tv QA Presidential Press Coverage CSPAN February 23, 2020 11:05am-12:00pm EST
partisan difference, if you disagree with the president the speaker should be free to do so, but this is what troubles me. there are ways in which our elected officials we expect to share some common agreement on issues or at least a sense that they share -- they have important roles to play, they should rise above their policy differences. >> watch tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span's q&a. ♪ susan: patty rhule, in your job at the newseum for the past many
years, you and your team have been charged with telling the story of the news media in society. we're going to talk today about news media and presidents. when you think about that relationship from a macro standpoint, what has characterized the relationship between presidents and the press throughout our history? patty: it is an interesting courtship, that relationship between the presidents and the press. early on during, the campaign years, the candidates want to woo the press. they want to put on the best face. they know the power of the press to get their message outside. but when they get in office and the confetti is down and the celebration is over, and the reality of governing comes in, and they realize that the role of the press is to be a watchdog, to be the people's watchdog on government, to see how are they doing the job that they are doing. to be a check and balance on the president. few presidents enjoy being criticized. that is often the role of the press. so that relationship for people who don't understand that, it can go very badly. susan: we're going to talk about
changing media over time, and also changing reporting styles. so, when did the tradition begin that the news media should be an impartial judge? so much of our history, news reporting was you read the side that you were attuned to. when did that shift? patty: it was a 20th century ideal. in the george washington days, the press was highly partisan. remember, it was the publishers
and the printers who make the case for it being time to separate from great britain and king george iii. it was highly partisan. highly volatile. printers were being tarred and feathered, their presses burned. it was highly volatile. we talk about how divided we are as a country, being an msnbc person or fox news person, but back in the early years of our country, in the first several presidencies, it was very much that way. susan: and even continued past the civil war era. patty: absolutely. susan: lincoln, you have to read
both sets of newspapers to understand what was going on there. thinking in general about successful presidents, is there a correlation between presidents who know how to work the newsmen and women of the time, and the ultimate success of their presidencies and how they are viewed in history? patty: absolutely. i think presidents who understand the media of their day are able to deal with it smoothly, understand
the press, make friends with the press. we saw that john f. kennedy, how he had that cuddly relationship with members of the press who knew things about his private life that were perhaps not very flattering and chose to overlook it. of course, it was a different time then. presidents who understand the role of journalists, who respect them for what they do, who respect the first amendment. freedom of the press is part of the first amendment. we were the first country to make that part of our governing laws, so it is very important to
our very foundation, our dna as a country. so it is presidents who are not thin-skinned, who understand the role of the press as being the voice of the people, and those who understand the medium of their day and are able to project through that medium. susan: we're going to dig into history, but not in chronological order. i want to start with the nixon presidency. the relationship between president nixon and the press seemed strained throughout much of his public life. john farrell just did a landmark nixon biography, and if you look in the index there are 16 citations under media's mutual enmity with nixon, setting the stage for it. during the cold war era, when he was a senator, he made a name for himself as a anti-communist warrior. the media in the 1940's and 1950's looked upon richard nixon in those days, how and when did it begin to change to become more antagonistic? patty: he makes a national name for himself during the house on
unamerican activities committee hearings where he's pressing people about communists in the government and alger hiss. that is the height of the red scare, where people were terrified that there might be communists in our government. there were communists in our government. and yet the republic still stands. we are still here. then he is on the ticket with eisenhower, general eisenhower, on his vice presidential ticket, and a report surfaces that mr. nixon has perhaps taken finances from someone and he should not have done so. so he goes on television, and he is in hot water with eisenhower as well as the country, he goes on television and gives his famous checkers speech. this is probably the height of nixon's success with television. he goes on and talks about how the only present he has ever gotten was his dog, checkers, and both of his girls love checkers and we're going to keep him. so americans thought, oh, what a good dad he is. so he becomes vice president. in his presidency, his mistrust
of the press is a landmark of his time in office. after he loses his first run for the presidency, he goes back to california and then loses another race for governor in california, and at a famous press conference he says, you are not going to have me to kick around anymore to members of the press. that is his attitude. that is pretty much prevailing. during the white house era, he creates an enemies list of reporters who are friendly, who are not friendly, has the f.b.i. investigating reporters. so that poor relationship with the press is never resurrected. it certainly did not help him much when two young journalists from "the washington post" dig into the watergate break-in and it goes all the way to the white house and he resigns his presidency. susan: from that unsuccessful california governor's race, from john farrell's biography, he writes, "the california press corps knew the state and its issues. they believed that nixon was using the governor's office as a stepping stone, and bridled at his haughty expectation that they owed him a free pass. they met him with skepticism and sometimes hostility. he returned the favor, labeling them as prostitutes and hatchet
men." patty: tough to get over that. [laughter] that kind of a conversation. how do you get past that, when that's kind of setting the stage for it? and of course, we have the famous kennedy-nixon debates, when nixon has just come out of hospital. he's had an infection. he doesn't look good. the first nationally televised presidential debates. john f. kennedy, handsome, rested, very at ease in front of the camera, a former journalist himself. people who listened to the debate on the radio thought nixon had more content, but the people who saw it on television were mesmerized by the telegenic appeal of john f. kennedy. susan: really interesting since you cited two earlier experiences, when he seemed to understand the power of the media. the televised committee hearings, and then also the checkers speech. so was it more the circumstance, do you think, of his illness, or is it not known why he did not do so well in the kennedy-nixon debates? patty: i think people generally feel that it was pretty much that he -- i think they asked
kennedy, did he want makeup? he was very tan already. he said, no, i don't. nixon perhaps felt it was not manly to put makeup on. that was probably a bad gamble on his part because, of course, makeup helps everybody look better on television. not you, susan. you look perfect without makeup. doesn't matter. but that was the decision he made and the illness did not help. it was a poor performance on television. but radio, better. susan: once the watergate story broke after his landslide election, when we look at what happened between the white house and how the white house that day responded to crises versus what we're seeing with the white house today responding, it was a very different era in the media. what are some of the lessons on reporting around the time of watergate, and what the media was like then versus today that people might be interested in? patty: i think cover-up is always a mistake. whenever you are putting so much energy in a cover-up, that is always a bad sign. they really circled the wagons against the press and the media.
