tv Presidents the Press CSPAN August 30, 2018 12:02am-1:17am EDT
the pbs news hour, will interview presidential historian jon meachum. the president -- the relationship between the president and the press is a crucial one for all of us. when you look at all of the events that a president has where he speaks, in looking from presidents reagan through trump, a third -- at least a third of the occasions where he speaks are ones where a president is answering questions from reporters. so it's an important relationship for us, simply because of what information we get from them and from the sessions that they have. the relationship is naturally a somewhat fraught one. leo rosten who was writing about
washington correspondents during the roosevelt administration talked about the nature of the relationship and the way in which it's a contest over information. the newspaperman motivated by the ancient values of journalism is interested in precisely that type of news which the official, the president, is least eager to reveal. in the final analysis press conferences reduced itself to a contest between reporters, skilled at ferreting, and officials adept at straddling. so the ferreting and the straddling is something that you will always see in the relationship between the white house and the press. writing in the early 20th century in 1902 william price who was one of the first white house correspondents, talked about news and how newspapermen
at the white house get their news. there's some ways in which things have not changed. as a matter of fact, the news secured at the white house is nearly always the result of the efforts of the newspapermen themselves. theres no giving out of prepared news. your acquaintances with public men all over the country, with cabinet officers, departmental officials and he could say members of the congress enables them to get the first start or tip. these same friends develop the story for them upon inquiry. sometimes it's a question of hard digging, as the minor put it, to untravel a story. that is still the case, you can see that in the white house press briefings that sarah sanders has or her predecessors have had, that the reporters are acting as miners, digging for
information. now i have the great pleasure of introducing our first panel's moderator who is frank sesno. frank is the director of the school of media and public affairs at george washington university. joining him on stage is mike mccurry, a board member of the historical association and one of the planners of this presidential site summit. he was a press secretary for william clinton and he also was the spokesperson at the state department before coming to the white house. ron nessen who was a press secretary for gerald ford administration and he also was at the white house as a correspondent before that. richard benedetto who was a former white house correspondent and columnist for u.s.a. "today," and he is now the adjunct professor of journalism at american university. ken walsh who is a correspondent
and journalist and columnist for u.s. news and world report, and susan page who works as a journalist and washington bureau chief for "usa today" and she is an author of the soon to be published biography of barbara bush called "the matriarch." please enjoy in presentation, i know it's going to be a good one on the relationship between the presidency and the press and how communications between the two have evolved and how it's changed over time, and the way in which it's stayed the same. >> i will sit here and you all can sit wherever you like. thank you very much, martha, for that wonderful introduction. i think on behalf of all of us as we're taking our seats we want to thank you for what you do to preserve history and the
connection between presidents and our current occupants of this great country. i'm really looking forward to this conversation, who knows what it's going to go, but mostly we're going to try to put in context this relationship, often adversarial, between the press and the presidency, and the president. i might start -- you know, i was listening to martha and this was, you know, on my heart when she talks about reporters at the white house as miners, digging for information, ferreting out information. it reminded me of a day when i was in the pool covering george h.w. bush, and he went out for a jog and the pool went to cover the jog because we did -- >> this is not a swimming pool. >> no, this is the press pool, a small group of people, and i was on this little knoll and he is jogging by.
we were in the middle of a big gate in the country over a budget compromise that he and folks were negotiating at the time and there was word out there that the president was going to flip and raise taxes. remember what he said at the campaign. i said are you going to raise taxes, mr. president? as he jogged by he said read my hips, no new taxes. i thought i did my job today, don't you? yeah. what we want to talk about here is the historical and contextual sense of the relationship between the press and the presidency. some say that the president has moved from sort of lap dog to watchdog to attack dog. there's always been an adversarial component built in. there should be. but it has changed over time and so we're going to talk about that, with some reflection on where we are today, but not a focus. not a preoccupation of where we are today, but to try, as i say, to context lies this.
