Television—“the President’s medium”?

How TV made JFK stronger than steel

Some historians credit President Kennedy’s 1960 election to his performance in his televised debates with Richard Nixon. His mastery of the new medium continued throughout his presidency. In Ben Bagdikian’s first article for CJR (he would write regularly about Washington issues and coverage until 1974), he looked at how the president used television to win public support for his opposition to U.S. Steel’s price hikes, by circumventing the press and holding forth in a medium where his message would go unchallenged.

Under construction at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue in downtown Washington is an intriguing five-story building, the Smithsonian Institution’s new Museum of History and Technology, behind whose Tennessee pink marble facade there already rests a great steam locomotive of The Southern Railway. When the first tourists are admitted eighteen months from now they will see the giant machine mounted on rails, staring fiercely through an eastern window. But most visitors will be unaware that the iron horse, 188 tons in weight and 92 feet long, had to be set in place before the walls were built and is now a permanent captive in the air-conditioned confines of the museum.

Three blocks from the new museum is the White House, which in the 170 years since its cornerstone was laid, has similarly grown up around the great engine of American politics, the President, enshrining him and at the same time symbolizing his inability to reach the outside environment directly.

The President, after all, has little face-to-face contact with most citizens. A leader of 180,000,000 people spread over 3,500,000 square miles can bring his personality to bear at first hand on only a microscopic fragment of the electorate—a limitation felt by the first President even though he led a nation of only 4,000,000 people on one-fourth our present acreage. George Washington, like Presidents after him, appeared to the public largely through the newspapers. Like many other Presidents, he came to regard the press at its best as an imperfect instrument and at its worst as a curse upon the people. Leaders typically expect the press to be an unswerving ally in what the leaders conceive to be noble purposes; when instead newspapers extract, compress, and mix the leader’s message with anti-messages from his enemies, it seems outrageous adulteration; when papers are antagonistic it seems close to subversion. George Washington had an overwhelmingly sympathetic press. Yet when he retired he was so enraged at the small but noisy opposition that among his first acts as a private citizen was to cancel newspaper subscriptions (an act of retribution to which a President may still resort).

Frank Luther Mott, historian of the American press, has shown that it is not unusual for Presidents to have a majority of newspapers against them. Among those elected over majority press opposition were Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Pierce, Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. Yet Mott’s conclusion, made some years ago, that this is a manageable fixture of American politics may need a. new look. Of thirty-seven Presidential campaigns up to 1936, only three reveal winning candidates with less than 40 percent of editorial support (Jefferson, 33 percent; Van Buren, Lincoln, first campaign, 30). But since the New Deal, the percentage of papers and circulation in favor of Democratic Presidential candidates has been running consistently so low as to place the daily press in a fixed position in the political spectrum. Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 had 26 percent (by circulation) in his favor; in 1940, 23 percent; in 1944, 18 percent; Truman in 1948, 10 percent; Stevenson in 1952, 11 percent; in 1956, 15 percent; and Kennedy in 1960, 16 percent.

Many papers opposing a President as a candidate later support him on specific issues, but in general the percentages represent a line of ideological separation. Modern opposition papers, unlike those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, have a tradition of keeping editorial opinion apart from news. But the rigidity even of labeled opinion that has prevailed for the last thirty years still presents severe problems for any Democratic President. For one thing, the newspaper field is now institutionalized so editorial opinions, even those out of touch with contemporary values, will not suffer local printed competition. It costs too much to start rival papers and existing dailies are supported for reasons other than their opinions. Further, the division of opinion is a crucial one in domestic matters, since newspapers generally throw their editorial lot on the side of business in any conflict with labor or government or consumer, and these conflicts are among the commanding issues at home. Finally, though there is substantial divorcement of editorial opinion from ordinary news, there is still a discernible and often important difference in treatment of news among pro-Republican and pro-Democratic papers in reaction time to certain kinds of news, differences in emphasis, and differences in the initiative taken on reporting.

Any modern President who finds himself in conflict with the industrial or financial community can take it for granted that a vast majority of the press will be against him. Further, if the conflict is sufficiently prolonged this opposition will make a difference in the outcome. While the press has not demonstrated that it can change the minds of people who have strong feelings on matters directly affecting them, the emphasis of the news and the nature of its display can affect that part of the political landscape brought to the attention of the reader.

The clash between the President and the steel companies may have been a milestone in the Presidential use of communications. The milestone is symbolic only, for a change has been on the way for more than a generation. But since the events of mid-April it has been clear that new communicative forces are viable and effective. President Kennedy, certain of massive newspaper opposition to his pressures to force steel companies to back down on their price increases, reached over the heads of the press in one dramatic television presentation. This so placed steel on the defensive and stimulated public opinion that it permitted his other moves against the companies—investigations by the Department of Justice, a Federal Trade Commission inquiry, FBI calls, hints-of new legislation—a chance to prevail, which they did.

