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The Once to Future Worlds of Presidents Communicating

Stephen Hess

The question I ask myself is how did we ever get from there to here? From those halcyon days of 1958 when I joined the White House staff as a twenty-five year old speech writer for President Dwight Eisenhower to forty years later awaiting the next shockwave to hit the bunker of President Bill Clinton.

Social scientists and historians can help us make this journey when they explain differences in rhetorical styles and abilities of presidents, when they chart changes in organizational arrangements relating to media relations, when they detail the strengths and liabilities of press secretaries and other aides, when they explain the circumstances of events.

But what if we could move the Eisenhower presidency to the president? Imagine a 1998 White House inhabited by a president of sterling character and limited rhetorical skills, six years in office, with a staff of modest size and deep experience, and a scandal involving top presidential aide Sherman Adams giving favors and taking gifts from New England industrialist Bernard Goldfine. Such alterations in science fiction always produce profound changes.

Yet, the media respond to the transposed Adams crisis with overheated debate on CNN’s Crossfire, shouted predictions from John McLaughlin’s gang, exhaustive critical analysis on MSNBC, hard-edged comments from Rush Limbaugh, and behavior that Larry Sabato calls feeding frenzy. In short, journalists are responding to their own drummer, not the president’s.

Moreover, the response is determined by the characteristics of the dominant news medium. During the Eisenhower presidency (and previous twentieth-century presidencies), coverage largely reflected the traditions of print journalism, especially of the elite eastern newspapers; news of the presidency from John Kennedy through Ronald Reagan’s first term was shaped by the three broadcast television networks; the second Reagan term ushered in the era of cable television. The older news operations stay in business, of course, but are forced to make competitive adjustments. Presidents also are forced to make adjustments. How Americans perceive their presidents, and how these perceptions change, may be better understood when viewed through the lens of each era’s dominant medium.

The Newspaper Era (Ending with Eisenhower)

Television households in 1952 were 39 percent; morning and evening newspaper circulation, 53.8 million; U.S. population, 151.3 million. The newspaper era in Washington focused on information, rather than entertainment. Its style was wire service neutral. Reporters were faceless; no bylines, for instance, appeared in the weekly newsmagazine. The power-broker publishers had been replaced as journalism’s celebrities by a few columnists—Walter Lippmann, Joseph Alsop, James Reston—whose fame rested on analysis (as when in the Rogers and Hart musical Pal Joey a stripper sang “Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today” while removing her garments.)

Political scandals were about money.

Presidents communicated largely through set speeches and press conferences. Franklin Roosevelt met the press twice a week; Harry Truman once a week; Eisenhower once a month until his illness. Press conferences were controlled by the president. FDR couldn’t be quoted without his permission; Eisenhower’s appearances were eventually filmed, but the film was not released until after the conference. These sessions were considered so important that the New York Times hired a limousine to transport its reporters back to the Washington bureau.

A press office of three professionals was exclusively concerned with the care and feeding of about fifty reporters representing major (mostly print) news organizations. If space is an indicator of importance around the White House, journalists did not rate high; squeezed into a tiny press room no bigger than an standard-size hotel room, they spent most of their time lounging on worn leather couches around the perimeter of the west wing lobby, their unsightly fedoras stacked on a large round table with elephant legs that William Howard Taft had brought back from the Phillippines, waiting to be summoned into press secretary James Hagerty’s commodious office Philippinesfor an announcement.

The unequal relationship between White House and press clearly tilted in the president’s favor, but was somewhat adjustable depending on the skills of the chief executive.

The Broadcast TV Era (Kennedy through Reagan I)

Ninety percent of U.S. homes had television by the mid-1960s. After the network evening news was expanded from fifteen minutes to a half hour in 1963, programming became heavily Washington-oriented. The coaxial cable only stretched from the anchorman in New York to the capital. Twelve of fifteen lead stories came from Washington during a typical week on the three networks in 1978. ABC, CBS, and NBC carried all presidential press conferences, even in prime time, and since they dominated the market they could afford to do this without fearing competitive disadvantage. Electronic journalists initially brought print standards to television, but they were no longer faceless and started to emerge as celebrities. CBS’s Walter Cronkite was described as the most trusted man in America, with NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley not far behind. Newspapers, no longer able to be first with breaking news, began to rethink their role: some chose to accent analysis, others tried to imitate television.

Sex started to emerge as a subject of political scandals. (1)

The White House created more space for the press. A briefing room was built on top of the swimming pool between the west wing and the residence. The White House also created a new unit, separate from the press office, to coordinate administration-wide public relations and to reach out to the media beyond the Washington beltway.