so let me, though, start by going down the line and asking each person to tell you which president they covered or presidents so we have some historical and biographical connection. ken. >> well, thanks for having us and welcome. as you can see from my beard and the gray in it, i started a long time ago. i started covering the white house in 1986 with ronald reagan during his second term and i covered then reagan, george herbert walker bish, bill clinton, george w. bush, barack obama and today donald trump and i'm sure we will get to this, but today is more of an adventure than ever. >> ron. >> i'm ron nessen and i covered the white house for nbc news and then i changed sides and became president ford's press secretary. >> richard. >> i'm richard benedetto, i covered the white house starting with ronald reagan through george h.w. bush, bill clinton
and george w. bush. >> susan. >> so i'm susan page, my first campaign was in 1980, i covered president carter's final campaign trip and then i covered the white house and national politics since then. >> well, i have served president clinton as martha said, for two years at the state department in '93 and '94 and then went to the white house in 1995 and spent four years, which is comparatively a long time for a press secretary to be there, but i had an extra bonus year my last year because of a certain intern at the white house. >> i remember those days well, as much as i may try to forget them, i just started covering the white house in the reagan administration and went through george h.w. bush, had an opportunity and privilege to interview five presidents. so here we are. so, mike, let me start with you with this question and then ask all to chime in. as we've noted there is an often adversarial relationship between
the press corps and the white house, and yet there's also a fundamentally shared objective of both sides, which is to inform and engage the american people and actually the world because the world tunes into this in a very profound way. why is it important -- and this is unusual in places of leadership, the press corps is there, they're present on the premises -- that the presidency is under such a constant glare? >> well, i think it goes back to something fundamental about our democracy which is we hold those who have power accountable. now, not every american every day can walk down and ask the president, you know, what are you up to today, so the press is there in effect as a surrogate for all american people to ask questions that sometimes are uncomfortable. by the way, every president going back to george washington
chafed at the press. they didn't feel like they were getting the flattery and the great coverage that they deserved, so that's being something that's relatively common, but i think every president maybe until now has understood that the press is a fundamental element of the way in which we protect our democratic process in our country because it is a way in which we scrape out and ferret out the truth about what's happening in our nation. >> susan, from the journalists perspective? >> no, i'm going to use a lesson i learned from mike mccurry which is to answer the question i wish i had gotten first rather than answer the question i did get. on working on this biography of barbara bush i've done investigation at four presidential libraries. i want to thank the archivists for their fantastic help you gave to somebody who didn't
actually know what she was doing, it was really helpful and a great resource for the nation and so thank -- thank you for that. you know, i think it's important to have people who cover the president every day to understand when what he says is a little different from what he said the day before, people who develop the deepest sourcing with the people around the president, although i think it's also important to have people who do other kinds of coverage of the white house who step back to have a somewhat broader and more historic perspective. as part of our role as envisioned by the founders to have reporters -- to have a free press that has -- is watching the president and holding him or her accountable in a way you can only do if you are really there. being there is an important part of doing good journalism. >> ron, you've been both the journalist and the press secretary and you were certainly there at a time of great turmoil in america. i'm interested in how you see that relationship much presence
and accountability. >> well, it seems to me that i was president ford's press secretary and it just seems to me that the attention that we pay to -- i don't know exactly how to put this, but it seems to me that, you know, that the reporters who cover the white house, i think, they need to, i think -- when i was covering the white house the rule was -- or let me put it the other way. when i was on the other side, when i was president ford's press secretary, there was a rule that said never do anything or say anything you don't want to see on the front page of the "washington post." you know, i think a lot of our public officials don't understand that rule today,
but -- tell me your question again. >> just, you know, this balance between the presence, being there physically -- >> yeah. >> -- and that sense of accountability that mike was talking about. >> yeah. well, i -- you know, my feeling about -- because, as i say, i covered the white house and then i was also in the white house and i just felt like, you know, as a reporter i needed to find out everything i could find out and pass it on to the american people and that's -- that's the rule i tried to follow. >> ken, as a print reporter with different deadlines than we are accustomed to thinking of today, right, in the world where it's social media and cable television and talk radio all on all the time, do you see that this coverage has changed dramatically as the velocity of
