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