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Brief History: Presidents and the Press

2 minute read
Randy James

Barack Obama: The inescapable president. From Good Morning America to televised town-hall meetings, ESPN to Men’s Health, the leader of the free world misses few chances for free publicity. In his first six months in office, Obama gave three times as many interviews as either of his two immediate predecessors, according to the White House Transition Project. He’s already held more prime-time news conferences than George W. Bush did in eight years.

Presidents weren’t always so eager to meet the press. Thomas Jefferson had little use for the ink-stained wretches, believing newspapers offered “the caricatures of disaffected minds.” During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, reporters were forced to remain outside the White House gates, until Teddy took pity on them during a rainstorm (the voluble T.R. would later enjoy bantering with scribes while getting a shave). Many Presidents required the press to submit questions in writing and barred them from printing direct quotations; access was so limited the New York Times’s Arthur Krock won a Pulitzer for scoring a sit-down with FDR. Advances in technology have compelled recent leaders to engage with the media more often, albeit reluctantly. Dwight Eisenhower was the first to allow TV cameras into his press conferences; live telecasts, with all their pomp, began with JFK.

The press has only expanded since then, but savvy White House media teams now seize on tactics to reach voters directly. George W. Bush spoke before backdrops bearing the day’s message (like STRENGTHENING OUR SCHOOLS or the notorious MISSION ACCOMPLISHED). And on Sept. 21, Obama becomes the first sitting President to grace David Letterman’s couch–a day after he hits the Sunday-morning news shows. On five networks.

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