information has increased? >> yeah, well, i think it's interesting, frank, you started off the lap dog, watchdog, attack dog division and that's a very good way to think of this because i think we've moved from watchdog to attack dog mostly now, and part of that, frankly, is because president trump has put us in the position of being the enemy of the american public, which is what he calls ussel. fake media, as he says. i know we don't want to draw on president trump and so actually last night i did a little due diligence and looked at a little bit of our history. i actually wrote a book on this called "feeding the beast." if you look back at our history going back to john adams and lincoln and some of his really prosecution of the media during the civil war, woodrow wilson talked about how shameless and colossal the errors were constantly in the media in his time, of course, jefferson after his initial comments supporting
the newspapers then turned against the media. there is a whole history of how this relationship has been very adversarial, but now i think it's gotten to the point of -- and i think a lot of us on both sides are uncomfortable with this -- an unhealthy situation where both sides are on the attack. >> from your book and looking at that in that historical context, ken, do you think the notion of access and accountability have changed over time? >> yeah, well, there is a long history of this, you know, teddy roosevelt took pity on the reporters of his time and allowed them space in the white house. that's what started the briefing room tradition a long time ago. but even he was critical of the media. franklin roosevelt was very much friendly with the reporters who covered him, but was very much at odds with the owners of the newspapers and the editorial writers. i'm sure ron and mike understand how different that is, but even roosevelt who is thought of as a
guy who got very great press, sometimes what he would do is if he didn't like a reporter's story he would call the reporters into his office and he would berate the reporter, read from the story and one time he had a reporter stand in the corner with a dunce cap on and the reporter did it. >> that would be a tough thing to go after. what did you do today, daddy, at work? stood with a dunce cap in the president -- >> what about this notion of accountability, then? >> well, the accountability -- you know, the american public wants to know a lot of things all the time. we can't provide them with everything, but we try to give them a window into the thinking and the operations of the white house. the presidents want to keep as much information back as possible, we want to get as much information that we think the american public wants. one of the things that is
interesting about this particular president that i haven't heard other journalists say this, but i say this, i say people criticize donald trump for using twitter so much. as a journalist you should love it because you get the president's thinking every single minute that you never would get with any other president. >> the difference is that you can't then ask a question or counterchallenge that in any way and that's probably where the tension comes. >> yeah, that's where the tension comes because we get the information, here is his position on whatever it might be at that particular moment, we can't question him directly on that, again, but nonetheless we still get a chance somewhere else down the line to come back with it. so that whether we like what the president is saying or not, you're getting information, you're getting -- we would wait with other presidents two, three, four, five days or more to get the president's words on something that was happening. so as a reporter you still would want that. >> mike, as i recall, and i think it was when you were in
the white house, there was a series of sort of rockwell illustrations of the press and the press secretary in the oval office and i remember one with roosevelt sitting at his desk and sort of what looked like fawning reporters gathered around. could you talk about this sort of lap dog, watchdog, attack dog thing. not lap dog, but there was a very deferential sense, at least what's what it appears, in certainly prewatergate times. >> i think that's right. i think there was a collaborative effort. >> collaborative? >> yes. i think the president sort of coexisted with a press corps that was heavily interested and sometimes heavily invested in telling the president's story. that then began to break apart. i think partly because of television, because of the changes in technology and the media itself and also because of what we've been talking about, the president woke up to the fact that they had the
responsibility not to be the propaganda machine for whoever happened to be president at the time. that they were there to hold those accountable, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the -- >> but wasn't -- yes. but wasn't -- i don't want to say propaganda machine because that's too strong, but during sometimes of war there has been a fundamental different relationship, prewatergate, pretechnology times between press and president. >> that's absolutely true and that's the changing nature of this relationship of what it became much more of what we call -- we've used the term adversarial relationship. i think the adversity in the two conflicting institutions built during the latter part of of the 20th century. it's ironic because in theory both sides of this equation want the same thing, they both say if we could just get more truth to the american people we would be in better shape.
the presidency, the white house, the white house staff said if they just could hear about all the great things that we're doing they would understand what a great job we're doing here. of course the press sees fundamentally its responsibility to report the truth, the problem is when they skew apart in what matters most and what is the agenda that the press has versus the agenda of what the president has and when they are in conflict, as they often are, then you get this adversarial sense in the relationship. >> in other words, definitely a cozy relationship with the white house press corps and presidents during fdr's time when reporters did not tell americans that the president was in a wheelchair. during john kennedy's administration when reporters were aware of his personal behavior and didn't tell americans about it. i think that ended with -- i think the watergate scandal actually ended that period of coziness and made reporters feel their obligation was something different. >> i would actually even go back a bit.
