By Michael P. Riccards
It has been said that Thomas Jefferson once observed that if he had a choice between a free government and a free press, he would choose the latter.
After eight tumultuous years as president, he changed his mind about the sanctity of a free press. Even his party was chafing under his foreign policy.
Presidents have had a strange relationship with the press and the mass media, its modern equivalent. Teddy Roosevelt was probably the first president to allow some sort of press conferences, but they were often newspapermen racing after him while he was exercising. Yet he was generally comfortable with newspapermen although he shunned critics.
His cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt was more sophisticated about his relationship. The newspapermen would gather around his desk, and he would answer or charmingly avoid answering their inquiries. It was said that the publishers were opposed to the New Deal, but the working press loved him.
Also for his time, FDR used an alternative forum to reach the people — radio, which he first tried out as governor of New York. With his baritone voice, he laid out the great problems before the nation, from the first bank crisis to the end of the terrible war in Europe. On one occasion he told the American people to buy maps so he could explain the progress of the Allied armies in the war in the west. There was not a map or an atlas to be found that week. Even his enemies had to admit that the president gave a most impressive speech. He took seriously his obligation to educate the American people.
The reinstating of the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is an attempt to reestablish the intimate relationship between the chief executive and press corps.
There are more correspondents than FDR hosted around the Oval Office. President Joe Biden has generally avoided press conferences, which may explain why his approval ratings are so low. David Axelrod has argued that the administration has been very successful policy-wise, but has had a lousy communication office. Perhaps it is not the office, it is the president. Biden should have learned from John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan the importance of having an ongoing relationship with the media.
Yes, presidents have persistent enemies. During the second world war, FDR tossed a German medal of honor to a reporter of the Chicago Tribune for that paper’s violation of voluntary censorship. One can imagine how that poor reporter felt while the nation waged a patriotic war. While the media pounded away at the US policy in Vietnam, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon knew the war was not going to be successful, yet they continued the carnage of Vietnamese and Americans alike.
One cannot say that the media betrayed the nation. Whether one likes the New York Post or not, the paper was probably right about the corruption of Hunter Biden. Yet deep down the liberal media wanted to defeat Donald Trump so much they covered those transgressions. That doesn’t mean that one has to respect the Murdoch media, for he has done more to debase the politics of English speaking than any single individual.
We have used intimidation and censorship to curtail sedition and foreclose erroneous studies of the COVID vaccine. We have not figured out how to have freedom of the press and also realize that masses of Americans and other nationals believe what they read and do not exercise judgment. Somehow as we celebrate these events of comity, we must also figure out how to protect responsible journalists and also shun the Tucker Carlsons of the world trying to be Alex Jones.
Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including a two-volume history of the presidency, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, and the recently published Woodrow Wilson as Commander-in-Chief.