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Why the Media Love Presidents and Presidents Hate the Media


ISSUE:  Spring 2000

You have had the same experience that I have. Perhaps it was at a memorial service, at which one person spoke of the deceased as a father, another as a husband, another as a coworker, and another as a best friend. Or maybe it was at the rehearsal dinner for a wedding, with toasts from people who knew the bride or groom as children, as friends, as students. In each case, the words that were spoken were about the same person. But they offered different, complementary accounts.

I say this to prepare you for what is coming in the next few pages. This essay is going to end up being about the relationship between the presidency and the news media. But first we need to consider how the news media developed in this country. And we need to do so in two different, but complementary ways.

The first account is of the news media themselves. Until the 1920’s, the news media consisted entirely of print media: newspapers and magazines. What Americans knew about the world of national politics and government, they knew because they read it. They read about the president, of course, but they could just as easily read about Congress and the Supreme Court. Partly as result of this, presidents did not dominate the public space. The journalist Fred Barnes recently remarked that in the contemporary national news media, every question boils down to one: “How is the president doing?” That simply was not the case during most of our history.

Then came radio. In 1920, there were two radio stations in the United States, one in Pittsburgh and one in Detroit. Two years later there were 500 stations. Five years after that, the NBC and CBS national radio networks were up and running.(So, by then was VQR.)

Radio wrought a tremendous transformation in American political life, perhaps greater than the transformation later wrought by television. Radio brought politics and government directly into people’s homes. In particular, radio brought them one member of the government, the president. Why the president and not Congress or the Supreme Court? Congress speaks with many voices, and it does so in ways that radio did not like: cacophonously, and according to no script. The Supreme Court does not speak at all, at least not for the broadcast media. But the president speaks with one voice, and almost always in a scripted, coherent way.

It took a while for presidents to master the new medium. Herbert Hoover tended to shout his speeches into the radio microphone as if, for all his training and experience as an engineer, he really could not believe that his voice would be heard around the country if he spoke normally. Franklin D.Roosevelt was the first to grasp fully not only the technology of radio, but also the setting in which people listened to radio. When the president spoke over the airwaves, he was heard not by great masses of voters in an arena, but by families in their living rooms. And so FDR developed the Fireside Chat, in which he spoke to Americans in a conversational voice, as if he had just dropped in to tell them what was going on in Washington.

Television added pictures to the spoken word. The 1950’s were for television what the 1920’s had been for radio: in 1950, 90 percent of American homes did not have a television set; by 1960, 90 percent did. But more than just adding pictures, television placed a premium on pictures, as became apparent in 1960 during the first truly national television event, the September 26 presidential debate between John F.Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Not many people can remember a thing that was said during that debate, but almost everyone remembers what they saw. There was Nixon, utterly inattentive to the demands of television, haphazardly made up and wearing a light grey suit that, on the black-and-white television screen, faded into the light blue background. What viewers saw of him, therefore, seemed spectral, ghostlike—a pale, seemingly disembodied face floating in the middle of the screen. Kennedy, on the other hand, was expertly made up and wore a dark suit that stood out crisply against the background. He also did something that Nixon did not do: he talked directly into the camera—that is, directly to the audience at home— instead of to Nixon or the panelists who were asking the questions.

JFK was to television what FDR was to radio. He was the first president, for example, to allow the television networks to broadcast his press conferences live. At the time, this seemed an incredible act of confidence and courage. Insiders knew that the president’s aides had prepared him in advance for every possible question. But here is what the television showed: on the one side, the president, dramatically alone, like a gladiator in the arena; on the other side, a crowd of reporters hurling what appeared to be sharp verbal spears at him, which he fended off with seemingly heroic grace and skill.

Ronald Reagan represented a further step up the evolutionary ladder of media and politics. He was a professional actor who for many years had earned his living by relating appealingly to audiences through the camera lens. This made him unusual but hardly unique. Every president in the television age must have an actor’s skills. Some have the skills of the talk-show host: they are quick-witted and think well on their feet, like Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Others, such as Reagan, do best with a prepared text. But a politician cannot rise to the top of the political system nowadays without learning to be good on television. It is part of the presidential job description.