i think it was because of misleading the american team about the nature of the war in vietnam. >> i totally agree. the vietnam war followed by the watergate scandal led to a collapse of that feeling of cozy trust, of trust in institutions. it made reporters feel that their obligation was not to find out -- not to be friends with the president, but to be a watchdog on things that the president was doing, whether it was -- whether it was war or something else. >> ron? >> well, i think there has been a very big change in the relationship since i was -- since i covered the white house and then -- and then i was ford's press secretary. the big change it seems to me is that in those days you had morning newspapers. >> yeah. >> which had a deadline of 6:30 in the evening, you had on television -- you didn't have any cable television and you didn't have any internet, you
had, as i said, morning newspapers, huntley, brinkley and cronkite on at 6:30 at night. when i was at nbc if i covered a story at 10:00 in the morning, 11:00 or whatever, the press secretary's briefing in the morning, i had until mid, late afternoon to do research, to contact other sources and so forth. now i think two things as a result of cable tv and also as a result of cell phones, basically everybody is a journalist, you know, i've got my cellphone right here, i can type any damn thing i want to, hit the send button and it goes out to 10 million people in the world. >> you have a very good following. congratulations. >> and i think that's a really big change. >> i mean, i say to people -- i was with cnn and i think cnn -- cnn revolutionized things and we
knew that in the white house talked to us about that. for the first time if a president gave a he speech from anyplace, if we took it live it was going unfiltered to an audience, no the through a network, not through a newspaper. secondly, we were on all the time so we were filling the air with interviews, information, debate, other things. that accelerated and illuminated the decision-making process, the governance process in a way that we had never experienced before. ken? >> just a couple quick points. adds susan said if you go back to franklin roosevelt, not only did the reporters not write about his disability, of course, he was paralyzed by polio when he was 38, 39 years old, managed to overcome that, never recovered the use of his legs, but the news photographers in those days actually entered into something of a conspiracy among themselves because you don't see pictures of roosevelt with his disability. when a new photographer would
come on to the white house, when they saw him take a picture of his leg braces would slap the camera away and say we don't take pictures of the president like that. later on some of the news photographers regret this had because they thought the country deserved to know this. that's one thing. the other quick point is that when i started covering reagan, reagan's people understood -- even though he was a conservative, he could get decent coverage because they understood access works two ways. when a white house staff and a president talk to the media, they not only give information out, but they also learn what we're doing. you don't get much of that with the trump presidency now. they don't really care much of what we're doing, they just are constantly streaming out, as richard said, twitter and other things to -- always on the offensive. >> richard, we were talking about the relationship between roosevelt and the president and pictures and illustrations of the press coming.
there is a very famous picture of lbj walking the grounds with a group of reporters and there was a time when presidents and reporters could sit down or walk or -- and the idea was for the president to be able to speak directly and share a thought process or whatever. does that happen now and -- because it doesn't -- have we lost something? >> yeah, we've certainly lost that personal relationship that reporters who covered the white house -- the president knows the reporters who cover the white house, he knows who they are not only by name but they get to know them usually. i don't know what's happening now, but i know that when you covered bill clinton, when you covered george w. bush, when you covered george h.w. bush and with ronald reagan, they knew who they were and they wanted to know a little bit about you, whether they did it in the background or whether they did it up front by asking you questions, they knew a little bit about who you were and where you were coming from and would
kind of play to that a little bit. i see this now -- and it may have a lot to do with who gets into journalism today. it's just an interesting question with me because i remember the days when i was -- wanted to be a journalist, i really wanted to be a novelist, i like to write and i was going to write this great novel but i found that there was a way you could make money writing while you were -- i was always going to write the novel on the side, but you liked people, you liked being around people and you wanted to build a relationship that way and write about it. telling people the stories. so we wanted to go -- so when you become a political reporter and you go out there and you meet these political figures, you want to write about who they are, more about their -- you want to find out something about them personally, you want to find out about them, what they do other than just govern. so that was the attraction. i'm not sure that young people
today who want to be journalists want to do that. i get the sense that what they want to do -- see, we liked politics, we liked politicians as journalists. that was what you were attracted to and you liked people. younger people today i get the sense that they don't like politics, they don't like politicians and they see that their own role is to be critical rather than just being giving information, this he lean more toward the critical side and i think that that has an affect on how the people feel about government and politics today. >> it has a big effect and can have the effect of really undermining confidence across the board. but the sense of sharing the thought process of the president directly with the press so that the american public or the world gets a sense of that has been something that's been on people's minds. you tried this thing called psych background as i recall. >> it was a long story. actually, i was thinking as we were talking about senator john mccain whose memory we are, you
