A Century of Feuding Between Presidents and the Press

tags: press, Trump, White House Correspondents

Julian E. Zelizer  is a historian at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, and the editor of a new book, The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.

For the second time, President Trump won’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. As Washington’s elite journalists gather to celebrate their work this weekend, the president will hold a rally in Michigan. What better way to dismiss the “fake news” press corps that he sees as hostile than by setting up counter-programming of his own?

Trump’s absence is part of a bigger pattern. Not only has the president been extremely hostile to the press, questioning their legitimacy and vilifying them as enemies of the state, but he has cut off access to almost everyone outside the Fox News-Breitbart orbit. Most notable of all has been his decision to hold just one solo press conference since taking office.

Before the WHCA was known for its annual dinner, it was established as a professional organization meant to protect journalists’ access to the president of the United States. Calvin Coolidge, though not known for having good press relations, was the first president to attend the dinner regularly and deliver an address. Most of his successors felt pressure to follow suit. After all, the press needed each president to attend to make the dinner an A-list event in Washington, and the president needed to keep the press happy. As Douglass Cater put it, “Presidents come and go, but press bureau chiefs are apt to remain a while.” They were also stag dinners until 1962—no women were allowed into this old boys’ club, despite the fact that there were female members of the WHCA.

The association itself dates back to February 24, 1914. An informal White House press corps had been taking form since the late 19th century. Presidents and reporters developed informal rules and procedures to guide them in their interactions. As the executive branch grew in size and the presidency became a bigger part of national life, the number of city newspapers assigning people to cover the office on a full-time basis increased. Theodore Roosevelt saw all of these trends and ran with them during his two terms, insisting that Cabinet officials respond quickly to press queries and vastly expanding access to the media. Though President Taft pushed back against some of these changes, the White House “beat” became an integral part of Washington’s journalistic world.

President Woodrow Wilson believed that allowing the press access could help him communicate with the nation. At 12:45 p.m. on March 15, 1913, he institutionalized the changes that had been taking place informally by convening the first formal presidential press conference. The discussion with 100 Washington correspondents was not particularly intriguing. One reporter for the Evening Post left with the distinct feeling that “a pleasant time was not had by all.” ...

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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