the sort of saturday night massacre events that happened. we are seeing elements of that today with the trump presidency. the sudden people leaving office, people who have served their government and their country for decades and decades as civil servants, as military servants, suddenly leaving. those are anomalies that the press is going to cover. when shocking things like that happen, the press has to give people an understanding of what is going on there. susan: we have our first piece of video to share with you and the audience. this is richard nixon and a post-watergate story breaking news conference, november 17, 1973. just a little glimpse of how he reacts and interacts with the media. let's watch. [video clip]. >> i want to say this to the television audience. i made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, i have never profited, never profited from public service. i earned every cent.
and in all of my years of public life, i have never obstructed justice. and i think, too, that i can say that in my years of public life, that i have welcomed this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. well, i'm not a crook. i've earned everything i've got. patty: those are words that would go back to haunt him. what is the headline that every newspaper editor in the country is going to say? "i am not a crook," richard nixon. yet he resigns his office in ignomy. that defensive tactic that you see in him on television does not play well on that medium. he comes off sounding defensive all the way through. when he says, "i am not a crook," the immediate thing that you think is yeah, you might be. susan: from the media side, a whole generation of young people were drawn into the business of
journalism after woodward and bernstein. how did newspaper reporting change and coverage of the president change as a result of watergate? patty: absolutely. i think that many young journalists saw it as a field that would be one where you could do good for society. you could unearth conspiracy. correct injustice, draw attention to stories that otherwise were not otherwise being told. i think there were a whole generation of people who went into journalism because of the woodward and bernstein and the power they had and the important story they did. i think the relationship, the cozy relationship that the press and presidents had, for example, in the kennedy years, was no longer. it became much more mistrustful. of course, that's happening also with the vietnam war, and the pentagon papers that reveal that the government has been misleading the public about how well the war is doing. so many things are happening. it's the counterculture era when young people are challenging their elders. we have a president who has gone down to resignation in shame and ignomy. many things are happening culturally that are leading
people to mistrust authority in general. that attitude reverberates in the press. susan: just eight years earlier in the election that richard nixon lost, that brought john kennedy to power, a very different relationship between the president and the media. the term camelot often used to refer to the time. what are the things to know about how the press and john kennedy interacted during his presidency? patty: things to know are john kennedy and his wife, jacqueline, understood the power of image, understood the power that their telegenic young family would have on the american public. we come from the eisenhower years of a much older president and first lady. suddenly, we have this first lady who is like a hollywood star. she sells magazine covers just by her presence. she is mysterious and soft-spoken. those young children in the white house really get a generation of americans excited about, these people are going through the same thing that i am
going through. the baby boom generation are watching these young children grow up in the white house for a few years. kennedy was very comfortable with the press. he was comfortable with the intellectual debate about ideas and criticisms of himself. you saw that days after his inauguration. he has the first live presidential press conference. you see that bantering, that sense of humor he has. he charmed the american public and he charmed the press. they admit later that they did not holding to the same standards that they might have, were he not such a personally engaging person. he had a great friend in ben bradlee, who was with "newsweek" and then the famous editor at "the washington post." those kind of connections helped pave his way in the washington power structure. susan: one last citation from john farrell on this. he wrote, kennedy could curse the press, tap their phones, keep a private blacklist and piteously crush a foe, but with the confidence bestowed by wealth, good looks, and breeding, he did not let the
censure got to him. the storms passed and the tempest eased by irony or humor. nixon didn't have that quality. so is it somewhat about personality in the relationship with the press? patty: it is absolutely about personality. i think you see that. president trump has been elected. he is a reality television star. his personality is one that resonates with a large percent of the american population. i think personality is really critical, and i think presidents who understand the best way to get their personality across through the prevailing media of the day are often the most successful. susan: we're going to go back farther in time and history, but before we do, a little bit about you so people know who they are listening to. what is your job at the newseum? patty: i am the vice president of content and exhibits. i have this wonderful job where we tell the stories about the five freedoms of the first amendment and how ordinary americans can use them to effect change from the civil rights era to the lgbtq era. i have a great job. susan: how long has the newseum been open?
