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."