Newspapers, radio, television—in recent years, cable television has joined the ranks of the news media. Its main effect has been to segment the television audience, and the internet has segmented that audience even further. Political junkies can have all the politics they want, all of the time. For everyone else, the media can be a politics-free zone. It used to be that if the president gave a speech or held a news conference, for example, every broadcast network would cover it live, and the television audience had no choice but to watch. Now the networks are more likely to say: let people watch the speech on CNN or C-SPAN.Presidents have to work very hard both to get on the air and to attract an audience. That is why the State of the Union address has become so important—it is the one speech that every network will telecast every year. Indeed, one could argue that Clinton’s presidency was saved by three State of the Union addresses: the one he gave in 1995, soon after the Republicans gained control of Congress; the one in 1998, right after the news broke about Monica Lewinsky; and the one he gave in 1999, on the first day of his impeachment trial in the Senate. Each of these speeches was a rhetorical tour de force that successfully drew attention to the president’s strengths as a political leader and away from his weaknesses as a man.

Thus ends the first account of how the news media have evolved: newspapers to radio to television to cable and the internet; the printed word to sound and then pictures.

II

The second account of how the news media have developed has to do with the approaches to politics that the media—print, broadcast, and telecast—have taken over the years. Once again the story begins in the 19th century, then rapidly fast-forwards into modern times.

The political press of the 19th century was literally conceived in partisanship: the capitol’s first newspaper, The National Intelligencer,was founded in 1800 because President-elect Thomas Jefferson pressed the idea on an editor, Samuel Harrison Smith. No one doubted that the Intelligencer was the house organ of the Jeffersonian party or that the paper would be rewarded for its loyalty with all of the government’s printing business. Nor was it any surprise that the change of political parties that followed Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 produced a new paper (The Globe) edited by a member of Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, Amos Kendall, or that this paper would henceforth receive such subsidies as the government had to give.

Washington correspondents from newspapers around the country were as unabashedly partisan during the 1800’s as the Washington newspapers themselves. As Bernard A.Weisberger points out in his book Reporters for the Union, a journalist might describe one senator as having “a fawning, sinister smile; a keen, snaky eye; . . .his whole air and mien suggesting a subdued combination of Judas Iscariot with Uriah Heep.” The speech of a senator who shared the reporter’s partisan views, however, was “full of marrow and grit, and enunciated with a courage which did one’s heart good to hear.” No one complained about biased coverage because no one expected anything different.

Partisan journalism survived as the dominant approach to covering political news until the end of the 19th century. But around that time, two forces, both related to the rise of a national economy, began to militate for change in the ethic of partisan journalism. First, a large class of readers developed who were educated and interested in receiving accounts of political news that did not try to make up their minds for them. Second, wire services such as the Associated Press—which, as the telegraph spread, were serving more and more newspapers in every part of the country—decided that partisanship was bad business. In the course of pleasing one party’s newspapers, the wire services would displease not only the other party’s, but also all of those readers who wanted their news unleavened with overt political bias.

A digression. I have just mentioned a word that is crucial to any understanding of the news media in this country: business. With rare exception, American media organizations are privately owned businesses with their gaze fixed on the bottom line. What is more, they are retail businesses that only make money by giving customers what they want. Thus, when we look at a television screen, we are looking in a mirror. And when we complain about what we see on television, the only answer is, Let’s vote with our remote controls.

In any event (end of digression), a century ago, when more and more people started demanding unbiased political news, a new paradigm emerged in the news media: objective journalism. No paper embodied this approach better than The New York Times.When Adolph Ochs bought the Times in 1896, its circulation was 9,000, Yet, writes David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, Ochs “wanted as little partisanship as possible.” Even as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Worldgained renown by fanning the flames of rebellion in Cuba into the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Times’s more subdued appeal to educated readers raised its circulation almost tenfold by 1900.Soon it became the standard by which all American newspapers were judged.

The ethic of objective journalism could be stated simply: the business of the press is to report the news, not to make or evaluate it “Reporters and editors were to check their personal opinions and judgments at the newsroom door and report neutrally, with an emphasis on qualities such as providing balance and getting the facts straight. The main subject of objective journalism’s political coverage was the sayings and doings of public officials. The kind of stories objective journalism typically produced were summaries of congressional debates, with long quotations from both sides of the issue, and presidential campaign dispatches that told readers what the candidate said, the weather, and the size of the crowd, the latter based on the police chiefs official estimate.

Objective journalism was a useful corrective to the partisan press, and it still is what most people want most of the time from the news media. But over the years, objective journalism’s limits as a way of telling the public what it needs to know about politics and government have been revealed.