patty: the newseum has been open for almost 22 years, first in rosslyn and now we have been on pennsylvania avenue for about 12 years. sadly, we are going to close our location on december 31 to the public and go off into a new future and figure out we're going to do our mission for the future, because our mission has never been more important to explain to people, the five freedoms of the first amendment, particularly the role of the freedom of the press. so that's what we're going off to. susan: the newseum is funded by admission fees, and how else? patty: funded by admission fees. our primary funder is the freedom forum. that's our parent organization. we also have donors who have helped sustain us throughout the years. and ticket prices from the people who have come and seen us. susan: i am sure many people watching have made it part of their washington, d.c. visits, when they come to the nation's capital. do you have plans now for where all the exhibits might be going? patty: we have a robust traveling exhibit schedule. "rise up: stonewall and the lgbtq rights movement" is going to travel to seattle, the museum of pop-culture, next june.
we've also got a pulitzer prize exhibit on the road, "40 chances," about the power of photography to uncover the causes of hunger from photographer howard buffett. so we've got a lot of exhibits on the road. we're going to continue doing our programs and our robust work around the journalists memorial, where we highlight journalists who have given their all, given their lives to report the truth to people around the world. susan: you came to this job as a reporter and editor. tell me about your journalism career. patty: my first job was at a small newspaper, for the gannett chain, in huntington, west virginia, "the huntington advertiser." that folded shortly after i got there, and i went to the morning paper, "the herald-dispatch." i worked there for three years. then i came to "usa today" as one of the founding editors, which was really exciting. it was a startup. no one knew anything about us, and then it became the largest national newspaper in the country, so that was a really exciting ride to have. susan: what took you into journalism in the first place? patty: a little bit of woodward and bernstein. a little bit of that passion of the 1970's to see how do you combine skills writing and
telling stories with a desire to make the world a better place. susan: if you look at the world of journalism from when you started or even when "usa today" began, what are the differences today and those earlier years? patty: gosh, i wish i could be more optimistic, but there were many more journalists in the 1970's than there are right now. the losses that mainstream print publications have had to the digital news era have been decimating, particularly to local journalism. there are places where there are news deserts where there is no news organization, news outlet covering the news for large swaths of the american people. that is very troubling. we have seen the rise of digital media and the rise of social media. some people see things on facebook and see it as fact, when it is not reported like journalists do fact checking and calling multiple sources. there really are not two sides to the story, there are multiple sides to a story. there are some troubling things that are happening.
i like to be an optimist. i would like to think that the american people are going to see that members of the press are critical to our democracy, and will start supporting media, whether it is print or podcasts. get your news from good sources, because the truth matters. susan: in september, the pew organization did one of its regular surveys on public attitudes and at that time, they reported that only 41% of the public that they surveyed saw the news media as fair arbiters, honest brokers of what is going on. and if you look to the next level, a big partisan divide, much more trusted by democrats than republicans. what is going on there, do you think? patty: well, we actually do a survey, the freedom form does an annual survey, the state of the first amendment. and actually our numbers are a little better than that. people are feeling a little bit better about the press. i would say it has to do with your political point of view. the internet and digital media
has allowed us to stay in digital bubbles of our own thought. we can go to a place where we can only see red state news, or only see blue state news. that just reinforces your ideas about the world, the government, and the role of the press. i think the press missed a big story in 2016 when donald trump was elected. much of the mainstream media pooh-poohed that possibility and said hillary clinton was the only person who was going to win. so i think that hurts as well. and i think perhaps the news media needed to do some soul-searching after that. how can we better serve the public? how can we better do the job that we are here to do? susan: we are going to continue our history lesson and we are going to go back to the very founding. george washington, the only president elected unanimously. how long was his honeymoon? patty: not very long, sadly. [laughter] george washington first comes to the press, he is a land owner, he uses newspapers to advertise for runaway slaves and things like that, so he is a person of that era. as a general, he is a bit
critical of the press because he sees the press as revealing the location of the enemy too often. nonetheless, he is reading the loyalist papers, that is loyal to the crown, of course, to find out movements of the british army. and he is heroic. he is the father of the country. so when he comes into office, and, again, this highly partisan press starts sniping at him, accusing him of all sorts of malfeasance, he is taken aback by it. he is quite thin-skinned about it and he is taken aback by it and he does not appreciate it. of course, later in life, he is the father of our country. his reputation stands the test of time, but while he is in office, he does not appreciate the criticism about him. this highly partisan press are saying really horrible things about him. tough to read. susan: the historians in mount vernon have this interesting statistic. they write that the popular press exploded from under 50 newspapers around 1776 to over 250 by 1800, encouraged by new federal laws that made it cheaper to send newspapers
through the postal system. so the politicians, although they are unhappy with the coverage, still enable the growth of the news media during that era. patty: he subscribed to 30 plus newspapers. he is a voracious newsreader of the press. despite his smarting at the criticism that he received at the hands of the press, on the night before he died, his biography talked about he was sitting there reading the paper, discussing the news of the day, understanding the important role of the press to inform the american public about critical events. susan: historian ron chernow, of hamilton fame, was asked to speak to the white house correspondents' association dinner in april 2019. he used it to give a history lesson about the relationship between presidents and the press. we have a clip on what he said about george washington. let's listen. [video clip] ron: washington became the victim of the most preposterous slander when the opposition press charged that he had been a secret british agent throughout the revolutionary war. obviously, the british had gotten a very poor return on
