By Martha Joynt Kumar


President Eisenhower at a 1959 press conference in Washington. Press secretary James Hagerty is seated next to him.

President Eisenhower at a 1959 press conference in Washington. Press secretary James Hagerty is seated next to him.

Every U.S. president needs a White House team aware of the rhythms of the relationship between the president and the press, as well as a staff with a sense of how to take advantage of them. The need for good press relations is particularly acute during a time of transition.

Martha Joynt Kumar is a professor of political science at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, and the author and coauthor of several books on the media and presidency, including the 1981 classic Portraying the President: The White House and the Media and Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation.

“I’m glad we released the tape of the statement to radio, TV, and newsreels. To hell with slanted reporters; we’ll go directly to the people who can hear exactly what Pres [Eisenhower] said without reading warped and slanted stories,” said James Hagerty, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary, on their release of a tape of a presidential press conference.

The urge to use news organizations to establish a direct and unfettered connection with the public has been a constant theme in presidential communications, as has complaining about their nemesis, the press. President George W. Bush was not in office two months when he began complaining about “the filter.” In a speech on March 23, 2001, in Portland, Oregon, Bush observed: “I found it’s more effective for me to kind of get out of the Nation’s Capital and explain my budget face to face with folks, than to rely upon the filter to do so. Sometimes the facts get kind of distorted. … So let me explain my budget, if you don’t mind, and what we intend to do with money if we’re able to bring fiscal sanity to the Nation’s Capital.” Like his predecessors, Bush expressed his frustration with the press for not covering him and his programs as he would like both to be portrayed.

While presidents may complain about the press, they soon find out that news organizations are an important part of the presidential governing landscape. James Hagerty railed about reporters, but he dealt with them all the same, briefing them in his office twice a day, allowing them walk-in access to him throughout the day, making sure they were included in presidential events and trips with prime spots to view and hear the president, and generally meeting their coverage and information needs. Hagerty knew something that other White House staff and their presidents have learned about White House communications. It is a relationship with tension, but it also is a relationship that benefits presidents. The public wants to know what a president is doing and planning. News organizations provide that information to them.

Three elements of the relationship between the White House and the press tell us a great deal about how it operates from one administration to the next. First, the relationship is a cooperative one. There may be tension between the two, but on a daily basis each has a stake in working effectively with the other. Second, White House communications operations are continuing, with the central publicity offices remaining from one administration to the next and with ground rules that apply across administrations. The rules governing the relationship appear simple and timeless — tell the truth, give out bad news with your explanation of it — but so too are the temptations of those inside the White House not to follow along. That is one of the factors that makes the job of presidential press secretary so difficult. Third, news organizations are the primary vehicle presidents and their surrogates use to get their considerable number of speeches, interviews with the press, and statements to the public. Yet they do not control the relationship because they need to respond to the queries posed by reporters.

The Element of Cooperation

In order to make the most effective use of their relationship with news organizations, presidents and their staffs need to cooperate with the reporters who cover them. How else does a president get “the facts” to the public on a regular basis except through news organizations?

On a daily basis, there are some 100 print, wire, television, and radio reporters, photographers, producers, and camera crew members stationed at the White House ready to send out images of the president to the public and write about him and his administration. As dissatisfied as they get with reporters, presidents and their staffs continue to have reporters in the West Wing of the White House as they have since 1902, when this annex was first occupied. Cooperation includes the White House’s providing reporters with information about the president and his programs — and news organizations using much of what they receive in one form or another. The tension in their relationship comes when the White House disagrees with what news organizations report and what reporters include in their stories.

As expensive as it is for news organizations to maintain a presence at the White House, they have done so since at least 1896, when several newspapers stationed correspondents at a table outside the office of the president’s secretary, analogous to today’s White House chief of staff. Then and now, news organizations wanted their reporters close to the center of news so their organization could be the first to deliver it.

Reporters have never given up their close access to presidential news. Today, the major television networks have a manicured space on the West Wing driveway on the north side of the White House where they do live reporting. Visiting television reporters use it as well. The White House and news organizations work to maintain the space because each knows that space works for news organizations, just as does the newly renovated White House Press Room. News organizations and the government together spent $8 million for the renovation, with $2 million of it paid by the press.

A History of Continuity

President Clinton leaves a news conference in the East Room of the White House in January 1997.

President Clinton leaves a news conference in the East Room of the White House in January 1997.

The press secretary is the presidential staff position with the longest history. Each of the 13 presidents who have served since 1929 has had a presidential assistant assigned to work on press matters. The people holding the position manage the president’s relationship with the press and provide information to reporters according to the wishes of the chief executive and his staff.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon added a second element to the White House communications orbit: the Office of Communications. That office, too, has survived to the present. It traditionally handles long-range communications planning and generates plans to sell presidential programs to the public and others whose support the president needs, while the press secretary and his or her staff concentrate instead on providing information on a daily basis to reporters who regularly cover the president. The longevity of these offices through Democratic and Republican administrations reflects the continuing needs they serve.