Author

John Kennedy turned news conferences into live happenings. Ronald Reagan, guided by Michael Deaver, lured cameras onto the beaches of Normandy and other settings that could advantage a president. The era of network television was an enlarging time for those presidents who knew how to take advantage of it. For others—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—it was a harsh searchlight.

Juxtaposed with the constant chaos of Congress, the unitary character of the presidency appeared to be designed for network television, a medium that has trouble dealing with “on the other hand.” But the supremacy of network television was not to last long.

The Cable TV Era (Reagan II to present)

Cable penetration passes 50 percent in 1987, rising to 67 percent by mid-1997; morning and evening newspaper circulation is 58.2 million in 1995, virtually the same as in 1950, while U.S. population has risen by 100 million to 250 million.

Suddenly the average home was offered fifty or more channels. As a provider of cheap programming to fill the expanded needs of cable TV, in 1981 John McLaughlin created a show featuring journalists as performers, each with his/her own point of view and personality. CNN added Crossfire in 1982; CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel increased the available face time for journalists. From faceless in the print era to celebrity in the broadcast era to entertainer in the cable era.

CNN and CNN-clones preempted the networks as the loci of breaking news. The networks responded by reorienting their evening news programming to consumer-friendly features and gotcha investigations, with less presidential news as regular fare.

Without an audience of near-monopoly proportions, the networks reacted to the low ratings of presidential news conferences by rotating the risk. Only one of three need be burdened at any time. Reagan in his second term became the first president to have a request to televise a speech turned down. By 1989 the three networks had been acquired by corporations for whom producing news was no longer considered a loss leader.

Tape replaced film and new editing techniques made news packages faster paced and more visually attractive. The length of presidential candidates’ soundbites declined from forty-three seconds in 1968 to seven seconds by early 1996. Extended speech or news conference excerpts were no longer necessary. Politicians adjusted to what they thought would get them on the air. “Read my lips, no new taxes” was a line crafted for maximum attention. News programs showed less of the presidential candidates and more of the correspondents.(2) The high-price talent had to be given exposure. As reporting moved from observation to interpretation, news about presidents became more critical and the public told pollsters they saw more bias in journalism.

The cable era had its effect on newspapers. “Everyone in Washington watches CNN and so do the editors in every news organization around the country,” according to Washington bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News.(3)

“Its pervasiveness has reduced the amount of control each news organization can exercise over what gets into its paper or TV station; once a story has been live on CNN, it’s much harder to argue that it shouldn’t be in the paper, even if it has a questionable basis in fact.”

The circumstances of the times also effected the public’s appetite for news, of course. Interest was high during the Gulf War of 1991. Otherwise, with the end of the cold war, news of diplomacy and national security—previously the number one subject of stories about presidents—precipitously declined; with rising prosperity, journalists concluded there was less interested in political stories.(4)

Presidents had to work harder to attract positive attention. Some estimates claimed public relations accounted for as much as a third of White House personnel. Presidents went on MTV and late night shows. Talk show hosts were invited to the White House. There were fewer formal news conferences. Presidents spent more time on the road; they were still a big story in Ashtabula and Muskegon.

Bill Clinton and other presidents in the cable era are hardly without communicating resources. There is simply a lot of media around, including National Public Radio, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, straight arrow wire service reporting, and ideological journals and columnists of their persuasion. But changes in the landscape, in how they reach their constituents and the world, can be importantly explained by changes in the media. Which brings us into the future.

The Era of the Internet? (Post-2000)

The Pew Research Center has described news usage on the Internet as “growing at an astonishing rate.” The percentage of Americans getting news from the Internet at least once a week went from 4 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 1998, with thirty-six million Internet news users. These people might be considered the country’s “news junkies” in that they claimed going on-line was not a substitute for traditional news sources.(5) The next generation of Americans will not necessarily be big consumers of news, but they will be big Internet users.

Whether the Internet becomes the dominant medium or simply another important player in the media mix, it will effect the future of presidents communicating. As such, there are three characteristics that can have consequences. (Two are troubling, one is promising.)