their investment. [laughter] some of the most blistering attacks against washington came from an unexpected source, his secretary of state, thomas jefferson, that hired a poet named philip freneau as state department translator. in truth, jefferson had recruited him to found a party organ called "the national gazette," that would publish slashing broadsides against the very president that jefferson served. freneau performed his task with such malicious gusto that he used to drop off copies of his incendiary paper on washington's doorstep everyday. it is hard to convey the anguish that seized washington's mind as he reels from press criticism. susan: any additional comments about george washington after watching that? patty: just that he does understand the power of the press to move people. during a dark moment of the revolutionary war, he has his generals gathered to read to the troops thomas payne's "crisis."
he is the famous pamphleteer who says it is time to part. reading quotes from that, the dark of the night in a terrible moment of the war when things are cold and there is not much food, he is trying to rally the troops with the words of why we need to do this. these are the times that try men's souls. imagine how moving that would have been, and how powerfully george washington must have thought about the people who were writing these words that were inspiring this new nation to be birthed. susan: did his successor have the same powerful feelings about the role of the press in society, john adams? [laughter] patty: john adams also does not appreciate being criticized by the press. during john adams's administration, we have the alien and sedition acts. at that point, we are kind of on the verge of war with france. so these acts are passed, one of which makes it illegal to criticize the president or the congress. this is a way that the government is saying, we don't want anyone to be undermining our government at this time of
war, when we're possibly at the verge of war. and that, the passage of that act, just a few years after the first amendment has been passed, is the first test of this first amendment freedom, freedom of the press. it leads to adams being a one term president, and leads to thomas jefferson being elected, because people did not like the idea of their freedom of the press, which they did not have under the king, being undermined in any way. susan: let's return to ron chernow for just a minute. [video clip] john adams, the country lurched into a period of reaction, amid a war scare with france and rampant fear of foreigners. congress enacted the alien and sedition acts, which made it a crime for journalists to write about the president in a scandalous or malicious fashion. at this dark moment, jefferson, with his serene faith in the people, prophesied, "with a little patience, we shall see the reign of witches passed, their spells dissolved." let it be noted that, because of his anti-press record, john
adams not only lost his reelection campaign in 1800, but his jeffersonian opponents reigned supreme for the next quarter century. susan: however, we heard that thomas jefferson was not above using reporting to go after washington's policies, and he also had some difficulties himself with reporting about his own private life during his administration. what are the lessons of thomas jefferson? patty: thomas jefferson is an idealist, of course. he, you know, the famous quote about, were i given the choice of government with no newspapers, or newspapers with no government, i would not hesitate to choose the latter. that quote is often used as he is such a champion of the first amendment and freedom of the press. but again, once you are in office and the long knives come out, and again, a very highly partisan press, the republicans versus the federalists, that debate goes on. the scurrilous charges that
those and newspapers are throwing at politicians at the time would really shock people today, the language that was used and the things that were said. he did not appreciate that. so while he likes the ideal of the first amendment and freedom of the press, he wants the press to be available to all. he wants everyone to be literate. everyone is not literate at this time, nor are they today for that matter. he wants people to have access to the press. he wants the press to be literate. and he also, even though he is a champion of the first amendment, he also thinks that perhaps the states can deal with the issues of libel and press freedom on that. he doesn't see the dichotomy of that idea that, yes, we are for freedom of the press and its glorious openness, and yet, perhaps, there might be some ways that the states themselves can limit it somewhat. susan: we are going to fast-forward to abraham lincoln, the president facing probably the greatest test of any president, the civil war. you have described his relationship with the press as complicated. why? patty: he comes into office at the time when two incredible
innovations are happening with mass media. one is the rise of photography, and the other is the telegraph, the transcontinental telegraph. people can get news more quickly than they have before. this works out well for his generals during the civil war. it also works out well for the american people getting news of the war and how the war is going much more quickly than they had before. and also photography. although newspapers at the time did not have the technical capabilities to publish photography in newspapers, there were galleries on pennsylvania avenue of mathew brady's photographs. famously, lincoln gives a speech at cooper union in new york. mathew brady takes a photograph of that. it is later replicated in woodcarvings in newspapers like "harper's weekly." abraham lincoln gives credit. he said, it was mathew brady and the cooper union speech that made me the president today. it is that power of image that people relate to, to understand you, to see you as a person and to understand you. lincoln was adept at that. susan: how about by the time the
war was really raging? there were partisan newspapers on both sides. how did, in fact, he react to the coverage of the news about him? what should we learn about his time dealing with reporters under crisis? patty: well, he is known to have hung out at telegraph offices and hung out with journalists. he invited journalists to the white house. but when the war is getting to its intense points, his secretary of war, secretary stanton, has no problem dismissing certain journalists who are not reporting the news the way they want it to be. he limits access to the telegraph, which of course is going to kill a reporter who is trying to get the news more quickly to his readership. journalists are arrested and charged with various treason and other things at the time. and lincoln kind of looks the other way. susan: so he always tops surveys as our greatest leader among presidents. with that sort of record, and the restriction of rights and
