This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.