Historical Trends in Questioning Presidents, 1953-2000

Article excerpt

The White House press corps has long had a significant bearing on presidential governance. Ever since opinion leadership became important for the chief executive in the early decades of the twentieth century (Kernell 1986), presidents have been dependent on the media and in particular the press corps as a conduit to the public. In recent years, the press corps has had to contend with the diversification of news outlets and news formats made possible by the rise of cable television and more recently the Internet (Baum and Kernell 1999; Cohen 2005; Wattenberg 2004). It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that traditional journalism represented by the White House press corps is no longer relevant. The audience for such journalism, while on the decline, remains substantial and includes a disproportionate share of opinion leaders. Correspondingly, although recent administrations have utilized other media outlets and communicative forms with growing frequency (e.g., television talk shows, talk radio, town hall meetings) they rarely avoid the press corps altogether, and they often make themselves more accessible when facing declining public support. The White House press corps thus remains a force to be reckoned with.

Moreover, the culture of the press corps--in particular, its tendency toward either a deferential or adversarial posture--is a central structural contingency shaping the institution of the presidency and presidential conduct (cf. Hager and Sullivan 1994). Thus, when the partisan press of the early nineteenth century was superceded by a more independent and unwieldy commercial press, it led to the institutionalization of the presidential press conference, the press secretary, and other vehicles of presidential news management (Ponder 1998). More recently, when the news media of the 1960s was perceived as magnifying societal unrest and dissent surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, administration officials responded with more strategic and comprehensive public relations planning, creating a new agency--the Office of Communications--devoted to this task (Maltese 1994). Accordingly, the presidency cannot be fully understood without taking account of the media landscape through which presidents must navigate in pursuit of popular support.

How hazardous is this landscape? Numerous scholars have argued that journalists since the 1950s have become increasingly independent, vigorous, and at times adversarial in their treatment of presidents, presidential candidates, and government officials generally. This idea was advanced most forcefully by Michael Robinson (1976) and has since received empirical support (Entman 2003; Hallin 1992; Hart, Smith-Howell, and Llewellyn 1990; Patterson 1993, 2000; Ragsdale 1997; Robinson 1981; Rozell 1994; Sabato 1991; Smoller 1990; see also Cohen 2004). However, much remains unknown about the magnitude and scope of this change. American journalists remain heavily dependent on government officials as sources of both information and opinion, such that negative and critical coverage tends to be contingent on the emergence of policy critics among officials themselves (Bennett 1990; Epstein 1975; Hallin 1984). Indeed, when critical content is documented in news coverage, it is often difficult to determine how much should be attributed to journalists per se as opposed to the authorities on which they are dependent, as well as the extrajournalistic reality in which both are embedded.

This complex picture has emerged from studies using traditional news stories, whether print or broadcast, as data. Overlooked are other modes of journalistic practice such as broadcast news interviews and news conferences, where journalists directly encounter public figures rather than merely writing or talking about them. Does the impetus toward greater vigorousness extend to these direct exchanges between journalists and officials? The answer is by no means obvious. …