the media, why do you think people have forgiven him that and processed that and still put him at the top of the list? those are some pretty serious reactions to the coverage. patty: they are. but i think we found, like after 9/11, people are willing to give up their first amendment freedoms in the case of security, and i think presidents play off that sometimes to an extreme degree of the threats that the free flow of information to the american people can have. susan: we have an image from the library of congress just to give a little flavor of some of the criticism that abraham lincoln faced. i'm going to explain this, because people will not be able to quite see on close-up, but it is a cartoon, and it is a depiction of columbia, the united states, who is confronting president lincoln and says, "mr. lincoln, give me back my 500,000 sons." at the right, the cartoonist sits with a proclamation calling for 500,000 more troops, signed
by him and his reply is, "well, the fact is -- by the way, that reminds me of a story." the archivists tell us that is referring to false reports published by "the new york world" that lincoln had joked on the battlefield at antietam. so, a critical press, and a president under siege, both politically and with the media around him. as we close on the lincoln era, what was changing with the news media? there is telegraph, photography, they were partisan. are we about to enter a new age of reporting as we leave the civil war era, and come into a more stable time? patty: not quite yet. [laughter] getting a little bit better. he is being criticized by both the north and the southern press. publishers from all sides were going after lincoln. that is probably the nature of war and a time that is renting our country apart. somewhat similar to what is happening today. very few people are pleased when hundreds of thousands of young men are losing their lives to a battle that some feel was not necessary.
of course, we now know that that was a transformational moment in our nation's history and that is why lincoln, more books have been written about him than any other president. he is still seen as incredibly heroic for getting the country through that horrific period. susan: as we start to progress through the later part of the 19th century, we start to hear the biggest names in the newspaper world and newspaper history. pulitzer, etc. what is happening to the american consumption of the newspapers in the latter part of that century and the people who publish them? patty: joseph pulitzer is a good example. "the new york sun," the mass media is really happening. the penny press. more newspapers are being published, more people are having access to them. there are the newspaper wars between pulitzer and hearst. they're trying for provocative coverage. pulitzer has done a lot of things to really push news coverage forward. he understands the power of the
type of coverage -- women's coverage, making newspapers more accessible to the common man. not everyone is highly educated at this time. so, the fact that he is moving the ball forward in making the media more open to the public is really a huge moment. susan: by the time theodore roosevelt comes into office at the dawn of the 20th century, big changes with how he treats the press. tell me about some of them. patty: teddy roosevelt is a very big personality. he understands the power of the press to help get his image and ideas across. he makes friends with the press, if they are friendly with him, makes them feel like they are part of his work. he brings the press into the white house, very close to his office. so there is that intimacy people feel, that when he is sitting down with members of the press and saying, i am going to tell you this, but just put this on high-level sources, or an anonymous source, it makes the reporters feel like they are in on the story, and makes them feel like they are part of the presidency, which is a reallly
kind of tricky place for journalists to be. he is very much aware -- he's very -- the power of the soundbite, the power of image. he does things that make news. he goes down in a submarine in long island sound, he rides on horseback for 98 miles, to prove to the press that he is as robust as the military standards would have soldiers be. so these are all incredible moments that the press, which is looking to grab the public's interest with things that are other than drony, zoning board reports. everybody loves to see a president in a submarine. that is kind of a fun story. he understands that power. his soundbites like speak softly and carry a big stick or my hat is in the ring. the early soundbite, these are things that capture the american public, that plain speaking style. his image is really a powerful part of his presidency. susan: interesting things from his presidency, he is credited with establishing press relations as an official function at the white house. he established the first press
room at the white house and elevated the press secretary to the level of cabinet position. patty: yes. now he is understanding, this is going to be important to my life. i need to have members of the press on my side to sell my programs, to sell me as at the president, and he clearly understood that. susan: on the other hand, it was the age of the progressive journalists. ida tarbell, lincoln steffens, upton sinclair, they would not always buy into the roosevelt programs or to the majority storyline at the time. how did he react to those folks? patty: in his lovely turn of phrase, he labels them muckrakers, people who were willing to dig up dirt but not offer solutions to it. that is really casting a negative brush against people who are really doing very significant journalism about the ills in our country, about lynching and corporations that are doing things that are hurting people. he just says, well, they are not
offering any solutions, which is really quite painful to the important work that was being done at that time. susan: the term muckraker stays with us today. patty: it does indeed. susan: what does it mean today? patty: i think today it is kind of a badge of courage. i think it is a moment of pride. muckraker. you are bringing up stories that people don't want to be seen, shining a light on places that are dark and shouldn't be. susan: let's move along again in history and we're going to head to the fdr era. not really too many years, but the world is changing by the time fdr and eleanor come along. in our conversations before, you said that you think that fdr perhaps had the best press relations during the 20th century presidents. why is that? patty: i think he understood the press. i think he also understood the importance of the time that he was living in and the moment that he was trying to get across the american people. he used the fireside chats and people felt like he was talking to them directly. "my friends," he would say, and people would be leaning into the radio. you see those wonderful photographs.