know heavy on our minds right now and he was masterful at drawing the press in and having conversation, you know, he enjoyed the give and take. i tried some of that with president clinton and, you know, i wanted people to sort of get a sense of his thinking and it's hard to do that if someone is going to sit there and transcribe everything word-for-word. so we created some opportunities once famously on air force one where the president would come back and just kind of sit and gab with the reporters. i got asked, well, what are the rules for attribution here? i said, well, you know, why don't we just call it psych background. it's like according to someone familiar with the thinking of the president, who happened to be the president, you know, that president clinton is thinking x, y and z. well, there were strong objections to that. >> that's an understatement as i recall. >> particularly from the associated press, which took a very firm stance that the
president of the united states cannot talk on background. >> their position was the president of the united states is always on the record. >> always on the record and that -- so these informal occasions where you kind of sit back and have a beer and talk about life, you know, that's -- that's not allowed because the president has to always be accountab accountable. now, some -- ken, i invite you to talk about that -- there are some people, particularly those who worked for magazines, that had more interesting color and tlafr and what was really going on behind the scenes, this he probably had some appreciation for opportunities like that. it was not -- it was not a happy episode. >> no, that's right. the other thing you want to be aware of there are different constituencies in the press corps. the wire services and the networks are very upset when the president is not live on camera on the record. we in the journalists who step back a bit, you know, a lot of us think, well, if you're
getting -- o i don't like the idea of the president off the record, but something that mike is talking about, you're getting the president's thinking, my thought was always you want to know as much about the president as you possibly can and so when the president does something you know the president's thinking, you can put it in context and you can say to yourself, that's the president i know or that's not the president i know to have some context. >> we have had some sense of -- ron, i do want to turn us to the current -- i want to tie some of these past practices to where we are now for a little bit of context for a moment and then go broad again. >> that's going to be hard to do. >> no, we can do it. i know you can do it. we're very adept at these things. so in the current moment we're in a situation where we have more antagonistic, more personal, more challenging, more -- you could argue idealogically driven adversarial relationships than we have seen before where the president is going so far as to call the media the enemy of the people
and fundamentally dishonest and representing the opposition party. is this unprecedented, richard nixon had an enemies list -- is this unprecedented and what impact will it have in the larger scheme of things? >> it's not unprecedented to have conflict. as ron knows very well or as mike knew during the impeachment gate in his administration that's not new. i think the intensity of it now is different. i think when the president calls the press the enemy of the people as he did in a tweet about an hour ago, i think that is a different level of antagonism than we've seen from previous modern presidents. i think that is a new -- a new place for us to be. i do think president trump deserves credit for being pretty accessible, though. i mean, not only does he tweet, which i think is an excellent way to get a look into his thinking, he tends to answer questions when he walks out on the south lawn to go to the
helicopter, he does a lot of interviews on fox with friendly correspondents, but nonetheless he is doing interviews with them. he talks to reporters sometimes with reporters who have covered him for a long time, he has some off the record conversations. so we do have a look into what he's thinking that we didn't always have with other modern presidents. i think that is a good thing. that is something he did during most of the 2016 campaign, not right toward the end, but in the early part he was one of the more accessible candidates i have ever covered. >> ron, then richard. >> well, as i've said, there is an old expression in washington, never do anything or say anything you don't want to see on the front page of the "washington post." i don't think the current president understands that rule. but, you know, thinking back again to my time in the -- as the press secretary to president ford, you know, he was -- i think the pardon of nixon was so
unpopular it really turned the press against him and -- >> turned the press against him? >> yeah. >> you felt that at the time in the briefing room in your dealings with the media? >> yeah. yeah. and as i say, he was -- it was very, very unpopular and ford never really recovered his reputation, i don't think, from th that, but he's -- i don't know exactly how to put it, but i think that he was popular until the nixon stuff came along, you know, and ford was -- you know, he was popular in washington, but not after this happened and after the pardon of nixon i think was very, very unpopular. i remember one time ford -- somebody asked ford about, you