In the five-minute opening statement of his live television press conference on April 11, President Kennedy demolished the opposition—before the 319 correspondents had even left the auditorium. This was the culmination of a generation of worry by Democratic Presidents over the editorial attitudes of the daily press. Franklin Roosevelt began using radio systematically in his first Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933, eight days after his inauguration, chiefly to impart a sense of confidence and leadership to a dispirited people. But it was not long before he began seeing it as an instrument for reaching over the press, which became increasingly hostile. His press conferences were still informal affairs in his office, with no quotation of the President permitted. While Roosevelt exploited the conferences for his own purposes, he also came to regard them as baiting sessions between him and the publishers, with the correspondents as intermediaries.

Radio, on the other hand, was a clear channel from the White House into the voter’s living room. But Roosevelt was chary of striking too hard. “I am purposely avoiding use of the air because to use it at the controversial stage of a controversial legislative body spells more controversy,” he wrote to Colonel Edward M. House in 1934. (Four years later FDR praised U.S. Steel during a Fireside Chat: “Today a great steel company announced a reduction in prices with a view to stimulating business recovery, and I was gratified to know that this reduction involved no wage cut.” The next day U.S. Steel aimed a statement at Roosevelt saying it was by no means committed to keeping up wages and making plain the President deserved no credit for the price cut. Plus ├ža change.) By 1941, Roosevelt so clearly saw radio as a counter measure to newspapers that he worried over how many newspapers owned radio stations. World War II suspended further development of radio as a President’s domestic weapon. With peace came Truman, whose use of radio made some difference, but who lacked the force of Roosevelt.

Television represented a quantum leap in the means available to a President to bypass the printed page. Yet, curiously, it took more than a decade of mass television before a President used it at its maximum power to win a particular battle. Political television started in the fifties, during which a nonpolitical President did not make a strong impression on the medium, except to project his personal qualities of earnestness and sincerity. Senator McCarthy and his antagonists, however, dramatized the political power of television, and cameras launched Adlai Stevenson at the 1952 convention and John Kennedy in the Nixon-Kennedy debates. But these were public events pressed home by an impersonal medium, not an impersonal medium commandeered for his own use by a President.

Before April 11, President Kennedy was interesting but not potent on television. He was impressive at his television press conferences not so much for what he said as for what he did not say, for his careful selection of words, for his irony. He seldom galvanized an audience. His was the passive voice, the subjunctive rnood, the non-committal adjective. “It would be inappropriate to comment…” or “I found the talks—ah—useful…” He may have been moved by several influences: a natural reserve in public; a sensitivity to his close election; a desire to maintain a nonpartisan official stature; a commitment to fighting hard in private and letting his enemies save face in public. In private, he showed other qualifies. He appears to have hypnotic powers over his antagonists, clutching them to his breast and releasing them to walk glassy-eyed out of the White House. Platoons of the opposition, like George Sokolsky, have walked out of private sessions with the President under an old-fashioned Irish spell. But to the general public he appeared cautious, courteous, and filled with limitless capacity for conciliation. Once, at his January 24 press conference, a flash of driving toughness came out, when he nipped a security-risk campaign in the bud, but apparently the U.S. Steel scouts did not diagram that play back at headquarters.

At 3:31 p.m. on April 11, at his thirtieth press conference, the President started his polemic against “a tiny handful of steel executives.” There was now no prudent circumspection and no personal reserve, but instead strong words and as fierce an emotion as John Kennedy permits himself on a platform. He spared nothing—patriotism, dying soldiers, and selfishness in time of peril. At 3:36 the battle against steel was over. Yet it would be twenty-four minutes before the correspondents would get to their telephones and hours before they would get into print.

In print, the President’s attack would appear in 312 morning papers the next day, in the hands of perhaps 24,000,000 readers. The wire services would carry most of the dramatic opening statement in their major stories. Most papers would not carry the verbatim transcript. The New York Times, The Wall Street journal, and The Washington Post (aggregate circulation: 1,700,000) and possibly half a dozen others regularly carry the full texts. The Associated Press would carry a condensed text, probably about half the total, on a subsidiary wire, as would United Press International. (They have no way of knowing how many clients regularly use it, one service estimating as low as six.) Practically all papers, in the discipline and tradition of printed news, would carry in their news stories not only the President’s most dramatic words, but also those of his adversaries who would have had time to reply before press time.

