FDR and the Media: Radio, Newsreels, and Press
"Without motor-cars, sound films and wireless," said Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, "no victory for National Socialism."1 President Franklin Roosevelt could have said the same thing about his New Deal. He was not the first president to address the nation by radio, or to be seen on the movie newsreels, or to hold press conferences. Yet, he developed a symbiotic relationship between the media and himself, and he institutionalized that uneasy alliance in the rhetorical presidency.
Radio's and Roosevelt's rise were inextricably linked. Based on his success with addressing the people of New York from Albany as governor, FDR wisely realized the greater impact he could achieve in speaking to the entire nation by radio as president. When he took to the airwaves, his political foes feared his persuasive mastery over that intimate medium because he could communicate entire speeches and Fireside Chats directly, without editorial comment from an intervening press.
FDR also recognized that no matter how much effort and planning went into the production of a speech or chat, the press often filtered or distorted his discourse. Unlike President Richard Nixon, who used his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, to attack the television news media in 1969, Roosevelt tried to co-opt reporters by flattering, cajoling, and orchestrating them in his press conferences. In a way, FDR tried to have it both ways and often succeeded. He built expectations by hinting what he would say in a speech, the press would report it, and FDR, given valuable pre-speech publicity, was relatively assured of having a large audience. Hence, the prior anticipation of an address, its actual delivery, and its subsequent reporting by the newspapers were three news events, or three persuasive messages, that FDR directed to the American people.