The Press - Reporters and officials: conflicting goals, frequent tensions

In Washington, the officials responsible for foreign policy and the reporters who cover them have such fundamentally different jobs that conflicts frequently erupt between them. Officials—especially presidents, much of whose power stems from perceived competence and popularity—understandably want to look good as they make and implement policies. Officials generally want an orderly, rational decision-making process in which decisions are reached—and then announced—after discussions both within the executive branch and, if needed, with leaders in Congress and in other nations. In other words, officials want to control the content and timing of statements and other initiatives relating to particular foreign policies. Based on several case studies, including the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1981, journalism professor Philip Seib describes what can happen when media coverage of a crisis undermines the president's control of the timing of decision making:

News coverage can accelerate the tempo by heightening public interest. Depending on which aspects of the story the press emphasizes, coverage can also influence public opinion in ways that increase political pressure on the president to act in a specific fashion, such as more aggressively or more compassionately. The chief executive may soon realize that the ideal of nicely insulated policy formulation has evaporated. Instead, his every move is anticipated and then critiqued almost instantly.

High officials also want to leak secret information when it suits their purposes to do so, but not before and not by a lower-level official unauthorized to do the leaking. A wry joke that made the rounds during the Kennedy years—a time when the president himself was a frequent source—sums up their view of appropriate leaks: "The ship of state leaks from the top." Viewing favorable press coverage as necessary for high levels of public and congressional support, presidents and other top officials prefer to manage the news as much as possible.

Except during an obvious national emergency such as World War II, reporters reject this vision of favorable, managed news as incompatible with their jobs as journalists and with what they call "the public's right to know." In competition with reporters for other media organizations, journalists seek to "get the story" and move it quickly into print. And because disagreement, conflict, and failure are key components of the definition of "news," the more these components are part of the story, the more likely it is to be featured on the front page in newspapers or as the cover story in magazines. As the Associated Press international editor Tom Kent rightly noted at a 1996 conference at Ohio University, "There's something in the human condition that finds a greater fascination in bad news than in good news."

As long as stories are factually accurate and deal with legitimate public issues, reporters and editors believe that America's freedom of the press gives them the right—even the duty—to publish them, regardless of whether they portray an administration favorably. From the press's viewpoint, moreover, very few stories should be kept out of print for the reason that officials often cite—national security. To reporters, invoking national security is often an attempt to ward off embarrassment or bad news.

Frequently, therefore, officials and reporters come into conflict when the press publishes stories that officials believe should have remained secret or when stories contain information that might upset delicate negotiations within the government or with other nations. Officials often have been scathing in their criticisms of journalists. "The competitive press finds it almost impossible to exercise discretion and a sense of public responsibility," Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote. "If a man digs a secret out of an official or a department and takes it around to the Soviet Embassy, he is a spy; if he digs out the same secret and gives it to the Soviet Union and the rest of the world at the same time, he is a smart newspaperman." Complaining to journalists about some coverage his administration was getting, President Lyndon Johnson commented, "I know you don't like your cornpone president." Criticisms of the press by administration officials have been bipartisan. Republican George Shultz, who served as secretary of state under President Reagan, commented that "these days…it seems as though the reporters are always against us."

Scholars often have used metaphors like "rocky marriage" or "bad marriage" to characterize the relationship between reporters and officials. At least the "marriage" part fits: like married couples, the press and government are tied to each other as each carries out its activities in the same home, Washington, D.C. And, despite some journalists' claim that they occupy an inferior role relative to officials, officials (in making policy) and journalists (in deciding what is news) are equal in the same ways that married couples are: neither partner has inherent power over the other, and both have ways to get back at the other if they feel mistreated or disrespected.