In addition, there would be the publishers’ editorial reactions. In the steel case there would be an initial period of shocked hesitation and then strong opposition to the President’s using any influence in wage and price determination and to the measures he used to fight the U.S. Steel increase. Some editorials would see the end of free enterprise in America and, in the televised statement, an event akin to Lenin’s entry into Petrograd. The editorials would have special influence within the business community (which tends to look to them for moral support) and serve to consolidate opinion there.

But before any of this could happen, the general public, or that part of it that saw television and heard radio the evening of April 11, had an opinion, based on the word and image of the President himself in their living rooms. Television networks carried the press conference in full, live or delayed an hour, “to a maximum of 8,500,000 homes (data not being exact on an unsponsored program like this). Even more effective were the evening network television shows, almost all of which used most of the video tape of the opening statement. These were seen on a maximum of 13,000,000 sets when perhaps as many as 35,000,000 people were watching. The radio networks fed the taped full conference to affiliates (but had no way of knowing how many took it or when they used it). Radio Press International transmitted the full conference in voice to its eighty subscribers and believes that at least twenty used it in full that same day. RPI’s transmission also used four minutes of the President’s voice at his conference on its news broadcasts, which most clients used.

The next day, all broadcast media carried something of the press conference by Roger M. Blough, chairman of U.S. Steel, but this was less impressive, partly because the head of U.S. Steel cannot compete for attention with the head of the United States. That night the CBS television documentary, “Eyewitness,” reviewed the events before an audience of possibly 6,000,000.

The effective difference between the broadcast and the printed news was not just speed and numbers. It was in emotional impact, in the mechanical limitation of broadcasting that permits a lone man to present his own words in their full emotional context without opposing views or critical analysis.

Without any medium’s wanting it to happen, television has become the President’s medium. The newspapers are somebody else’s medium—the reading public’s, the business community’s, the publisher’s— as well as the President’s. Neither in emotional response nor in sociological makeup are the two audiences the same. What necessarily comes across in live television and radio is what most public figures would like to see of themselves in print if they could manage it—their own words verbatim and without filtration by reporters and editors, intruding comments by others, or editorializing by the medium.

Many people were worried by the President’s quick victory over steel—people who have no special love for U.S. Steel, but who feel that steel, for all its unlovable qualifies, was outmatched. The same awesome power of the President to transmit himself electronically into the American living room could be turned on a less powerful adversary.

The newspaper tradition of presenting the other side of an argument is indispensable, though it is often resented by readers who believe that when angels speak the press should not drag in the devil for a word in reply. This is an old problem of reporters and newspapers: Partisans seldom want nonpartisan reporting. Not to say that broadcasting is without editorial balance but that the nature of the medium usually makes the lone news source seem far more credible than he is in print. While the news source is talking no contrary voice can be transmitted.

Newspapers now have to report an event to a public whose opinion about the event may already have been formed by another medium. This will be especially so on any issue in which the decisive impact is made by television. In one sense it is a healthy discipline on reporting, since the reader will have viewed the event and heard the words himself. But prior knowledge could be misleading—as anyone can recall who ever heard Senator McCarthy standing in front of a closed hearing room to give his interpretation of what went on inside. To the newspapers—and the later broadcast news programs—falls the burden of preventing stampedes of opinion on issues where only one side has been presented.

This burden will test the public’s faith in newspapers at a poor time in the political history of the contemporary daily press. The disadvantage of the printed word is not just that it is slower, but more that there is an undercurrent of suspicion about the politics of newspapers, based on their overwhelming opposition to the mainstream of social and economic change in the United States during the last thirty years. What papers may do out of a conscientious regard for the whole truth will inevitably get mixed up in the reader’s mind with what papers have done in the past out of partisan politics.

For a long time the main body of the daily press was in full cry against Roosevelt and Truman, as it was never against Eisenhower. There will probably be a time when it will be pitched against President Kennedy. But now a Democratic President has an effective method—broadcasting—to bypass a hostile press and even to attack it. Publishers were disturbed about Jack Paar’s emotional outbursts on television against the press. What if it were not Paar at midnight but the President of the United States at 6 p.m.?

Particularly on issues of family economics, the press is vulnerable to attack because since 1934 the general public has shown—through its votes and its folk sayings—its belief that in any conflict between business and the consumer, the newspapers are on the side of business. This set of mind is the Achilles heel of the daily press in American society, and every intelligent politician knows it. In a sense, this is unfair, considering the large body of honest reporting in newspapers. But public skepticism exists.

The quick television victory of the President on April 11 makes it plain that newspapers are not always the most effective link between the President and the public and that any time he chooses, a commanding public figure can go over the head of the press. Implicit in this demonstration is the possibility that should the press consolidate against a President, as it has in the past, he need not be so chary as before of antagonizing the newspapers and, if need be, he can appeal to the endemic suspicions of the press’s own readers.

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Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.