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 ça 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.

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.