John F. Kennedy invented the modern-day press conference; the current U.S. administration has turned it on Its head.
John F. Kennedy is widely credited with pioneering the live, televised, no-holds-barred press conference that was subsequently emulated by those who followed him – at least until two years ago.
JFK’s conferences were described as articulate, thoughtful, and congenial. They were so popular in fact, that not long after they started, the White House began hosting them at a State Department auditorium which could fit as many as 800 people.
But what made them so popular? In many ways it was JFK himself. He was honest, and even friendly with reporters. He wasn’t afraid to face the tough questions, and rarely if ever did he hide behind his press team when a particularly tough question arose.
His approach stands in stark contrast to with the way current U.S. President Donald Trump manages – or mismanages – relations with the press.
Although JFK often had strained relationships with members of the Washington press corps, he understood (a) the importance of their role and (b) how they could help his administration.
The symbiotic relationship began very early when he named the whip-smart and media-friendly Pierre Salinger to serve as his press secretary. Salinger was widely regarded as a “journalist’s journalist” having served as a reporter both before and after his time in the White House.
Said Salinger of the president, “President Kennedy was a voracious reader and forever coming up with fascinating bits of information.” The media, he added, couldn’t get enough.
In a recent article on TheDailyBeast.com, it was noted that “Kennedy and Salinger were ahead of their time in understanding the mix of news and entertainment, and JFK played this new on-air role for an American president to the hilt. He had fun toying with media titans in exchanges that were never mean-spirited, and let the voters in on the joke.”
And so, for the most part, the relationship worked. The media got what it wanted – presidential access – and the administration got what it wanted – information.
Fast forward to today.
“ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”
Rather than facing the press corps, Trump’s preferred method of communication to the American people has been a combination of Twitter, and the often combative press briefings held by a revolving door of press secretaries from Sean Spicer, to Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, to current secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
His tweets against the media – more than 500 and counting – are both disturbing and dangerous. His insults against the media via Twitter have ranged from the relatively benign comments on the “Failing” New York Times (which has reported a profit in the last two quarters) to the much more shocking branding of the media as “the Enemy of the People.”
JFK held a total of 64 press conferences during his albeit brief two-year tenure as President. Current President Donald Trump has held just 21 in the first two years of his presidency.
The role of the media was defined by the Global Ethics Network as follows: Media is the sword arm of democracy. Media acts as the watchdog to protect public interest against malpractice and create public awareness.
Trump fails to understand this simple tenant.
Press briefings under President Trump have been plagued by lies and misinformation, talking points repeated ad nauseam, and repeated efforts to stifle the voices of those journalists who question the President the most harshly.
In a recent exchange, Sanders went so far as using footage (later proven to be doctored) of CNN journalist Jim Acosta allegedly karate chopping an aid during one of these briefings as evidence for barring him from future briefings.
While Acosta has since seen his press credentials returned, the episode speaks to the relationship between the White House and the press, and to just how different it is compared to the JFK years.
As for the accompanying photo, it’s difficult to image members of today’s press corps getting up from their chairs to receive Trump entering the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
Actually, it’s impossible to imagine.