FULL COURT PRESS
When Bob Dole, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, was asked what he would do differently were he to run in future, he replied, “Keep the press off the plane.” Unfortunately, President Obama can’t and won’t do that. Not yet, at any rate.
Richard Nixon learnt the lesson too late. When Nixon was on his final flight on Air Force One, he went to the rear section, which previously held reporters, and saw that it was occupied by the Secret Service. “Well,” Nixon commented, “It certainly smells better.”
There is no love lost between the Presidents of the United States and the Press. The honeymoon at the Inauguration lasts less time than the Jason Alexander/ Britney Spears wedding.
While President Barack Obama is trying desperately to get his Stimulus Package passed, the U.S. media need neither stimulus nor stimulant to keep the fires of discord burning. Many of my friends have commented on what they see as an “about face” in the media. When Obama was a candidate, they were on his side; now that he is president, increasingly he is under attack. The media say they are impartial and objective. Obama supporters increasingly believe that, whether the fire is friendly or unfriendly, or the damage is unilateral or collateral, the results are equally deadly. Significantly, Valentine’s Day in American history also commemorates a massacre.
Some people consider the Obama situation as one episode in an epic and ongoing power struggle. James Reston, the New York Times columnist, put it very bluntly to Senator Edward Kennedy, “We were here before you got here, Ted; and we will be here when you are gone.”
Walter Cronkite saw it as a Siamese twin syndrome. “Politics and media are inseparable,” he postulated. “It is only politicians and the media that are incompatible.” Who will win? James Deakin of the St Louis Post-Dispatch has placed his bet on the media. He said, “Government is order. Journalism is disorder. Life imitates journalism.”
Many American politicians do not support Deakin’s view. Senator Barry Goldwater warned, “If this country ever fails, if this country ever becomes history, some future historian will blame it mostly on the media.”
Former New York Mayor John Lindsay told an aide to keep reporters away from him. He complained, “They’re just a bunch of goddamn animals. Why the hell should I have to put up with all of their shenanigans, anyway? I’m the Mayor and if I want them out of my office, out they go.”
The infamous Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago felt that there was a life-form out there that was lower than him. “A newspaper is the lowest thing there is,” Daley maintained. Journalists actually have and have held, over a long period, a diametrically opposed view. I.F. Stone, who wrote a weekly newsletter, was adamant, “Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.”
While true of Daley and others, is it true of the entire array and assemblage of genus politicus, particularly the Presidents? Mark Sullivan of the New York Herald Tribune is supposed to have said, “The only way for a newspaperman to look at a politician is down.”
This seems to be the prevailing view held by the media, but is it shared by the mass of the population?
There are people who view the media with distaste and look down on them from greater heights than the altitude from which the media view politicians. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), the English lexicographer and essayist, observed: “A news-writer is a man without virtue, who writes lies at home for his own profit. To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness; but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) the Danish philosopher, did not take the media philosophically. “If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I would not despair over her. But if I had a son who became a journalist and continued to remain one for five years, I would give him up.”
Charles Dana, a New York Sun editor, put it bluntly: “Journalism consists in buying white paper at two cents a pound and selling it at ten cents a pound.” Most journalists protest. However, there might be some truth in the low opinions held of the media, if you consider what Edward Folliard, a respected journalist from the prestigious Washington Post, said to Tim Wicker of the New York Times in 1978: “Young man, if you’re going to be a political writer, there’s one thing that you better remember. Never let the facts get in your way.”
It is not just the tendency to inaccuracy, but also the persistence of the media and their insensitivity that have aroused the ire of previous US Presidents. The media view is captured in a statement by former Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons. He bluntly declared, “I don’t believe any politician in the United States ought to have a private life.”
Ronald Reagan was so incensed when he was advised to let the media know the details of a urinary tract infection he had contracted that he said furiously, “Damn it, what do they want me to do? Go down to the press room and drop my pants and say, ‘Here it is’?”
Sometimes the presidents get their own back. During a trip to India, President Carter was shown a pit filled with cow manure which generated methane gas for energy. ABC Television’s Sam Donaldson asked Carter, “If I fell in, you’d pull me out, wouldn’t you, Mr. President?” Carter’s response was, “Certainly, after a suitable interval.”
When the Soviet Union expelled an Associated Press (AP) photographer in1977, the White House Press Secretary Jody Powell was asked if the United States planned to respond.
Mr. Powell replied, “We did discuss something along those lines. It was our feeling that if the Russians got to kick an AP correspondent out of Moscow, we ought to get to kick an AP correspondent out of here.”
However, these are rare exceptions to what most Presidents have seen as an uneven relationship and a playing field that is as level as Mount Rushmore. Was Carter right to call them “a bunch of prima donnas”? Was Reagan justified in deeming them, “Sons of bitches”?
Richard Nixon told his aides, “The Press is the enemy,” and, “If we treat the press with a little more contempt, we’ll probably get better treatment.” It didn’t work for him, nor will it work for any other president, Obama included.
If, as Oscar Wilde quipped, “In America, the President reigns for four years, but Journalism governs for ever and ever,” then neither a bailout nor a stimulus will help President Obama. He might be able to keep them off the plane, but not out of his hair, short though it may be, and hopefully shorter than his Presidency.
*Tony Deyal was last seen repeating what George Bush told the media after his dog, Millie, had pups: “You may have read that the pups are sleeping on The Washington Post and The New York Times; the first time in history that those papers have been used to prevent leaks.”