Blogs > Cliopatria > What Was Unprecedented Exactly About the White House "Suggestion" to Newsweek?

May 20, 2005 6:15 pm

What Was Unprecedented Exactly About the White House "Suggestion" to Newsweek?

On the CBS Evening News last night the reporter was stumped. Bob Schieffer wanted to know if the White House had ever told the media how to report a story. Nope, said the White House correspondent. This had never happened.

Ok, maybe the White House Press Secretary had never been as bold (or arrogant) as Scott McClellan was when he publicly as the NYT put it ,

pressed Newsweek on Tuesday to go beyond a retraction and"help repair the damage" to the image of the United States in the Muslim world after the magazine mistakenly reported that a Pentagon investigation had found that interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tried to flush a Koran down a toilet.

But White Houses going back to the Kennedy administration have been managing the news and directing reporters how to write their stories. Kennedy famously told the NYT not to report on the Bay of Pigs disaster and repeatedly tried to shape the coverage provided by his friend Ben Bradley and the Alsop columnists.

What? The American media taking its cues from the American president? Yes, Virginia, it has happened. And for the media to pretend to be shocked--shocked!--that it has happened again is plain balderdash.

During the 1960 campaign candidate Kennedy's TV media advisor, J. Leonard Reinsch, told the director of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate to broadcast a reaction shot of Nixon sweating. This was as good as telling the NYT to publish a smear story against Nixon on the front page--and was probably more effective.

A few years later, the Kennedy State Department told NBC not to run a documentary about the digging of a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall out of fear it would increase Cold War tension.

Richard Nixon, impressed with Kennedy's management of the news, tried repeatedly to influence the way the media covered stories. Usually, he failed--but it wasn't for lack of trying. Egged on by Henry Kissinger, Nixon even instituted court proceedings to stop the NYT from publishing the Pentagon Papers. John Mitchell, the atorney general, once flatly threatened the Washington Post, warning reporter Carl Bernstein that"Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer" if she published a piece critical of the Nixon campaign. And then there was the strange incident in which Kissinger tried to stop Time Magazine from naming him Man of the Year -- Kissinger feared that a magazine cover story in the prestigeous Timewould alienate Nixon, who craved the positive media attention Kissinger was receiving.

Going back even further ... FDR's aides famously told the press not to report on the difficulty he had walking (and even forbade the taking of pictures in his wheelchair)?

So what's really new here?

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HNN - 5/26/2005


The Clinton administration put out video news releases. I know this from personal knowledge. When I was in the TV news business we received these video news releases. (We didn't run them.) I don't know when the practice started. No one seems to have studied the question. This would make for an excellent article for the Presidential Studies Quarterly!

Whether the Bush administration is the first to pay journalists to put out their story is also unknown, as far as I can tell. Another subject that needs further study.

What is a first is the Bush administration's seeming indifference to the Washington press corps. Karl Rove seems to believe that the press, as Ari Fleischer I think once said, have no more right to information than the public. Of course, the public is busy and are not asking for information. The press people are. But the Bush White House treats the requests from the press as if they are just one in a long line of requests. Get in line. We'll see if we can accomodate you when your number comes up.

Past administrations were afreaid of the media. Not this one. That to me is the big story here.

Why aren't they afraid?

The media have changed. Now that you have Rush et al. on the air the Republicans can get out their story to tens of millions instantly. They don't need the press corps megaphone. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN.

Stephen Tootle - 5/26/2005

Editor Rick,
Calvin Coolidge made a similar point. Check out his oft-misunderstood speech on the subject:

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2005

Is this the first administration in which there have been _both_ contracted payments to journalists or columnists to promote the administration's program _and_ threats to journalists about how the news of the day was to be played in their outlets?

Stephen Tootle - 5/24/2005

There are plenty of examples from the Johnson administration, as you know. Even Eisenhower and Hagerty had some conversations with the press. Dulles tried to spin the Alsops on McCarthy (it didn't work). E even wrote Arthur Krock a few times, if memory serves. TR, Coolidge, the list goes on. It might be harder to make a list of presidents who didn't try to manipulate the press.

HNN - 5/22/2005


You're right that my group of examples of White House interference was mixed. This was deliberate. My post was designed to draw attention to the attempts of presidents through the years to direct news coverage, not to comment on the wisdom of the attempts.

The trouble with trying to distinguish between good attempts and bad attempts, as you have done, is that the distinction often melts into air upon further inspection.

Let's take Nixon's attempt to stop the NYT from publishing the Pentagon Papers. Was this an example of wise of unwise interference? Nixon had no personal stake in the Papers. They related entirely to the work of previous administrations. And while they included sections on the Eisenhower presidency, most of the Papers concerned the activities of Democratic presidents. Nixon himself was indifferent to the publication of the Papers until Henry Kissinger convinced him their publication would damage national security.

It is fruitless to try to distinguish the good attempts from the bad ones because almost always partisans can assemble a case to justify the action that was taken.

My own sense is that except in extraordinary circumstances presidents should never try to direct media coverage because doing so, no matter what the intention, whether self-serving or not, weakens democracy.

Rick Perlstein - 5/20/2005

Bad judgement here, editor. What the adminsitration has urged upon Newsweek was a vague, open-ended--and thus threatening and intimidating--injunction to clean up their act, to watch what they say. Basically they said: we're watching you. More along the lines of Nixon threatening the Washington Post with pulling their TV license unless they laid off them. Nothing new, perhaps--but also nothing like Kennedy asking news organizations to spike SPECIFIC stories for SPECIFIC national security concerns.

Ed Schmitt - 5/20/2005

This is right on target and it's another sign of the woefully short memories of today's media. Bob Schieffer is old enought to know that for himself. Kennedy's White House actually renamed the press conference the "news conference" to subtly shift the emphasis to the fact the White House was who was producing the news, not the press. There are enough political types who have drifted into the media (beginning with Pierre Salinger but on up through David Gergen, Chris Matthews, and George Stephanopolous) that this should have been exposed a long time ago. Perhaps that is really the bigger problem - the media is no longer independent enough to really challenge anything. It's sort of like having a former owner in Bud Selig as the commissioner of baseball.