The Presidents and the Press

Obama Press Conference
The Obama administration used a secret subpoena to obtain two months of records on 20 separate Associate Press phone lines. Photo courtesy Rena Schild /

President Obama isn’t the first president to incur the wrath of America’s media. For most of his first term, he had a fairly good relationship with the press. If he was relentlessly attacked by some networks, he was given fairly friendly coverage from others. But all that goodwill flew out the window when the press learned that the Department of Justice had been trying to track down leaks of sensitive information by subpoenaing the phone records and emails of reporters.

As we look back at former presidents’ relations with the press, we realize how different it was in the days before our defense relied so heavily on secret intelligence.

Coming into the 20th century, newspapers were on fairly good terms with the president, according to reporter Herbert Corey. His 1932 Post article “The Presidents and the Press” explains that the media got their stories from a small handful of reporters selected by the chief executive.

President Theodore Roosevelt added a new feature to this arrangement. He would announce an impending action to a reporter on Sunday, knowing there would be little news in the Monday morning newspapers to compete for readers’ attention.

When the story appeared the next day, he watched the reactions from Congress, the press, and the public. If the response was too critical, Roosevelt would abandon the idea. And he would deny the story, leaving the friendly reporter alone to face the public.

President William Howard Taft came to the White House assuming that this pleasant arrangement would continue. His favorite reporter would arrive daily at the White House. Taft would chat with him and pass on whatever news he felt like sharing.

Soon other reporters were clamoring for the same access. Taft relented and invited in a select number for informal briefings. But when one of these newly admitted reporters published an “impertinently personal” story about Taft, the president was enraged. He petulantly canceled every appointment he had that day and refused to attend a state dinner in the evening. Eventually the first lady, Helen Herron Taft, pressured him into attending the dinner, but he arrived late. The story behind his late arrival was widely shared among Washington’s reporters, but none dared to print it for fear of causing another presidential outburst.

President Woodrow Wilson realized Taft’s methods of communicating with the press wouldn’t meet modern demands for more timely and more detailed news. He believed the American public wanted to know everything the president was doing. And so, one hundred years ago, he held the first press conference. At first, things went well; Wilson had already shown a talent for handling the press when he was governor of New Jersey. As president, he assumed reporters would appreciate his openness and would eagerly pass on his message to the public. He soon realized that they were straying from his points and was incensed when a reporter printed a personal story about his daughter. When he appeared before the correspondents, according to Corey, he said what many presidents have wanted to tell the press, “I am about to address you as Woodrow Wilson and not as the president. … This must stop. On the next offense I shall do what any other indignant father would do. I will punch the man who prints it in the nose.”

President Calvin Coolidge and Reporters
As seen in this Library of Congress photo, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed very pleasant meetings with the press—so pleasant that he held 520 press conferences in four years.

Wilson enjoyed generally enthusiastic support from the press as he sent American troops to fight in the First World War. But after the war, the newspapers were highly critical of Wilson’s Peace Treaty and his League of Nations, which would involve the United States in a global peacekeeping body. With many newspapers bitterly attacking what he felt was the only way of preventing future wars, Wilson lost his trust in the press. In 1919, he stopped holding press conferences.

By the time he left the White House, Wilson was so disillusioned with the press, according to Corey, he warned his successor, Warren G. Harding, “Be careful what you say to the press.”

But Harding was a newspaperman. He’d successfully run Ohio’s Marion Daily Star for 30 years. Corey reports that Harding said, “I know all about reporters. They will not throw me down.” Which, of course, they went and did.

“He had assumed they were friendly. Most of them were friendly to him, personally, but professionally they were cold as snakes,” writes Corey. In 1922, Harding made an uninformed remark about a naval treaty, implying that Japan was not covered by the mutual-protection agreement. “Instead of warning Mr. Harding, they printed the story. It was hardly on the streets before the Secretary of State was in the White House to offer his resignation.”

From this point on, Harding insisted that all questions from the press be submitted in writing, which might prevent him from making careless remarks. And when Congress began investigating the illegal sale of government oil by Harding’s secretary of the interior, he found he had very few friends in the press corps.

President Calvin Coolidge had an easier time than Harding, not because the press had suddenly become more respectful, but because he entered the White House during a time of peace and prosperity. The press was less inclined to dig into his remarks for an exposé. Also, ‘Silent Cal’ was not given to talking too freely; he made no embarrassing slips of the tongue that reporters could turn into news items.

The good times that prompted the press to take it easy with Coolidge ended seven months after his successor took office. The American press had sung the praises of President Herbert Hoover when he’d saved war-torn Belgium from starvation, and he’d been secretary of Commerce during the Coolidge prosperity. But when the economy collapsed and unemployment rose to 25 percent, the press became highly critical.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Reporters
President Theodore Roosevelt at his Sagamore Hill home telling reporters what to say about him. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

President Franklin Roosevelt got better treatment from the press simply for not being Hoover. In time, however, the criticism grew, particularly when Roosevelt pushed hurried new legislation and—especially—when he proposed expanding the Supreme Court with a few, administration-friendly judges. Yet, even with all the hostility, the press never mentioned Roosevelt’s paralysis, or printed pictures of the president in his wheel chair. It was a courtesy never requested by the White House but extended nonetheless.

All the way up to the time of President Harry Truman, the press conferences had been off the record. If the president misspoke, he had the chance to offer a corrected quote. So when Truman told reporters in 1950, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator [Joseph] McCarthy,” he worked with reporters to issue a more acceptable do-over: “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.”

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to speak entirely on record in the press conferences. He was also the first to televise the event. In 1960, the press’s regard for the war-hero president changed after it learned the government had lied about the U-2 spy planes that had been flying over the Soviet Union. That scandal ushered in a new era of heightened suspicion and mistrust, which President John F. Kennedy inherited. A new spirit of adversity grew as the administration began launching covert operations. The Bay of Pigs, the attempts to assassinate Castro, and the introduction of American ‘advisors’ to Southeast Asia—all increased the skepticism and, at times, outright hostility of the media.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the White House could safely pass war news to the public because it was weeks, or months, old. Today’s conflicts are, more than ever before, wars of time-sensitive intelligence. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are conflicts between our government, whose job is the gathering of intelligence, and our press, whose job is to broadcast it.