President and press: the roots of a feisty, complex relationship

Trump in front of his plane
Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters from in front of his private jet inside the Sun Country Airlines hanger at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

The relationship between the president of the United States and the press has expanded and changed throughout the country's history.

William McKinley was the first president to harness the power of the media to affect public opinion, allowing the first press briefings after his election in 1897. The first televised press conference wasn't until 1961 with John F. Kennedy. And in the past eight years President Barack Obama has communicated with citizens through entirely new mediums — including Reddit, evening variety shows and Google Hangouts.

Correspondents who have been interacting with Obama for years shared in the BBC documentary, "The President and the Press," that he "doesn't love the gamesmanship of the press, but he also understands the necessity of the relationship."

But that relationship can often be adversarial, with some leaders chafing under the scrutiny of reporters. President Lyndon B. Johnson once famously said, "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: 'President Can't Swim.'"

The contentiousness of the relationship began to materialize under Teddy Roosevelt, who had a talent for cultivating the news to suit his needs — offering intimate off-the-record briefings in which reporters had to struggle to get any questions in.

The advent of television turned presidents into personalities, with each having to take much more care with what they said as messages made their way to Americans' ears at a much quicker rate.

In the 1960s, the relationship between the president and the press went through two major changes. First, seduction in the Kennedy era — when the press was love bombed by the president and his family, but received little important information. Then, the exact opposite relationship with Lyndon Johnson — in which the need for accountability for what was happening in Vietnam began a pattern of ferocity. Richard Nixon's continued negative treatment of the press during his presidency locked in the precedent — going after the media as an institution.

Post-Nixon presidents have taken a much less heavy-handed approach, until President-elect Donald Trump who has been forthcoming with his contempt for the press, frequently using Twitter as a medium.

"Now, on the one hand it's extremely useful to those who cover the president in the media to get the president's innermost thoughts at 6:30 a.m. every morning because he decides to blast it out on a Twitter feed," said Mike McCurry, chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates and former press secretary under President Bill Clinton. "But it usually leaves many unanswered questions ... the president has kind of disrupted 40 years of progress on arms control related to nuclear weapons via tweet in the middle of the day."

The press, as well as Trump's staff, have been forced to scramble to find true meaning in the president-elect's short online messages. Many in the Washington press corps are bracing themselves for an increasingly contentious relationship in the years to come.

To listen to the documentary, click the audio player above.

Further reading

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the meaning of freedom

A conversation about Trump's press conference

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's historic broadcasts

The White House Tapes: The President Calling

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