Conflict and Cooperation: An Exploration of the Relationship Between the Press and the Presidency


Fred Love  |  2007 Sidey Essay Winner

Few symbols of American democracy inspire a greater sense of awe than the White House. For more than two hundred years, the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has provided a stage for some of the most momentous decisions in American and world history. Since the completion of the White House in 1800, every president of the United States, beginning with John Adams, has deliberated the future of the country within its walls. The White House, however, also serves as the focal point for the work of journalists who connect the actions and decisions of the president with the citizens who elect him.

Covering the White House presents a slew of challenges to journalists, most of which stem from the relationship between the presidency and the media. White House reporters must strike a balance between cooperation with the White House and competition with it to ensure that all pertinent information is published for the benefit of the public. Time Magazine columnist Hugh Sidey masterfully upheld that balance during his four decades covering the presidency. Sidey's work presented the presidency to the public in a responsible and thorough fashion that would not have been possible if not for his ability to work with the White House both cooperatively and, when the situation warranted it, competitively. Sidey's example illustrates the central argument of the this essay that successful and responsible White House reporters must learn to balance the cooperation and conflict that characterize the media's relationship with the presidency in a manner that best informs the public.

The American public depends on the news media's coverage of the presidency as its primary source of information on the most powerful office in the world. The media hold the presidency accountable by determining what information should be brought to the attention of the public and making that information available. Because citizens often cannot directly involve themselves in the workings of the president, the media act as a surrogate for the people to hold the White House responsible for its decisions. Sidey understood that the public has a vested interest in the actions of the president and that the office should be scrutinized and evaluated carefully.

He regarded the presidency as a vital part of American history that has traditionally set the tone for the national identity. In an article outlining the history of the White House that appeared in Time Magazine on Nov. 20, 2000, he wrote of the iconic residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

Today it's the world's most important stage, where power is brokered and crises confronted, where national policies are born and tendered, where a national spirit is nurtured. It is the production studio for a crucial device for governing--the media. And it remains the coveted stop for almost every other power holder in the world.

Authors Michael Baruch Grossman and Martha Joynt Kumar analyzed the relationship between the media and the White House in their 1981 book "Portraying the President: The White House and the News Media." Their analysis centered on the idea that "the White House and the news media are involved in a continuing relationship rooted in permanent factors that affect both sides no matter who is president or who is doing the reporting."

Grossman and Kumar argue that the news media and the presidency need each other to perform their respective roles properly, and, although the relationship sometimes becomes antagonistic, the two sides cooperate just as often. This cooperation, they argue, stems from their dependency on one another and the similarity of their goals. Both the news media and the president attempt to transmit a message to the American public. The president wants to communicate with the public but can't without the news media, and the news media would have nothing to print without the actions and decisions of the president. The two parties differ, however, in the substance of the communication. While the president prefers the media to publish only the details that reflect positively on the administration, the news media aim to publish the entire truth including the details that may harm a president's image. This clash of goals leads to the competition and conflict that journalists must sometimes initiate to best inform the public. This balance of cooperation and conflict, which Sidey expertly maintained throughout his career, presents a challenge to White House reporters. If a journalist tips the balance too far in either direction, they sacrifice the quality of their coverage.

Journalists who work too much in cooperation with the White House commit the error of not holding the presidency accountable for its actions. The president answers to the public who elects him or her, and, if White House reporters only print the material favorable to the president's image, the public does not receive the entire story. Journalists must strive to provide voters with all information that contributes to voters' ability to make informed decisions when they go to the polls, whether that information reflects well on the presidency or not.

According to an article by Katrina vanden Huevel that appeared in the July 6, 2006 issue of The Nation, the New York Times committed the error of not holding the presidency accountable before the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961. The article states that the Times intentionally downplayed its advance knowledge of the invasion after President Kennedy requested that the Times reduce the content and prominence of the article they were planning to run. If the Times editorial staff had elected to print everything they knew of the disastrous invasion, the entire operation may have been halted. The Bay of Pigs fiasco underscores the importance the news media's ability to print material that is harmful to a president's image. Journalists, however, must also take care not to tip the balance of their White House coverage in the other direction as well.