he considered himself a bit of a writer himself. of course, eleanor roosevelt had her radio program and wrote magazine columns as well. again, they have a real understanding of the power of radio and newspapers to get their message across to people. he made his voice the voice that everyone would trust during the times of the great depression, during the world war. that unity of message and the unity of the voice really helped get americans through two major crises of our history in a way that came out in a positive way. he, interestingly enough, was not often -- newspaper publishers were often republicans, did not like all of the changes he was having because they meant business sacrifices had to be made. so even though newspapers were not often behind him, supporting his candidacy, the american people saw through that, saw what he was doing, and those very practiced radio side chats, he would rehearse and rehearse
and rehearse and hone it so that the message would get across in exactly the way that he wanted it be across. really a powerful, powerful statement. the press, again, is being very respectful of him. he contracted polio, and, as a result, he could not walk unaided. but there was just a general rule that it was verboten to show him using crutches, even though he would sort of joke about it. on the rare occasions when newspapers or magazines would show an image of him, or mention his legs were useless, the american people would write back and say, don't say that about our president. interestingly enough, the magazines and publications kind of backed off on that. interesting where the american public is drawing a line in the sand of what they expect out of their press at that moment. susan: if you had to characterize the majority attitude of the reporters covering the white house at that time, were they critical of his policies? you were talking about image, about polio and the like, but on a policy standpoint, were they critical or mostly supportive of
what the president was trying to do? patty: i think mostly supportive, but there were some things he couldn't get through, even all of his charm, initiatives couldn't get through, but mostly supportive. susan: before we leave that there, we should have a note about eleanor roosevelt and her contributions to the evolution of reporting. she actually had press conferences as first lady. the other thing is that she insisted that women reporters cover her as she progressed through the white house years. how important was that in the evolution of journalism? patty: oh, absolutely critical. i mean, thank you, eleanor. long overdue. it was very rare that there were women journalists at the time, and making that statement was a crucial one. of course, it is several years after that before women are more widely seen in newsrooms. like in the 1970's is really when that happens, as well as people of color. so, putting that line in the sand is an important one to get careers started, to get people thinking that women had a role in this industry, as every industry.
susan: we're going to jump from the 1940's to the 1960's, early 1960's, and lyndon johnson. he comes into office under the worst circumstances, the assassination of john kennedy. did he have a honeymoon then as president after that? patty: he did. he, again, very much understood the power of image. that famous photo when he being sworn in on air force one, he makes sure that the newly widowed jacqueline kennedy is seen in that image. and what a horrific request that must have been of him to make of her at that horrible moment in her life, to appear in a photograph, not just to send to the american people, but to send to the world, this government will continue. there is continuity. there is no coup. i am in charge. this torch has been passed. this dreadful torch has been passed. he goes into a series of legislative successes. landmark civil rights legislation is passed. much on the glow of the kennedy
presidency and wanting to see many of kennedy's ideas put forth into action. but then, as happens with many presidents, the vietnam war leads to his denouement. susan: how important is it, or what part of the story would it be, that the johnsons themselves had built their own media empire? patty: very important to his career. in texas, lady bird johnson purchased a radio station, and then they had newspapers, and so that really helped him on his rise in texas. lbj, you know, we have all seen those photographs of lbj corralling legislatures with the finger-pointing and that very intimidating style, and that was pretty much his style with the press as well. he felt like you were either for him or against him. he was not below calling your boss if the boss was president of the network, if a story you
had done did not please him. so he is trying to work both sides of it, trying to be friends with reporters as well as the powerful moguls who run the various broadcasting companies and newspapers at the time, but you can see where that doesn't play very well if you are a reporter on the beat, that he's going to call fred friendly at cbs if you do a story that displeases him. which he did to morley safer when morley safer did a famous report out of vietnam that showed marines using lighters to torch civilian villages. of course, there were multiple sides to that story. those televised images being seen on the evening news horrified americans as well as lbj, and he called the head of the network to complain about it. susan: at this point in time, the three network newscasts really were dominant in society. would you talk a little bit about how people were consuming news, and how presidents managed to use that consumption of everyone at tuning in at the same time at night to watch news to their benefit? patty: the three evening network news shows, that was the way most people got their news, and really it still is the way most people get their news. broadcast news is being rivaled by internet, but it is still the way that most people get their news.
