Every administration attempts to shape coverage in the press. President Trump does so by tweeting, having virtually given up press conferences. Trump’s press secretary supports the boss’s message by defending and validating his tweets. Stung by press criticism of tweets loosely connected to fact, the administration regards the media as the “opposition party,” and the president’s press secretary has attempted to limit the attendance and questions of the mainstream press at White House news briefings. The Trump approach seems focused on damping voices that disagree.
John McCrea described quite different press relations at the White House in 1942, during the first year of WW II. Franklin Roosevelt regarded the press as essential to getting his message out to the country. Unlike Trump, he could not reach people directly and easily through a medium like Twitter, although he did make occasional radio broadcasts to the country. To be sure there were tensions about the quality of reporting and the amount of information released by the administration, but the relationship between president and press was more mutually beneficial than adversarial.
FDR held two press conferences a week, one for the morning papers and one for the evening ones. About 150 reporters attended. FDR enjoyed bantering with the reporters. Most of their questions were impromptu, but complicated ones requiring special briefing for the president could be submitted in advance to Steve Early, the president’s press secretary. Most of the reporters were respectful. McCrea knew of only one incident when a reporter’s insolence and his abusive and inaccurate columns made the president angry enough to consider excluding him from the conferences.
Since it was wartime, the president had to withhold information on matters that might harm the country’s war effort. Once FDR dispatched McCrea, his naval aide, to try to explain to a reporter why the president could not respond to his persistent questioning. Here I quote from Captain McCrea’s War about the incident:
In the late thirties and early forties, Elmer Davis was a well- known newsman and news broadcaster with a considerable following. Mr. Davis was one of the regular attendees of the president’s news conferences, and his pointed questions and remarks reflected criticism of the quantity and quality of the war news released by the administration. He was particularly persistent in asking about U.S. war losses. The president, as always, was exceedingly tactful in handling Mr. Davis.
I vividly recall the distress in the president’s voice one day after a press conference when he said: “John, catch Elmer Davis before he gets away. Take him aside and see if you can get across to him the idea that he can’t publish everything he wants to about our losses. Steve Early [the president’s press secretary] tells me he can make no headway with him, and I haven’t the time to take him on.”
I caught Mr. Davis and tried to explain that the release of information about war losses, particularly those unknown to the enemy, created serious problems for the administration and the armed services. Mr. Davis was, I thought, remarkably naïve. He responded, “The American public has a right to know what’s going on. If the administration released a daily summary of U.S. losses, the information would only be covered in the U.S. press, and the enemy would know nothing about it. I suspect you fellows in the military have something to cover up if you don’t want your losses known in this country.”
“Mr. Davis,” said I, “I don’t know you well, but you have a fine reputation among the news fraternity, and there is hardly anyone in your profession who has a greater following. I have in mind something to tell you, but I shan’t do so unless you are willing to promise that you will never repeat or make reference to it in your writing, broadcasting, or your private conversation or correspondence. If you give me this assurance, I will tell you. If not, we might as well forget any future conversations.” After a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Davis agreed to my terms.
I continued, “You have told me that a daily press report of U.S. losses could not benefit the enemy. You are absolutely wrong in this. Nightly, an embassy here in Washington sends a coded dispatch to its government’s foreign office containing a digest of all military news in our press. The country engaged in this activity is supposedly neutral, but we have proof positive that the military information transmitted by its embassy is reaching the Axis powers. I am not going to name the neutral country or tell you how we know the information is reaching the enemy. You will have to take my word for it. However, I am sure that you, as a patriotic American, would not want to give aid and comfort to our enemies. Do you need further proof of the wisdom of censoring our losses?”
“Well, no. But we can’t let censorship take over.” Mr. Davis still felt the people had a right to know, although he allowed that the issue of “when” they were entitled to know might be relevant. I do not recall that Mr. Davis ever again asked about our country’s losses at a presidential news conference.