Presidential Press Conferences

As indicated, television seemed in the 1950s to have taken over the press conference, a venerable institution whose very name reflected the extent to which it had long been dominated by newspaper reporters. Broadcasting first intruded on the press conference in the national political conventions in 1952. “The press conference is an instrument vital to democratic processes, and it is being overwhelmed by paraphernalia,” complained New York Times correspondent James Reston after the Republican National Convention in 1952. Reporters claimed that convention press conferences were being wrecked by the intrusion of showoff television correspondents accompanied by bulky cameras. The chaos brought by the new medium often eliminated the opportunity for important follow-up questions, and partisan audiences attracted by the television cameras violated decorum. Print reporters were now actors in a TV show, with TV reporters asking most of the questions. “It is difficult to pursue your question when someone is insisting on a phony entertainment angle,” lamented William S. White of the New York Times. A group of print reporters proposed press conference ground rules to permit follow-up questions and forbid partisan audiences, but the proposals went nowhere.

President Eisenhower recognized this increasing importance of television in 1953, when he suggested allowing television and newsreel cameras into his presidential press conferences. Print reporters were aghast. Editor & Publisher was speaking for many newspaper journalists when it editorialized against the proposal. The magazine’s editors said that “to inject television with all its equipment and other handicaps into present White House press conferences would disrupt and alter the institution as we know it.” Over the objections of grumbling print reporters, filming was allowed beginning January 19, 1955. Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, defended the new practice and playfully reminded the print journalists that “we are in the 20th Century–the second part.” The cameras did not prove to be disruptive, however, and about two-thirds of the first conference was later shown on film or on television, after the content was approved by the White House.

Broadcast coverage of press conferences remained a sore point for newspaper reporters throughout the 1950s. Print journalists complained that their broadcast counterparts were too often ill-prepared and entertainment-oriented at press gatherings, characteristics that interfered with effective journalism. The New York Times’ United Nations reporter, A.M. Rosenthal, complained in 1953 that television cameras forced journalists to work in a “hectic, noisy, movie-set atmosphere.” Television’s presence led to “superficiality and phoniness” on the part of news sources, who in the presence of cameras tended to play to the television audience at home while refusing to provide print journalists with information. “Most American newsmen have no objection at all to TV’s legitimate news coverage,” Rosenthal said. “But they do feel that they are not under any obligation to cripple their craft to help television put on a ‘show.’”

Print reporters resented the fact that their questions at news conferences elicited news that benefited the television crews, whose reports were then broadcast before the newspapers went to press. To newspaper reporters at least, broadcast journalists contributed nothing to news conferences except bright lights, softball questions, and frequent delays. “I look upon them as parasites,” one New Orleans editor said of television reporters in 1957. Russell Harris of the Detroit News took an equally hard line, admitting with pride, “I’ve pulled many a plug out of the wall.” For a time in 1957, print reporters from three of the four Los Angeles newspapers refused to attend any press conference at which television news crews were present. Print reporters wanted the broadcasters relegated to separate sessions. “They should handle their own news instead of cashing in on our brains and experience,” said the Los Angeles Times’ city editor, Bud Lewis. “The TV people are afraid of separate conferences, because they just don’t have the trained reporters to handle them.” The impractical proposal for holding separate news conferences never caught on, however.