If White House reporters focus too much on publishing material which conflicts with the White House, they inhibit the president from communicating with the public. News media provide the primary link between public officials and the public, and both sides depend on journalists to mediate and make communication possible. If the relationship between the president and the news media becomes too antagonistic, both sides can appear to be assaulting each other, as was the case during the height of the Watergate scandal.

During the period before President Richard Nixon's resignation in August of 1974, tension permeated the relationship between the press and the president, resulting in some ugly confrontations between reporters and the president at several press conferences. This peak of hostility between the White House and the press is often regarded as the low point in the relationship between the two. A Sept. 17, 1973 article in Time Magazine describes this tension between Nixon and White House reporters:

Still, the prospect now is for some increase in frequency, if only because Nixon seems to think that the time is ripe to challenge the press's credibility again. In both recent conferences, he repeatedly needled the news media, implying that journalists were to blame for some, if not all, of his troubles. His cracks have developed a pattern; he gets across the idea that journalists are beastly by saying that they are entitled to be so. Last week, when asked about public confidence in him, he put part of the blame on four months of prime-time 'leers and sneers of commentators —which is their perfect right.' How to rebuild confidence? By action, not words, he replied: 'What the President says will not restore it. And what you ladies and gentlemen say will certainly not restore it.'

Confrontations between the press and the presidency, such as the one during Watergate, confuse the public and blur the news in controversy. When the White House and the press stop cooperating and assault one another, citizens lose their understanding of the presidency. Hugh Sidey, however, managed to preserve the balance between cooperation and conflict. Sidey, throughout his career, upheld the public interest in his coverage of the presidency. He understood that both cooperation and conflict play a role in connecting the president with the public, and he used the public interest as the deciding factor in which of the two options to pursue.

Sidey's coverage of the Kennedy White House illustrates his willingness to cooperate with the presidency. In a May 26, 2003 article in Time Magazine, "All the Way with JFK," Sidey recounted his decision not to heavily investigate President Kennedy's extra-marital affairs, even though the exploits were common knowledge among the White House press corps. Rather than ignite the political scandal that would have followed such investigation, Sidey devoted his coverage to the more pressing political issues faced by the Kennedy Administration:

Back then, of course, there were no tabloid-TV confessionals or presidential tapes or paparazzi pictures, just the mysterious comings and goings in and around the White House. So what did a reporter report? Well, we had the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the space race, the Cuban missile crisis and Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala . Never saw one of the girls in the Cabinet Room interfering with the President on how to handle Vietnam.

Sidey's coverage of Watergate illustrates his willingness to report on matters that harm the president's image when those matters are vital to the public interest, but he still managed to report on the scandal in a fair way. His coverage of Watergate and the final days of the Nixon Administration captures the importance of the connection between voters and the presidency.

In an April 30, 1973 article from Time Magazine, "Sadness in Mid-America," Sidey traveled to his hometown of Greenfield, Iowa where he eloquently captured the town's reaction to the Watergate scandal:

The people who stop now around the square in the first warm sun of spring seem to teeter between a quiet revulsion and a kind of muted tolerance. They still hope for the best. They don't want the President to be disgraced. They don't want Richard Nixon to fail. It is Nixon's own abuse of this special grace which they hold out to him that baffles and disappoints them the most.

White House reporters face numerous obstacles in their efforts to cover the most powerful political office in the world. The news media must find a fragile balance between cooperation and conflict with the White House to deliver the most beneficial information to the public. It is a tricky balance to strike but one that Hugh Sidey maintained throughout his career. His responsible and ethical coverage of the White House brought the intricacies of the presidency to the public, and he has left an example from which every journalist can learn.

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