we can say it) and his crew of criminals who have set the scene for the mobbing of today's Gazetteers.

In several cases, Nixon's own hand has been on the wrecking bar, his own fingerprints' on the press-ruining bucket of sand. When the Boston Globe's Tom Oliphant was indicted for covering a mercy drop at Wounded Knee, I asked deputy press secretary Gerald Warren whether Nixon was aware of what was going on. Unequivocally, for a change, Warren said "yes." Thus it was the president himself who approved the dragging out of that reckless case until finally even the Justice Department had to wipe the indictment off its books. Nixon's trophy: agony for Tom Oliphant and his family and some $30,000 in legal fees for the Boston Globe.

Similarly, when the FBI arrested me earlier this year on a charge of possessing Bureau of Indian Affairs documents with intent to use them, the White House was informed within two days that the FBI had no case. The FBI had evidence I was covering the return of the documents, not stealing them. Yet the White House let the case stumble on for almost two weeks while the FBI seized our toll call records for months back and learned the names of our sources from them. Finally, a Federal grand jury and the Justice Department threw the case out of the same day. But at a cost: two weeks of hellish anxiety; thousands of dollars from Jack Anderson's pockets for legal fees; thin-stretching of our small staff during the two weeks I had to spend preparing my case.

When Nixon's crony and bagman Charles "Bebe" Rebozo was under investigation by Newsday's great (in girth and ability) Bob Greene, John Dean, the president's counsel, decided to win one for Bebe. He sicced White House enforcer Jack Caulfield (so Caulfield has secretly testified) on the unsuspecting Greene. Caulfield suggested to the IRS that they audit Greene. Sure enough, at IRS urging, Greene was audited by New York state. He owed not a penny: the audit cost him only his time, accountants' charges and his peace of mind.

Indirectly, Nixon's irrational (or perhaps it is one of his more rationally based fears) hatred of the press has also created an umbrella under which others securely wreck the Gazetteers.

"Jemmy" Rivington might well sweat printers ink in the grave over such atrocities against the First Amendment as these:

* Federal Judge Winton Arnow fined CBS $500 because its artist did some sketches from memory after she left the courtroom, for use in her network's Gainesville Eight coverage.

* In a Baton Rouge case, the Nixon Supreme Court majority allowed a Federal judge to cite reporters for contempt because they wrote about an open hearing.

* The Supreme Court sanctioned a TV reporter's going to jail for 30 days because he refused to talk to a grand jury about his Attica prison sources. With 30 days facing him, the reporter talked.

These are only a few of the lesser-known cases. Elsewhere, numerous reporters have been jailed. Others, like Joe Kraft, an eminently respectable columnist, have had their home phones tapped and been followed by the FBI. For a scary few minutes, Watergate conspirator Gordon Liddy thought he was under orders to kill Jack Anderson (he had only been told to "get" him by non-lethal means) and was ready to do the 007 thing for dear old CREEP.

Incredibly, most of Washington's newsmen (like the public at large) have greeted these foreshadowings of Chile, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Soviet Russia and diverse other police states with bleatings about how "it can't happen here."

For those of us who have been handcuffed in broad daylight while we were reporting, or chucked into jails for short or long periods, the fears are far more acute.

To be sure, Nixon is on the defensive for the instant. But his rattlesnake hatred of a free press is only scotched, not dead. The threat to us remains, latent and anxiety-producing. We do not think that the time-worn old slogans about "The people's right to know" are enough to make the people really give a damn.

What we need is for the people to recognize that, scattershot as we may be, we are all they've got. To cite a few examples:

When the rare brutal cop knocks in a son or daughter's (or one's own) teeth after a minor pot bust, if the press has been forced down the drain, then that cop will be around to knock out some more teeth.

When the municipality pays $2.5 million for a $2 million turbine, if the newspaper is out of business, no one will expose the mayor, city inspectors and contractors who conspired to share the $500,000 boodle money. The taxpayers will simply have to pay the $500,000 and vaguely wonder what hit them.

When another Caesar-possessed president decides he wants to crisp Latins or Southeast Asians in the name of freedom (along with assorted U.S. servicemen), if there is no loud-mouthed media to ring with the debate, then we'll be into another impossible war without ever really hearing about it.

How do we get this bread-and-butter-and-bombs idea of the press across? History has not taught us well. After all, clearly "Jemmy" Rivington's importance was that he exposed the excesses of the Sons of Liberty and protected the rights of the grumbling Tories: the small, individual, daily citizen's rights. Yet who but a few journalism majors ever heard of Rivington?

Just as clearly, the press's best hours in 1973 have been when we exposed Nixon's housebreakers, burglars, wiretappers, would-be blackmailers, police staters who would sack our small, individual, daily citizen's rights. Who but a few remember that....already.

Leslie H. Whitten is the lead investigative reporter for columnist Jack Anderson and author of The Alchemist.