Kennedy, Cuba, and the Press

By Graham, James T. | Journalism History, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Kennedy, Cuba, and the Press


Graham, James T., Journalism History


John F. Kennedy has been labeled the standard bearer for presidential television, but this depiction belies a transition era for American journalism where the print press still reigned supreme.1 In the nation's political development television was still an infant medium and considered a novelty throughout the Kennedy presidency. Despite a strong television performance against Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates, Kennedy feared overexposure and told aides to reserve "that gadget" for special occasions to stage performances that struck a high note with the American public.2 On election night, he confided to Benjamin Bradlee, a friend and reporter for Newsweek, that "a few close friends" in Chicago, not television, might have provided the real edge.3 Kennedy introduced the innovation of live television to presidential press conferences, but only after being pushed by advisers.4 After studying President Franklin D. Roosevelt and learning that FDR averaged two radio addresses a year and focused primarily upon influencing newspapers to shape public opinion, Kennedy worried about overexposure and decided to use television sparingly and targeted print journalists.5

A brief experience as a reporter covering the opening of the United Nations and the Potsdam Conference in 1945 filled President Kennedy with confident pride that he understood how the press worked in politics and what journalists looked for and needed when covering a story.6 Driven by the belief that newspapers and magazines were the most influential channels to shape public opinion, Kennedy personally monitored print coverage of the New Frontier every morning.7 For the routine, day-to-day business of framing his agenda in the press, Kennedy focused upon personally influencing print journalists. He was the last president to enjoy the luxury of picking and choosing between print and television. For most of his time in office, network newscasts ran for only fifteen minutes; they expanded to thirty minutes in September 1963, shortly before his death. After the assassination, television came of age with unprecedented marathon coverage of Kennedy's funeral. The question of how to handle foreign policy events under the glaring eye of expanded television news coverage was left for Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Television news offered Americans only fleeting glimpses of the New Frontier's foreign policy, even as Kennedy presided over a series of dramatic crises with the Soviet Union.8

Empowered by the limitations of television news technology, the White House looked to the print press to shape American perceptions of Kennedy's handling of foreign policy. Television journalists lacked minicameras and satellites necessary for spontaneous coverage that would challenge the official version of foreign policy events. Televising foreign policy events required cooperation from participants, along with elaborate arrangements to replicate studio conditions in distant lands. Before an event could be aired, film needed to be developed and flown back to the United States. In addition, the Cold War made countries such as China and Cuba off limits to television cameras.9

Kennedy also benefited from the Cold War because journalists wanted to help the White House win the war against Communism. During the early 1960s journalists, like most Americans, still trusted government. For American journalism, the pre-Vietnam/Watergate period was an innocent era marked by the absence of contemporary Washington's cynicism and combative "feeding frenzy." Stories about Kennedy's personal life were considered off limits by most reporters, although many later recounted in memoirs that they were aware of womanizing and questions about his health. Kennedy's peccadilloes and health problems were over-looked as they had been during the Great Depression and World War II for Roosevelt.11

Over the course of his political career Kennedy, much like Roosevelt, developed a small network of relationships with journalists which he relied upon after he became president. …

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