The ground rules that govern the relationship between reporters and officials are continuing as well. Even the arrangements of what is on the record, off the record, and “on background” remain pretty much the same. On-the-record information is public, and reporters can use it with the name of the source. Today, most presidential information is on the record. Background information means a news source, such as a White House staff member, tells a reporter something he or she may report, but not with the person’s name. Thus, a reporter might write, “A senior White House official said today …” Off the record means reporters cannot publicly use the information in any way, though, from a practical standpoint, they can see if they can find the same information through someone who will give it to them on the record or on background.

Continuing, too, are the operating publicity principles that benefit a president and his administration. [President Gerald Ford’s] press secretary, Ron Nessen, laid out those principles spanning generations and applying to all communications officials. “I think most press secretaries, no matter what their background is, come to understand that the same set of rules apply year after year, administration after administration: Tell the truth, don’t lie, don’t cover up, put out the bad news yourself, put it out as soon as possible, put your own explanation on it, all those things.”

At the same time, it is not always easy for the press officials to meet those guidelines. As Nessen also noted, a lot of times, other members of the staff don’t want to do that; they don’t understand it. In the George W. Bush White House, we saw how difficult it was for Press Secretary Scott McClellan to get accurate information from senior-level White House officials, and his subsequent loss of credibility. This same scenario also occurred in earlier administrations, with the same result: A new person comes in as press secretary.

News Organizations: Uncontrolled Vehicles

A president has a great stake in his relationship with news organizations because he needs public understanding in order to govern. To create programs and to fund them, the president needs the agreement of the Congress. His is a position where he shares power more than he exercises it alone. And that is where news organizations come in: They are his vehicle to the public whose support he needs to convince Congress to enact his programs.

The American president speaks from the White House and from around the country and the world. News organizations are with him wherever he goes, sending out wire copy, writing newspaper articles, and broadcasting on radio and television what he says. One can gauge the need a president has for news organizations by the frequency of his public speeches and remarks. President George W. Bush has delivered an average of 1.6 speeches or remarks a day during a six-day week, while the comparable number for President Bill Clinton was 1.8. In speeches big and small, a president today can expect to speak approximately 500 times a year, especially in his first year in office. Clinton spoke 602 times in 1993, his first year in office, and Bush delivered 508 speeches and remarks in 2001.

The price for using news organizations as a vehicle to deliver a president’s words to the public is providing information to those organizations and their reporters, particularly those assigned to the White House. They seek information in addition to what the president and his staff want to provide; his words make up only part of their news stories. They want answers to their questions about the president’s motives, alternative plans, and priorities.

On a daily basis, reporters can get information from the president’s surrogates, most often from his press secretary. However, on a regular basis, reporters need to get answers from the president himself. While American presidents have answered reporters’ questions in the open forum of the press conference since 1913, such sessions were originally on an off-the-record basis. They have been on the record and available for television since January 1955, when President Eisenhower held the first such session.

Today, presidents meet with reporters in three venues. First, there are the press conferences in which the president meets reporters in an open session to answer their questions for about half an hour. Sometimes a foreign leader accompanies the president, and sometimes he is alone facing the press. In addition, chief executives respond to reporters on a regular basis in short question-and-answer sessions in the Oval Office and other locations around the White House, including the Rose Garden outside of the Oval Office. Further, presidents will do interviews with reporters from foreign countries, as well as with those representing domestic news organizations. Before a president travels abroad, for example, he will usually have interviews with reporters representing news organizations from the country to which he is traveling. He does those sessions in order to inform the public there about his hopes for the trip.

When press conferences, question-and-answer sessions, and interviews are counted together, presidents meet frequently in sessions that they only partially control. Presidents do not have to answer questions, but they risk criticism if they do not. President Clinton responded to reporters’ queries 332 times during his first year in office, while President Bush had 211 such sessions during his first year. After his first year, Bush did not respond to reporters’ queries more than 150 times in any of the remaining seven years, and Clinton had 275 or fewer such sessions in each of his remaining seven years. In all of these sessions, presidents risk making mistakes, something they do not like to do and will avoid if they believe they can.

The New Administration

Barack Obama’s White House team needs to be aware of the rhythms of the relationship between the president and the press, and have a sense of how to take advantage of them. Considering all of the public presentations a president makes today and with the many times he answers questions from reporters, the chief executive’s team must help him get through to the public with his goals and programs. Effective leadership requires it.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.