As the American media's distrust of federal leaders peaked, Jesse Helms, then a broadcast executive, offered to be an FBI "contact" and make WRAL-TV's facilities available to the agency, newly released FBI files show.
Helms "is most cooperative and has offered the facilities of his station to assist the FBI at any time," according to an FBI memo from September 1971. "He is a great admirer of the Director [J. Edgar Hoover] and the FBI and for a long period of time has been a staunch defender of the Director and his policies."
Helms, a five-term U.S. senator and one of the foremost figures of American conservatism, died on July 4, 2008. His death triggered the release of the FBI files, which are largely investigations into roughly 20 cases of death threats and extortion attempts against the senator.
Before his election in 1972, Helms was an executive vice president and assistant CEO of the Capitol Broadcasting Company, which operates WRAL. He was known for his fiery editorials for the station, which was then, as now, the region's dominant broadcast outlet.
Steve Hammel, WRAL's vice president and general manager, said he is not aware of the station ever being used to assist the FBI. The FBI report was the first time he learned of the relationship.
"I have read the same report that you have read, and I have no knowledge that the television station was used in any capacity like that," he said.
Helms' relationship with FBI was struck months after revelations that the FBI had long been engaging in covert operations intended to disrupt civil rights, anti-war and other left-leaning political groups, using such techniques as fake letters claiming members were involved in extramarital affairs. That summer, also before Helms communicated with the FBI, major news organizations released the Pentagon papers, an internal history of the Vietnam war that exposed the government's duplicity.
Media's historic role
A key tenet of American journalism is independence from government officials. While the media have wavered over the decades - the McCarthy era in the 1950s, for example - journalism historians said most news organizations in the 1960s and 1970s didn't act as liaisons to those in power. Some did pass off FBI smears without attributing the source; Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and aide to three Republican presidents, acknowledged the practice when he was an editorial writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the early 1960s.
"It was not something that a responsible journalist would want to do, certainly not publicly," said Andie Tucher, a journalism professor and historian at Columbia University.
The FBI files shed little light as to how Helms or the TV station might have assisted the agency. A 1973 FBI memo makes reference to "several telephonic contacts" between Helms and an FBI official, but does not mention any subjects.
By then, the files show, he had been "deleted" as a contact by virtue of his election to the U.S. Senate.
Like other conservative Southern journalists, Helms followed Hoover's lead in trying to discredit civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement, saying they were influenced by communists. In numerous editorials broadcast on WRAL, Helms tried to tie King to communism.
In December 1964, when Hoover described King as the "most notorious liar" in the country, Helms defended Hoover and criticized King's "wild statements," according to Helms' biographer William A. Link.
At Helms' behest
The files also contain a few instances in which the FBI was called upon to investigate matters pertaining to Helms' campaigns and his political activities.
In 1978, the FBI received third-hand information that Helms' campaign was paying blacks $50 not to vote in his campaign against Democrat John Ingram. The information suggested that former Raleigh Mayor Clarence Lightner had handled some of the money.
Lightner died in 2002. His son, Bruce, who has seen the investigative file, called the allegations "ridiculous."
"That just would not have happened," Bruce Lightner said. "If there were ever two polar opposites in Raleigh, it was Jesse Helms and Clarence Lightner."
Carter Wrenn, a political consultant who managed the 1978 campaign, laughed when he heard the allegations.
"That's a fairy tale," he said.
Two years earlier, the FBI had looked into a newspaper report that Helms had illegally used a congressional room for a fundraiser on behalf of a Montana U.S. Senate candidate, Stanley C. Burger. The FBI launched a "preliminary inquiry," and the files indicate it ended there.
Staff writer Joseph Neff contributed to this report.
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