know, how he felt about this and he said something about those reporters, they get their -- you know, he was critical of reporters and they get their -- they get their information sitting on a barstool i think was one of his favorite expressions. >> richard? >> yeah. well, you know, the relationship changes from president to president certainly because every president has a different personality and the press corps has its own personalities and personalities change. the judgment of history often -- and i think gerald ford used to say it and winston churchill as i think ron was saying earlier when we were back stage, that history -- you can't be judged until 30 or 40 or 50 years later. you know, think of harry truman. harry truman left the presidency in 1952, '53, with a job
approval rating of 22%. one of the worst -- the lowest measure at that particular time. he is now considered one of the best five presidents or ten presidents depending on the list you see. so in retrospect looking at harry truman's presidency, he could have run for reelection in 1952, but chose not to because he was so unpopular. so he wasn't term limited out because it didn't apply to him when they changed the term limit law, but he didn't run because he was so unpopular, but history looks back and sees how did he do, he comes out pretty well. >> did you want to make a point? >> well, you know, ford -- ford, i think, was very unpopular with the press because he pardoned nixon and there was a lot of criticism of ford and he was probably our most athletic president, as i've said, and i remember one time there was all
these stories about him tripping and falling or something like that. >> right. >> and ford said, those reporters, they get their exercise sitting on a barstool. >> he liked the barstool. that was his refrain, i guess. let me ask you this, in your experience as reporters, what was your most add stair y'all moment? did you have something that you thought this is getting really hot here? >> we had our fair number -- >> and no bill clinton impersonations. >> no, but let me do a mike mccurry impersonation which is during -- i was working for "usa today" covering the clinton administration and in the morning my phone would ring and it would be joe lockhart who was mike mccurry's deputy, he would yell at me about stories i had done, stories other reporters
had done, stories that i had not yet read in "usa today." the first time i got this call i was like, mike, do you think there is something inaccurate, are you asking for a correction? no, he was just yelling. the third time this happened i thought i know what's happening. so you're talking to clinton in the morning and he's saying, god damn that "usa today," they wrote a story about this and then mike would then say to joe, so call susan and then joe would come back and say i gave her hell and then you would go to clinton and say, yeah, we really told them off. is that correct? >> you got that 100% correct. >> i got a few of those calls -- i got a few of those calls at cnn. i liked those calls. >> note the key element there, i always had my deputy joe lockhart who then went on to be press secretary himself, i always had him make the call so i could be, oh, susan, we will be friends forever. >> i've got a similar story. i've got a similar story. one day i get a phone call from scott mcclellan who was then the
deputy press secretary at the white house and he says the president didn't like that story you wrote this morning. and i said, well, what didn't he like about it? he said, he just didn't like it. it was george w. bush. i thought back what was the story. the story was that president bush takes a big pride in the fact that he never changes his mind. well, here are three places where he changed his mind and it was on the front page of "usa today" that day. so i says, well, what's wrong with the story? anything inaccurate there? well, no. well, what does he want? he says, well, nothing, i guess -- he goes -- well, 3:00 in the afternoon comes, this was in the morning, 3:00 in the afternoon comes and he calls again and said the president is wrong about that story. i knew what was going on, the president was saying you tell benedetto he is a big blank. i says what do you want? he says can i tell him you've
been add mmonished? i said you go back and tell him anything you want. so he probably went back and said, i told him. >> not to just talk about the clinton administration, but why not? during these periods where he would have these fusses going on i remember one time going over there and having an interview with doug sosnic who was a senior political adviser. i sat down with him and he paused and he said, am i supposed to be mad at you about something? and i said, well -- and he couldn't remember -- >> what he was supposed to be mad about. >> but you knew something -- >> did you remind him? >> no. i said i don't know what it could possibly be. but we have all had these fusses, i think john sununu and the chief of staff for president bush the father was a difficult chief of staff to get along with. many times he would have ed rogers who would do the calling and complaining. there was always that
adversarial relationship. i think what bothers us now is we are to the point where an administration is undermining the institution of the media by undermining our credibility in general. >> do you think that's the case and do you think there would be lasting change? i mean, we have talked about this sort of dynamic process of a relationship between the press and the president. >> i think the current administration is definitely intent on undermining the credibility of the fourth estate of the mainstream media, partly -- i think what president trump wants to do is get to the point where his supporters basically, his base, will only believe him and not believe anything else. >> let me ask a question of mike and ron here, which is the central tension to the jobs that you have held as press secretary. how does a presidential press secretary balance the commitment to both serving the president and serving the public through the relationship with the press?
