Evolution of the Adversarial Press Conference
Theodore Roosevelt was the first to discover he could use the private press as a persuasive and frequent means of talking to the American people,1and Woodrow Wilson was most likely the first president to open news sessions to all accredited newspeople.2
Press conferences are new, but the adversarial relationship is as old as the presidency itself. All presidents have tried to stop leaks, avoid disclosure of information that might discredit their policies, and encourage favorable news coverage of their administrations; all have tried to manage the news.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a secret affair because delegates agreed their task would be impossible if their preliminary discussions were aired publicly and people took sides before the delegates could present a united front.3When a delegate mislaid some papers, George Washington recovered them but admonished the delegates to be more careful; otherwise the newspapers would get ahold of the documents and give rise to "premature speculations" and needlessly upset the public.4
President Washington moved quickly to establish his right to keep secrets. In 1792, the House of Representatives asked to see documents that might shed light on how General Arthur Sinclair lost 600 troops to Indians at the headwaters of the Wabash. Washington refused: "[D]isclosure . . . would injure the public."5Many decades later, when