those were very powerful, those three gentlemen who were sending the news to everybody each night are very powerful forces. at a moment in the vietnam war when walter cronkite goes to vietnam and comes back and he says, it appears that the vietnam war is going to be a stalemate. when lbj sees that, he says, if i've lost cronkite, i have lost the american public. he knows the power that walter cronkite making a statement on the evening news that most people are tuning into for their information is a critical moment in his presidency. susan: we have one of those famous lyndon johnson phone calls. this is in 1968, to just serve as an example of that relationship that you talked about, about not being afraid to pick up the phone and express his anger about things. let's listen. [audio recording] >> frank, i wanted to tell you about hanging my head in shame at the industry and particularly at cronkite and the, what i would say, very unfair, personalized reporting of these fellows.
i think that you ought to know that opinion because you're going to be disappointed in me down the road if i did not tell you that. i am just telling you frankly that i think the industry is wrecking all of us. susan: reaction? patty: well, that is pretty heavy-handed. you can imagine what it was like for the journalists the next day. i am sure he's not going to call on the journalists the next day that so offended him in the press conference. the fact that the "wrecking the country," very disturbing. very disturbing. we are hearing that today, and that the press is the enemy of the american people according to president trump. the press is not the enemy of the american people. the press is out there doing work for the american people, trying to inform on people in power. is your local school board spending the money the way it should be? are students being educated? how is the government working? how should it be working? are children being kept in cages? these are stories that are important and critical to us, and the fact that presidents
question the patriotism of reporters who are trying to do their job and trying to report the news to the american public is very troubling. susan: during the vietnam war, the pentagon regularly held press conferences that gave out figures that were inaccurate about the number of casualties happening in vietnam, hoping, i think, to keep public opinion about the war at bay. what did that do to the skepticism of journalists? we talked earlier about the impact of watergate. what was the effect of the vietnam-era as reporters were sitting through these press conferences and then finding out the numbers were not jiving with what was really happening on the ground? patty: it does lead to major mistrust. they talked about a credibility gap lbj had with the american people and with the press. that phrase would really come to haunt him. again, we see the things that are happening in society, the changes with the counterculture, people no longer trusting the government. they've lied to us about the vietnam war.
55,000 people are dead in this country alone because of that, and they have lied to us about this. and of course the television news showing images of the war. i mean, there were other images, the korean war was on television a bit, but each week, that drumbeat of these are numbers of casualties in vietnam, it takes its toll on the american public. the images that they see and the fact that it is not going well, and that they do not understand why we are there in the first place leads to lbj deciding he's not going to run for reelection. susan: let's move to a more current time. earlier, you made reference to the public in the wartime being willing to give up some of their rights, especially free speech. would you talk about the aftermath of 9/11 and really what happened in this country with the american public and their willingness to trade some of their rights for security, especially with the relationship between the press and the president? patty: well, i would say you saw people lashing out at people who questioned in any way the war
effort or the aftermath of 9/11. people who were questioning, were we going after the right people? people were being seen as not being patriotic. the american people did not like that. they felt that we should be monolithically behind whatever the president says we should be doing. that is not the role of the press. once again, it is the role of the press to question authority. are we doing the right thing? of course, in the aftermath, we found out that wars were waged for really no connection to 9/11 at all. susan: by 2008, president obama was coming into office. the wars were still going on. at the same time, we have a historic election with america's first african-american president. what happened in the relationship between obama white house and the press as he came into office? what was it like? patty: well, i think the press was wellaware of the historic nature of his presidency. obama was not the first
presidential candidate to use the power of social media, but he certainly did it very skillfully, with targeted emails and targeted radio reports to people and popular culture. i mean, his "yes, we can," will.i.am of the black eyed peas makes a powerful video that is seen millions of times by people. pop culture figures sort of weighing in on the obama presidency. oprah winfrey, before he's even thrown his hat in the ring, says, put your money behind barack obama. so, the historic nature of his presidency, the fact that this was a moment in this nation's history that many people had long longed for, leads to a bit of a long honeymoon. but then when he clashes with congress and when his campaign promises are not always able to be realized, things change. he is also a president who understands understands the medium of his time. he is the first sitting president to go on "the daily show with jon stewart," which is a late-night satirical news program that captured the attention of a lot of young people in that time. he goes on "between two ferns"
with zach galifianakis, whic is kind of a crazy comedy show. but he understands the power of these people, these forces in popular culture, to get a message to people that he might not otherwise be reaching. susan: however, there were some times during his administration when he cracked down on whistleblowers. the administration actually monitored phone records, subpoenaed reporters, most notably the james risen case from "the new york times." how do we put all of that into sort of understanding of how this administration approached its relations with media? patty: control of image. i think it all comes down to that. that is what all presidents want to do, they want to control the image. he did not like the idea that people were leaking bits of information or trying to get information that he did not want to be made public. so, barack obama is not exactly a first amendment champion. up until this time, he has prosecuted more journalists and whistleblowers than any other presidency in history. susan: how have you told his story in the newseum?
