Presidents and the Press — A Brief Modern History
In our fair republic, it is an essential skill for presidents to communicate effectively with the press. The press is the first draft of history, the bridge between politicians and the public, the protector of our freedoms, the purveyor of information. And so on and so forth.
Despite all these vaunted responsibilities, the press is not perfect; far from it. Like any other institution, it is populated by human beings, and humans make mistakes. Just like us average folks, reporters can be swung by their own biases, they can be myopic, and even a bit vindictive. Kind of like presidents sometimes.
Managing a relationship with the press is part of the president’s job, but that wasn’t always the case. For much of the first century of our country, newspapers wrote about the president from afar. There were no press conferences, and there certainly wasn’t interviews with reporters. Some presidents would occasionally throw a quote or two at a reporter in mixed company, but it wasn’t until our 17th president Andrew Johnson decided to grant the first sit-down interview with the press that things began to change.
It would be another big leap to 1913 before the first formal presidential press conference was held, and it was a bit of a stumble-bum affair. Freshly inaugurated Woodrow Wilson told the assembled reporters, “Please do not tell the country what Washington’s thinking, for that does not make any difference. Tell Washington what the country’s thinking.” This is of course exactly the opposite of how reporters saw their job and what the country would come to expect of the Washington press corps. But kudos to Wilson for being transparent enough to admit that he saw the press as a tool of the White House. Future chief executives would be more sly. Or try to.
Calvin Coolidge granted more access to reporters than any president up to that time. Ironically, it was “Silent Cal” who established the concept of regular press conferences. In fact, according to the Coolidge Foundation, he still holds the record for the most in-person press conferences. He also used that new-fangled invention called radio to deliver monthly addresses to the country.
Despite Coolidge’s effective use of radio and the unprecedented level of access he granted reporters, it is Franklin Roosevelt who is widely considered the first president to master the airwaves and create a robust relationship with the press. This is a disservice to Coolidge, but it is somewhat understandable. Coolidge kept the press and the public in touch with what was going on, but Roosevelt used the press to soothe the nation during a time of crisis.
Roosevelt was the perfect chief executive to bring the president-press relationship into the modern era. His mannerisms, his cheery public disposition, his Eastern accent, and upper class cadence and delivery were tailor-made for broadcast media.
Roosevelt used good humor and the appearance of unprecedented access to woo the media, and most of the time it worked. But FDR’s relationship with the press eventually soured. Reporters, like the courts, saw some of Roosevelt’s actions to combat the Depression as a power grab and an unprecedented expansion of executive power. Which was pretty much true. FDR’s petulant response to the criticism only confirmed their fears.
He used the FCC to hamstring radio stations that disagreed with his policies and likewise froze out reporters and newspapers whose editorial bent was not openly pro-Roosevelt.
We don’t hear much about this side of Roosevelt these days because history of his time in office has given way to hagiography in many circles. Truth be told, FDR would have given Richard Nixon a run for his money when it came to fighting dirty with the press.
Fast forward to that other great communicator of the modern presidency, Ronald Reagan, who used a different tactic with the press. Reagan was the happy warrior, never letting himself get dragged down into the mud. He had surrogates who were happy to take on the role of the heavy, while he told jokes and stories that sometimes conflated real life with movies he appeared in back in the 50s. Another of his favorite tricks was to pretend he couldn’t hear reporters shout questions across the White House lawn.
Reagan, like FDR, mastered the art of controlled access — getting the media to engage with him on his terms while making them feel like they were getting unprecedented access to the Oval Office. Later in his presidency, when things started to slide off the rails with Iran-Contra and his own increasingly faulty memory, Reagan was still able to maintain good relations with the press. He would talk above the issues, change the subject, or play dumb, and still come out ahead. The heavyweights of the White House press corps like Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson got wise to Reagan’s ways, but it didn’t matter.
Reagan’s affability has been largely absent in his successors. George H.W. Bush told a reporter to shut up one time. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were remarkably thin skinned with the press when things didn’t go their way. George W. Bush called a New York Times reporter “a major-league asshole.” To be fair, he was caught on a hot mic making a comment not intended for public consumption. Still, it laid bare his true feelings about some members of the news media.
Of course, President Donald Trump currently wears the heavyweight championship belt for bad press management. Tangling with CNN’s Jim Acosta and revoking his White House press pass did not do anything to endear Trump with the media. Then again, Trump was never endeared by the media, may never be, and doesn’t seem to care either way. He relies on Twitter to communicate with his base and for the most part lets his press shop maintain the White House’s crappy relations with the press corps.
Trump’s relationship with the press is at best lousy, and at worst epically disastrous. When he was a private citizen, Trump’s brash style was par for the course for a New York-born-and-bred real estate mogul. Some people expected him to change that image when he became president. He believes it is that image that made him president, so we can only expect him to double down, not trade out.
While Trump’s popularity with the public may be perpetually poor, the news media doesn’t fair much better, a fact that vindicates Trump’s behavior to himself and his supporters.
This is a shame because it does not serve the American public, those of us Trump is leading and the news media is supposed to be informing. If Trump is truly aloof of the press and does not care about the media, then he would be better served by staying above the fray, not getting into schoolyard scraps with reporters at press conferences or making petulant comments during interviews. This behavior may suit Trump just fine, but it mars the dignity of the office he holds, makes it harder for him to carry out his agenda, and makes things harder for the next guy who will follow him.
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