Speed

Forty years ago, when Ike was president and news of the presidency was brought to us by the likes of the New York Herald Tribune, a reporter with an important story had the traditional working day to seek confirmation, additional details, and editing. Twenty years later, when Jimmy Carter was president, the comparable time to prepare and check a story for a network reporter rushing to get on The CBS Evening News had been cut in half. By the time Bill Clinton became president and CNN was on a 24-hour news cycle, ABC’s choice was either to immediately air a bulletin or get scooped, and the morning newspaper was yesterday’s news. By the sixth year of the Clinton presidency, the time between reporting and revelation was starting to be measured in nanoseconds. In what were the first signs of the impending Internet era, the Dallas Morning News and the Wall Street Journal put sensational news about the president and Monica Lewinsky on their websites rather than wait until the papers came out the next day. They avoided being scooped by cable competitors; they also had to apologize for being wrong.(6)

Gossip/Rumor

“Every citizen can be a reporter,” Matt Drudge told an audience at the National Press Club. He should know. With a modem and a 486 computer Drudge went from folding T-shirts in the CBS gift shop to producing a daily Internet report of gossip and information that he claims has had up to a million hits a day. Some days he gets it right. (As when he announced that Newsweek was delaying publication of a story about Clinton and a young intern.) Some days he gets it wrong. (As when he accused a White House official of beating his wife.) In introducing Drudge to a National Press Club audience, Doug Harbrecht of Business Week said,

He moves with the speed of cyberspace, and critics charge he has no time to know his sources or check his facts. Like a channel catfish, he mucks through the hoaxes, conspiracies and half-truths posted on-line in pursuit of fodder for his website. That can have unpleasant consequences.” Drudge replied, “All truths begin as hearsay.” (7) 

But Harbrecht’s criticism is more than guild resistance to newness and change. At best, the journalism community sees the Internet’s “every citizen a reporter” as sloganeering for what is often inaccurate information, compounded by speed, lack of training, and the absence of editorial filters; at worst, “every citizen a reporter” is the cover for a collection of conspiracy theorists and nuts who use the Internet as “a free and universal platform for ignorance and hatred.” (8) 

Information

Journalists moving into the television age eventually had to adjust to the reality that television was primarily an entertainment medium. Serious documentaries of the early network period were made possible by huge profits otherwise earned, by personnel trained in a print age, and by FCC public service regulations. When profits declined sharply news divisions cut costs and restyled themselves as entertainment engines producing prime time magazine shows. Cable television as niche broadcasters did not have the same problem as there were enough viewers at the margins to make a profit. The World Wide Web when it first surfaced in 1993 was viewed by investors primarily as a vehicle for entertainment. But the technology was simply not able to offer “the full-motion video and sound that consumers expect,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.(9)

Substantial fortunes were lost. What was a success on the web was information: wire service news, stock quotes, sports scores, weather reports, economic data. Trying to buy into an Internet future over 1,300 newspapers went on-line by 1996, often offering rich archival material to the cognoscenti. When I asked my summer interns to get all their news of the presidency from the Internet—don’t watch television or listen to the radio, I said—they invariably started their web searches with newspapers, then branched out to other print sources.

A basic rule of future-gazing is that tomorrow will be like today. In that way prognosticators can be right more often than wrong. But in this case, they would be wrong. An Internet future must be different. Will presidential communicating in the Internet era be more misinformation more quickly delivered? Or will technology bring news of presidents full circle to a speeded-up and vastly expanded version of the Herald Tribune? Or more likely, will it be both, further separating America into two media societies, one awash in specialized information, the other with an unending diet of tabloidism?

ENDNOTES

1. Congressman Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox, “The Argentine Bombshell,” made news in 1974; former Senator Gary Hart, Donna Rice, and the good ship “Monkey Business” in 1987.

2. See Catherine A. Steele and Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Journalism of Opinion: Network News Coverage of U.S. Presidential Campaigns, 1968-1988,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 13, no. 3 (September 1996): 187-209.

3. Letter to author, June 23, 1998.

4. Stephen Hess, “The Washington Reporters Redux, 1978-1998,” in Howard Tumber, editor, Media Power, Professionals and Politics (London: Routledge, forthcoming 1999).

5. News release, “Internet News Takes Off,” The Pew Research Center, 1150 18th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, June 8, 1998.

6. See David Shaw, “New Media Playing Field Opens Way to More Errors,” Los Angeles Times, (Washington edition), August 6, 1998, and Steven Brill, “Pressgate,” Brill’s Content, July/August 1998: 142-143.

7. See Matt Drudge, “Anyone With A Modem Can Report On The World,” address before the National Press Club, Washington, June 2, 1998, http://www.frontpagemag.com/Archives/miscellaneous/ drudge.htm

8. Claude-Anne Lopez, “Prophet and Loss,” The New Republic, January 27, 1997: 28.

9. See Jared Sandberg, “It Isn’t Entertainment That Makes the Web Shine,” Wall Street Journal, July 20, 1998, pp. A1, A6. 

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