patty: we've had photo exhibits about president obama. we've done a couple of exhibits every four years, campaigns and the press. we talk about his incredible social media clout. but again, social media clout, using it for yourself, social media also bites back. there were journalists who captured, shall we say, unscripted moments of him on the campaign trail, that ended up reverberating in the media as not being very flattering. things that he said, the famous thing about people hiding behind their guns and religion in pennsylvania. these were sort of dings in the long history of his two terms in office. nonetheless, the incredible access that social media lends to everyone in the world means that people have access to the moments that you would not like them to have access to, as well. susan: throughout history, you have told us with each successive change in technology a president has tried to harness that effectively, to put their own story forward. now that we come to the 2016
election and the real rise of social media, and then we have a president elected who is the first president with his own twitter account that he uses all the time by himself. what has been the effect of having a president with direct access to the public, really bypassing the traditional media to speak directly to the public and especially his supporters? patty: it has been a powerful, powerful tool that the president has. the fact that he does not have to go through any gatekeepers, where are people saying, wait a minute, that is not exactly true, is a very powerful force. he has dozens of millions of followers who are reading exactly what he wants them to say. there's no questioning it. there's no second-guessing. it is just, this is what the truth is according to me. that is a very big threat to the press and the role that the press has traditionally played as gatekeepers to news and information. so, it's something, it's a time period that the news industry is struggling with itself. how do we counter that?
how do we counter someone who goes and spews forth on his social media channels information that we know is not true? how do you counter that? i think the press is still struggling with the best way to do that. susan: at the same time he is speaking directly to the public through his twitter account, he also regularly criticizes, in very strong terms, the news media. patty: he does. susan: i think we have one final clip that we want to show, which was his criticizing of "the new york times" for their coverage. let's watch, and then we will wrap this all up. [video clip] pres. trump: i came from jamaica, queens. jamaica estates. i became president of the united states. i am sort of entitled to a great story, just one, from my newspaper, i mean, you know? >> he just wanted his hometown paper to write one positive story about him. he just wants the times to say something nice about him. that's what he said. >> i am sort of entitled to one
good story in "the new york times." i started off, i ran against very smart people, and a lot of them. >> he said it a few times. >> i just sort of think i am entitled to a great story from "the new york times." i have done something that nobody's ever done. susan: this was the podcast that "the new york times" created after their oval office exchange with the president about his coverage. what do you hear in the president's voice there? patty: it is a little sad. "i am entitled to something nice from my hometown newspaper." you see the validation he wants from "the new york times," which of course he calls "the failing new york times" now. because they have not given him that sort of puffball of a story that he wanted on the presidency. but again, he was not elected king. he was elected president of the united states, and presidents have checks and balances on them, the people's right to free speech and power of assembly and protest. certainly, president trump, like all presidents, has endured those first amendment freedoms. it is not always pleasant to be on the other end of that, but in fact it is the role of the press to be challenging, to be critical, to question things for
the american people because that is what the role of the press is. susan: let's bring it all the way back and put a ribbon around this conversation today. when we look back across our entire history of relationships between the presidents and the reporters, journalists covering him, sometimes hack newspapers depending on the era that we were in. what are the important takeaways that people should have about this relationship, how it has worked, and how it has benefited society? patty: i think the important part would be for the presidents to respect the role of the press and its importance in society, and to respect the fact that they are going to get criticism at some point. and perhaps learn from that criticism. i think it is important for presidents to understand the power of media. they certainly do. we have got michael bloomberg, who just threw his hat in the ring. he has got a powerful global news network. that's going to be very interesting to see how that plays out. the press plays a critical role in our democracy. it is why the founding fathers made it the first amendment of the constitution, that the power
of the press will not be -- congress will not change that power of the freedom of the press. so i think it is important that presidents remember that and respect the role of the press. i think that by -- that mutual respect comes across in the information that people get in order to make important decisions about their life and their country. susan: patty rhule, you have spent the last decade and a half helping people understand how the news media works. thank you so much for spending an hour with us and helping us understand more about the evolution of the relationship between presidents and the journalists who cover them. patty: thank you, susan. i appreciate it. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] announcer: all q&a programs are available on our website, or as a podcast at cspan.org.
>> this is american history tv on c-span3, or each weekend we feature 48 hours of programs exploring our nation's past. >> next on "lectures in history," james madison university professor andrew witmer teaches about rural areas after the civil war. using his own hometown of monson, maine as a case study, he examines rural industry, such as slate mining, and the rise of country tourism aided by the expansion of railroad networks. prof. witmer: good afternoon. welcome to this class. our topic today is small-town maine and the world.