The major problem with confining journalists to neutral and nonjudgmental reporting on the words and actions of public officials became clear in 1950 when Senator Joseph McCarthy began his freeswinging campaign against the State Department’s imagined” 205 card-carrying Communists. “Although most reporters knew better, they felt constrained to write stories that summarized McCarthy’s charges and left it at that. In this case, Douglass Cater observed in The Fourth Branch of Government:

The extent of the communications failure McCarthyism presented can be measured by the fact that few of the reporters who regularly covered McCarthy believed him. Most came to hate and fear him as a cynical liar who was willing to wreak untold havoc to satisfy his own power drive. But though they feared him, it was not intimidation that caused the press to serve as the instrument for McCarthy’s rise. Rather it was the inherent vulnerabilities—the” frozen patterns of the press—which McCarthy discovered and played upon with unerring skill. “Straight” news, the absolute commandment of most mass media journalism, had become a strait jacket to crush the initiative and the independence of the reporter.

An additional limit on truth produced by the norms of objective journalism grew out of its stimulus-response character. If the rules require that stories be written on a subject only after a public official has spoken or acted, then the news media have ceded control of the definition of news to those who are its objects. An incident in Peter Maas’s biography of New York City policeman Frank Serpico illustrates the problem. David Burnham, a reporter for the Times,wrote a story about police corruption based on what he had learned from Officer Serpico and others. The editors sat on it: Serpico was not a public official, and if they ran the story, they feared, it might seem as if they were making the news, not reporting it. As it happened, Burnham met Mayor John Lindsay’s press secretary at a party and told him what he had learned about the police department. Two days later, the mayor announced an official investigation. Only, then, when given the stimulus—a public official had acted—did the Times respond by running Burnham’s story.

Watergate, more than anything else, brought home the limits of objective journalism. While White House aides plotted their crimes within a hundred feet of the press room, White House correspondents stayed busy writing up the day’s presidential announcements or tagging along on the president’s latest trip. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two police reporters, broke the story for The Washington Post.Not a single Watergate story was uncovered by the White House press corps—they were too busy doing their jobs as objective journalists.

The news media’s answer to the limitations of objective journalism that Watergate revealed so dramatically was investigative journalism. The investigative model was the mirror image of two qualities of objective journalism. If objective reporters looked at what officials said and did publicly, investigative journalists would look at what they said and did behind closed doors. If objective reporting moved in response to official behavior, investigative journalism would take it upon itself to be the stimulus. Investigators would go after stories, not wait for them.

The triumphs of investigative journalism are legendary and legion. But, like its partisan and objective forebears, the investigative model has limits as a way of telling readers what they need to know about the political system. First among these limits is the emphasis on scandal. Not only is scandal not typical of government, it is not typical of the problems of government. Most of government’s failings have little to do with bribery or sex or even fraud and venality. They are much more deeply rooted in the hidebound lassitude of political institutions and in the public’s excessive and contradictory expectations. These are subjects that investigative journalism, as much as objective journalism, shuns.

III

Why spend so much time and space explaining the forms of the news media that have appeared over the years and the varying approaches that the news media have taken in their coverage of government and politics? My defense is the defense of the oceanographer who explains why he focuses on the 99.999999999 percent of the ocean that lies below the surface instead of the waves on top. The waves are more visible. Superficially, at least, the waves are more interesting. They are certainly more exciting. Yet the waves are hardly characteristic of the ocean as a whole, and it is the ocean that an oceanographer wants to understand. Similarly, we need to understand the deep and unchanging relationship between the presidency and the press, not the superficial one.

At first glance, this seems a fool’s errand. Nothing appears more changeable than the relationship between the president and the news media. Political scientists, in their search for order, have described a cycle in press-president relations that they say recurs in every administration: first an alliance phase, during which journalists and the White House have a shared interest in promoting “gee whiz” stories about the new president’s personality and policy agenda; then a change to competition (the novelty wears off and the coverage becomes more critical); and finally, a term-ending period of detachment, or virtual cold war between the president and the news media. Other observers are more likely to find changes and variations in press relations from president to president: Carter’s were terrible, Reagan’s were good (but not as good as Kennedy’s), etc.

Still other analysts characterize each president’s relationship with the press in the frenzied manner of a fight announcer. During Clinton’s first year in office, for example, he was described by media critics as, in roughly this order, up (the inauguration), down (the controversy about gays and lesbians in the military), up (his economic plan), down (his $200 haircut), up (his appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court), down (his unpopular budget), up (NAFTA passed), and so on.

Finally, some analysts of the relationship between the president and the news media emphasize the latest changes in techniques and technology, especially those involving cable television and the internet. These analysts find the Clinton era significant because of the new strategies of communication that the White House has employed, such as televised “town hall” meetings, hour-long prime-time chats on CNN with Larry King, the NAFTA debate between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot, and a busy White House home page on the World Wide Web.

