The Press

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Woodrow Wilson had a thorny time with the press. The elegant collegian was not used to the rough ways of journalists and made it clear he thought they were little better than police reporters who had meandered onto the White House grounds. His feelings were not without justification. College graduates among White House reporters were a comparative rarity. Today the positions are almost reversed. Now that it requires a graduate degree in journalism to get a job spiking copy on a suburban weekly, the press is often criticized as a bunch of hoity-toity snobs who think they are too good for the rest of us while George Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom saw the inside of Yale, seem to go to great lengths trying to speak as if they had never been formally educated at all.

It seems every President must endure at least one incident that the press simply bungles. Wilson’s was the tobaccojuice story. When he was the head of Princeton, Wilson gave a speech on rural migration saying it was difficult to think clearly in the cities. Thought, he said, came more easily at a village store where men could sit around the stove spitting tobacco juice. Then he paused to make a little academic joke. “Whatever else may be said of the habit of chewing tobacco, this much must be admitted in its favor, that it makes men think because they must stop between words to spit.”

Next day the headlines read, PRESIDENT OF PRINCETON SAYS CHEWING TOBACCO MAKES MEN THINK . Wilson had violated two cardinal rules of modern-day spin doctors: Never deviate from your prepared text, and never make a joke. The press will mangle a joke every time. President Clinton’s was the hair cut story. It was a peach. Our populist President hung up commercial air traffic over Los Angeles for nearly an hour while getting his hair cut by some Beverly Hills salon stylist. The scene lacked only Clinton asking how the cake was holding up for the little people. The story ran throughout the country and was flat wrong. No flights had been delayed. Very few papers printed retractions.

Another White House rule. The press is now grown so large it has become like a pet dragon kept out on the back lawn. If you don’t keep feeding the creature with handouts, it will break into the kitchen and rattle the crockery.

During World War II the Tribune went for ad profits while the Times limited ads in favor of news coverage.

Wilson grew contemptuous of the press and started playing a dangerous game with reporters. His aide Col. Edward House called it “grazing the truth.” When Wilson wanted to mislead reporters, he gave them answers that sounded factual but were actually evasions. A flat lie, if it holds up long enough, is more effective. When Tom Wicker, the White House reporter for the Times , tried to pin down President Kennedy on our military commitment to Asia, he asked a direct question. “Mr. President, are American troops now in combat in Vietnam?” Kennedy looked directly in Wicker’s eyes and lied, “No.”

 

For all their doggedness White House reporters blew the biggest presidential story of their generation. Wilson was struck down by thrombosis and for about seventeen months was virtually unable to perform his presidential duties. The press ran reams of innuendo, but it never got the story. Similarly it never reported that President Franklin Roosevelt suffered so severely from polio he could barely walk. Nor did it report what every American politician assumed when the Democratic party nominated Roosevelt for a fourth term in 1944: It was running a dead man.

It is axiomatic within the profession that the White House press corps gets so tied up with what Bill Moyers calls “asking bumper-sticker questions and getting fortune-cookie answers” it never breaks really important stories. The Watergate scandal was ripped open by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post without setting foot on the White House lawn. In the case of Wilson and Roosevelt, however, more human factors were likely at play. Reporters, it appears, suspended their news-gathering function in favor of a sense of compassion and fair play, two qualities that are now missing almost entirely from press coverage.

Following World War II, America’s newspapers largely took the form we see today. Color printing and cleaner graphics aside, the look of today’s paper is not vastly different from those of fifty years ago. And they were riding high. The New York Daily News , the country’s largest tabloid, claimed a daily circulation of 2.4 million and almost double that on Sunday. The American press had put in a good war and was ready to cash in. It did for a while, and then came television, which changed the rules for everybody.

Newspaper people sneer at television the way high school geometry nerds sneer at football players. They are certain of their intellectual superiority, but they also know they will get beaten up any time the big guys want to make a fight of it.