The marriage metaphor is useful, moreover, because officials and journalists have needs that only members of the other group can satisfy. Officials (including members of Congress) need publicity for their ideas to win support for them in the administration, in Congress, and among the American people. In order to meet their editors' and readers' demand for stories, reporters need officials who are willing to talk with them about what is going on in the administration and Congress. Because of these complementary needs, overall relations between officials and reporters are inherently cooperative as well as adversarial. Like spouses who wish to stay married, individual officials who desire to remain effective have to keep talking to reporters even if some stories have angered them, and individual journalists have to attempt to be fair in writing their stories lest they lose access to the officials who have been talking to them. Officials who repeatedly lie to reporters lose their credibility and hence their value as sources; reporters who repeatedly misrepresent officials' views lose their sources and hence their ability to write news-breaking stories. These informal rules help to maintain both the flow of information and the balance of power between reporters and officials in Washington.

The difficulty with the "rocky marriage" metaphor, at least as applied to dealings on foreign policy, is that it over generalizes. It was much more persuasive for some presidencies (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) than it is for others (John Kennedy and George H. W. Bush). Kennedy, a former reporter, understood how to deal with journalists on foreign policy issues far better than Johnson and Nixon did. Like most presidents, Kennedy often became upset after reading press coverage that, in his view, was inaccurate or portrayed his administration unfavorably. But at a press conference on 9 May 1962, Kennedy made it clear that he understood and accepted the press's role in disseminating information, interpretation, and criticism: "I think that they are doing their task, as a critical branch, the fourth estate. I am attempting to do mine. And we are going to live together for a period, and then go our separate ways." Unlike Johnson and Nixon, Kennedy also had friendships with several journalists; he generally was forthright and respectful during frequent interviews, and he tried to be as forthcoming as possible at press conferences. Overall, despite occasional deserved criticisms of "news management," Kennedy's (and his administration's) relationships with the press were fair to good, especially considering the inherent conflicts between government and press.

In contrast, Johnson and Nixon's press relations on foreign policy issues typically were poor. In 1965, during the first year of the large U.S. troop buildup in Vietnam, journalists began writing about the "credibility gap," one definition of which was the gap between the administration's statements about what the U.S. military was doing in Vietnam and what reporters learned from lower-level officials in Vietnam about what was actually occurring. David Broder of the Washington Post offered a definition more narrowly focused on Johnson's efforts to stifle the flow of information that helps to explain why many reporters and members of Congress had become highly suspicious of the president well before the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in early 1968 effectively ended his political effectiveness:

I do not believe that the press…ever made it clear to the readers and viewers what the essential issue was in the "credibility gap" controversy. It was not that President Johnson tried to manage the news: all politicians and all presidents try to do that. It was that in a systematic way he attempted to close down the channels of information from his office and his administration, so that decisions could be made without public debate and controversy. Ultimately he paid a high price, politically, for his policy.

During the Nixon years, some officials and conservative commentators claimed that press coverage unflattering to the administration's foreign policies (especially its Vietnam policy) resulted from "liberal bias" in the "eastern establishment press." That argument would have been much more persuasive if, first, newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, magazines like Time and Newsweek, and the major television networks had been overwhelmingly supportive of Johnson's Vietnam policies until he left office and then had become highly critical of Nixon's approach, and, second, clear majorities of the public and Congress had been strongly supportive of Nixon's continuation of America's military involvement in Vietnam. In fact, given the media's penchant for disagreement, conflict, and violence, it seems certain that the "liberal press" would have included large amounts of negative coverage on Vietnam and on domestic dissent if Nixon's liberal Democratic opponent in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, had been elected and had continued the war.

The fact that Nixon's relations with most journalists were, if anything, more strained and adversarial than Johnson's also did not help him get favorable coverage on Vietnam. The columnist James Reston of the New York Times believed that Johnson and Nixon's difficulties with the press stemmed from the same roots:

Mr. Nixon has had more than the normal share of trouble with reporters because, like Lyndon Johnson, he has never really understood the function of a free press or the meaning of the First Amendment…. He still suffers from [the] old illusion that the press is a kind of inanimate transmission belt which should pass along anything he chooses to dump on it.

Both presidents, in other words, neither understood nor accepted the inherent equality of officials and reporters. Unlike the Netherlands and some other democratic nations where officials normally do not treat journalists as equals, this equality—and the tensions that partly result from it—is a hallmark of America's political system.

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