Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Why the Media Love Presidents and Presidents Hate the Media

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Why the Media Love Presidents and Presidents Hate the Media

Article excerpt

You have had the same experience that I have. Perhaps it was at a memorial service, at which one person spoke of the deceased as a father, another as a husband, another as a coworker, and another as a best friend. Or maybe it was at the rehearsal dinner for a wedding, with toasts from people who knew the bride or groom as children, as friends, as students. In each case, the words that were spoken were about the same person. But they offered different, complementary accounts.

I say this to prepare you for what is coming in the next few pages. This essay is going to end up being about the relationship between the presidency and the news media. But first we need to consider how the news media developed in this country. And we need to do so in two different, but complementary ways.


The first account is of the news media themselves. Until the 1920's, the news media consisted entirely of print media: newspapers and magazines. What Americans knew about the world of national politics and government, they knew because they read it. They read about the president, of course, but they could just as easily read about Congress and the Supreme Court. Partly as result of this, presidents did not dominate the public space. The journalist Fred Barnes recently remarked that in the contemporary national news media, every question boils down to one: "How is the president doing?" That simply was not the case during most of our history.

Then came radio. In 1920, there were two radio stations in the United States, one in Pittsburgh and one in Detroit. Two years later there were 500 stations. Five years after that, the NBC and CBS national radio networks were up and running. (So, by then was VQR.)

Radio wrought a tremendous transformation in American political life, perhaps greater than the transformation later wrought by television. Radio brought politics and government directly into people's homes. In particular, radio brought them one member of the government, the president. Why the president and not Congress or the Supreme Court? Congress speaks with many voices, and it does so in ways that radio did not like: cacophonously, and according to no script. The Supreme Court does not speak at all, at least not for the broadcast media. But the president speaks with one voice, and almost always in a scripted, coherent way.

It took a while for presidents to master the new medium. Herbert Hoover tended to shout his speeches into the radio microphone as if, for all his training and experience as an engineer, he really could not believe that his voice would be heard around the country if he spoke normally. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to grasp fully not only the technology of radio, but also the setting in which people listened to radio. When the president spoke over the airwaves, he was heard not by great masses of voters in an arena, but by families in their living rooms. And so FDR developed the Fireside Chat, in which he spoke to Americans in a conversational voice, as if he had just dropped in to tell them what was going on in Washington.

Television added pictures to the spoken word. The 1950's were for television what the 1920's had been for radio: in 1950, 90 percent of American homes did not have a television set; by 1960, 90 percent did. But more than just adding pictures, television placed a premium on pictures, as became apparent in 1960 during the first truly national television event, the September 26 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Not many people can remember a thing that was said during that debate, but almost everyone remembers what they saw. There was Nixon, utterly inattentive to the demands of television, haphazardly made up and wearing a light grey suit that, on the black-and-white television screen, faded into the light blue background. What viewers saw of him, therefore, seemed spectral, ghostlike-a pale, seemingly disembodied face floating in the middle of the screen. …

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