One can find pieces of the truth in all of these analyses. But, change of various kinds notwithstanding, the media’s treatment of President Clinton—and of all recent presidents—has been more constant than variable. In particular, two main elements in media coverage of the presidency have generally been constant: first, a superficial cynicism, and second, an underlying exaltation of presidential strength. Or, if you will, waves of cynicism atop a deep ocean of exaltation.

IV

Cynicism first. Historically, journalistic cynicism toward the presidency can be traced to the era of Watergate and its precursor, Vietnam. White House reporters felt that a breach of trust occurred in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s: they had been lied to repeatedly by presidents and their aides and, by reporting those lies in good faith in their newspapers and news broadcasts, they had been used. The political scientist Stephen Hess describes “the residue of that era” among the Washington journalists he interviewed for a major study as “distrust of public institutions and politicians in general.” That distrust has carried over into such routine events as the presidential press secretary’s daily news briefing where, according to a former Newsweek editor, “reporters vie with each other to see who can ask the toughest questions and never let Watergate happen to us again.”

But a more deeply rooted and important source of cynicism plagues journalists. It is the “status frustration” of the White House press corps. This frustration has developed out of the large and growing gap between the reporters’ social and professional status, which is exalted, and the job itself, which is degrading.

Of the high status of the presidential press corps, little needs to be said. The White House correspondent is part of the whole social circle of Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries, K Street lobbyists, and prominent members of Congress. Professionally, the presidency is among a small handful of what Hess calls “high-prestige beats” in Washington; some list it first in the media pecking order. White House reporters are usually guaranteed prominent placement for their daily dispatches and tend to be high on the list of journalists who are invited to give paid lectures and write magazine articles or books. The presidential beat is also a gateway to better things in the profession. Halberstam describes it as “an institutional ticket. The guy who gets to the White House goes on to some bigger job,” such as editor, columnist, or television anchor. Ask yourself: what were Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Leslie Stahl, Judy Woodruff, Sam Donaldson, Chris Wallace, and Brian Williams doing before they became network anchors?

In stark contrast to these external indicators of success and prestige for the White House correspondent is the job itself, which has been aptly described as the “body watch.” The body, of course, is the president’s, and the purpose of the watch is to find out everything he does in his waking hours, both officially and privately. To do that means staying near. As one White House reporter put it, “the worst thing in the world that could happen to you is for the president of the United States to choke on a piece of meat, and for you not to be there.” An executive producer for a television network says, even more starkly, “We cover the president expecting he will die.”

Staying near “the body,” however, is a goal that usually can be achieved only in the most technical sense. To be sure, the White House press room is just yards away from the Oval Office, but the distance is seldom spanned. Reporters not only are forbidden to roam the halls of the Executive Mansion in the time-honored modus operandi of their profession, but their free access even to the office of the president’s press secretary is limited to his assistants’ outer sanctums. Charged by their editors to body-watch the president, reporters typically must rely on the secondhand reports of the press secretary, who comes out once a day to brief them, or on other presidential aides or visitors to the Oval Office, who may choose to speak to them or not. When reporters are allowed to see the president, it is almost always from behind a barrier and with clear injunctions spelling out what they cannot say and do. Members of the White House press corps enjoy high status in part because they are so visible, but the irony, according to the media scholars Michael Grossman and Martha Kumar, is that “they are visible because of the large amount of time they spend waiting for something to happen— for the briefing to start, for the president to appear for a White House ceremony in the Rose Garden, for a visitor to arrive, for a statement or a transcript to be released.” They are like Milton’s army, of which the poet said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The frustration that journalists feel in a job whose main activities are stenographic is enormous. A briefing room full of White House reporters when the press secretary appears is not unlike a classroom full of junior high school students who have just been told that a substitute teacher is on the way. In their daily reports to the public, in which professional and editorial standards forbid overtly hostile displays, status frustration, joined to the hangover from Vietnam, Watergate, and other recent scandals, shows up in more subtle form. As one study of the subject records, television reporters now typically present news about the White House along with a tag line that casts doubt on the credibility of what has been said or on the reliability of the person who has said it. “The administration claims its plans will work, but the true result is still to be seen.This is Dan Daring, ABC News.” Thus do reporters indicate to their viewers that a cynical approach is a realistic approach when analyzing the motives of the president and his advisers.

Cynicism boils over into overtly negative coverage when a president’s honesty comes to be doubted. Nixon and Watergate; Ford and the Nixon pardon; Carter’s reluctance to fire the scandal-tainted budget director Bert Lance; Reagan, Bush, and Iran-contra—in all of these cases from the 1970’s and 1980’s, suspicion of presidential wrongdoing seemed to provide journalists with a license to place a black hat on the president’s head and white hats on their own. Not surprisingly, reporters took out after the Clintons when questions were raised about the propriety of their investment in the Whitewater real estate development during his tenure as governor of Arkansas. “Monicagate”—or, as the on-line magazine Slate insisted on calling it, “Flytrap”—was hardly the beginning of Clinton’s scandal-related problems with the news media.

V

The title of this essay includes the phrase “Why Presidents Hate the Media.” The explanation should by now be apparent: presidents hate what they cannot control, and they cannot control the cynical attitudes or the investigative energies of the press corps.

But what about the other half of the title: “Why the Media Love Presidents”? To be sure, if love is a feeling, then clearly that statement is wrong. But if love describes action, it turns out to be right. The press’s cynicism and investigative zeal notwithstanding, in the absence of scandal, presidents still receive mostly favorable coverage in the news media. As the journalist and former White House staffer James Fallows writes in his excellent book, Breaking the News, “The ‘toughness’ of today’s media is mainly a toughness of demeanor rather than a real toughness of reporting.”

Strong evidence exists to support this conclusion. In their study of how Time magazine and The New ‘York Times have covered the presidency since 1953, Grossman and Kumar found that about twice as many stories were favorable to the president as were unfavorable. This was true not only for the period as a whole but also for most of its post-Watergate years. Their study of a decade of “CBS Evening News” coverage yielded similar results. Yet, if anything, this two-to-one ratio in favor of the presidency understates the true situation. Flattering pictures of presidents in Time, the Times, and CBS outnumbered unflattering ones by margins of 33—1, 34—1, and 6—1, respectively. As for local and regional media, they tend to be even more supportive of presidents than the national media.

Still more pertinent to the issue of journalists’ treatment of the presidency are the kinds of actions by presidents that generate the most favorable coverage. According to Grossman and Kumar, reporters respond enthusiastically to presidential actions that convey strength, especially those in which the president appears decisive, seems to be in command, or is praised by others for his leadership. In sum, when strong action—or the appearance of strong action— comes from the White House, journalists tend to file stories that applaud it. The extent to which this tendency continues is evidenced by the titles of the most influential book on Reagan and the press, Mark Herksgaard’s On Bended Knee, and the corresponding book by Howard Kurtz about Clinton’s media relations, Spin Cycle.

A puzzle remains: why do reporters who are cynical about presidents continue to cover them favorably? The most important reason is occupational necessity. White House correspondents must file at least one story every day, usually more. Because of the severe limitations that are placed on reporters’ ability to gather information independently, the president or the press secretary is in a good position to define the agenda they cover. “They have this huge built-in element of control over you,” explains one White House correspondent. “You’re locked into this little press room with only a telephone connecting you to the rest of the White House, and they have the option of taking your calls or not. All you get is staged events—press conferences, briefings, photo opportunities.” Another reporter observes that “every day when [the press secretary] gets out there he determines with his opening statement what the news is going to be for that day.”

Editors demand more than a daily story from their White House correspondents; they also expect the occasional exclusive (or “scoop”) to give them a leg up on the competition. These almost always come about through leaks of information by members of the White House staff. Such leaks usually are intended to make the president look good: the personal success of presidential assistants, after all, is tied very closely to the political success of the president. But according to the late Peter Lisagor of the (also late) Chicago Daily News,reporters have little choice but to use what they get: “The competition and competitive pressure is such that guys have to get a story. If they get something that someone else might not have—no matter how self-serving [for the president] it may seem and no matter how hardnosed they may feel themselves to be—they may often go with the story.” White House reporters are especially afraid of falling behind their competitors. As one said, “when you’re covering something else and you get beat [on a story], no one knows. When you’re covering the White House and you get beat, your editor calls you at home.”

Considerations other than occupational necessity contribute to reporters’ favorable portrayal of a powerful presidency. For example, their worldview, or implicit conception of how the political system works, greatly affects how they perform their job. “Journalists define the center of government action as the executive,” note the political scientists David Paletz and Robert Entman, and “personalize the institution as one man.” A recent study of network evening news programs found that, depending on the year, they devoted three to 13 times as much attention to the president as to Congress. Favorable or unfavorable presidential coverage may be less important than the coverage itself. Simply by dwelling on the presidency, the media reinforce images of its strength and importance.

We are about to elect a new president. The lessons of this analysis for Clinton’s successor in his dealings with the news media are clear. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, however grudgingly it may do so. Don’t fondle it either. Don’t obsess about it. Above all, don’t avoid it. Instead, act strongly and honestly as president and favorable press coverage will follow as a matter of course, whether cynical reporters like it or not.

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