i mean, yeah, you are the spokesperson for the president of the united states, but you're being paid by american taxpayers and you have relationships with the media, the press, in that room that depend on a degree of trust and credibility on both sides. >> i like to think of that balance, thinking of the geography of the white house and all of you have been in that office that the press secretary has in the west wing, it's a wonderful piece of real estate. has a working fireplace, by the way, which the park service will light up for you when things are not hot enough already. but anyhow, there is a front door where the press will sometimes gather, but it has a back door, which is convenient when you're trying to escape the ones who are at the front door, but if you go out that back door you turn right 50 feet away is the oval office and turn left 50 feet away is the briefing room where you conduct the briefing
every day. that geographic metaphor is exactly for me the nature of the job. it is this balance between keeping satisfied those who are seeking information, who have legitimate questions, who expect the white house to be accountable and produce information that ought to be the public's right to know, and then also serving the president who signs your paycheck, representing the president's thinking, the president's point of view, what the administration is trying to accomplish. that balance is the nature of the job every day and if you -- you're never going to keep either side of that equation happy. i mean, you get the president saying, you and your friends in the press are trying to destroy everything good about this country, and then -- >> have you ever had the president say that to you? >> oh, yeah. >> you and your friends in the press? >> well, he -- yes. pretty close to it. >> i hope he's watching.
>> pretty close. but the difference, and the important difference, is as much as he would fuss and fume about it then he would go back to reality. he would stop meetings sometimes and say get mccurry in here because the president is going to be all over this and i want him to hear what we're talking about. it's not because he wanted me to give my opinion on what ought to happen, but he wanted me to have the understanding and the context of what decisions were being made so that i could report on it accurately and truthfully. i don't think we have that circumstance. >> ron, i know that when you started working for gerald ford you had a conversation with him about the need for you to be near him, your proximity to the president. >> right. well, what i told him when he offered me the job was that i needed to meet with him every day before my press briefing because my job as i interpreted
it was to answer the questions from the press as the president would answer them if he were there, which means two things, one, i had to find out how he would answer them from him, and also i said i wanted to attend all of his meetings with cabinet members and so forth, and kissinger didn't like that too much, but basically that's what i did. i had a daily meeting with the president and i could attend any of these cabinet meetings and other meetings. so i'd come in in the morning and my staff would put together a list of the questions they thought i would be asked at the briefing and then some of the questions, you know, kissinger could answer, secretary of treasury could, but most of them needed -- i needed to be able to reflect the president's views. so i had my daily meeting with the president. i don't know whether the press secretaries nowadays still have
that or not, but i thought that was very important and ford agreed to it. >> to all of you for a minute and then a couple more and then i'd like to open it up to questions from the floor if you've got them because i think it's a fascinating conversation. one of the other things that we talk about is the notion of credibility, both the press' credibility from the white house and the white house's credibility from the white house. both are under siege today. there's very little trust in the press and there's very little trust among some jen way in the information that's coming from the white house. i certainly remember when i was at the white house and when i was bureau chief at cnn, if the president said something or a press secretary would say something that was mistaken or a misstatement there was an effort to quickly correct the record. i remember marlin fitswater would walk around with his big cigar that he wouldn't light and he would actually walk through the press office and say, what i said or what the president said, let me just tweak that.
there was a very good relationship there and he got a lot of credit for that. but we are not at that place now. i mean -- and now there is a very particular and personal and some would say grandstanding environment around this. where do you see this question of credibility now in terms of, again, plugging this into all the technology that we've got and the cameras and the social media and how we regain a sense of trust in the information that is emanating from the white house. >> so i think the credibility is the number one most important asset that journalists need. it is under fire. we have all these new ways of delivering information that are faster and go farther and are more transparent, and that's been to our peril in some ways. >> to our peril? >> to our peril. because tweets go out instantaneously without a chance
to check with a second source or to double-check the information against -- in other ways. so it's actually, i think, increased what is our fundamental obligation, which is to be -- to be careful. we want to be first, but we want to be right. we need to always remember that. we need to be more transparent with readers and viewers about how we get information and that they can trust it, and that is especially true in an era that there are some sources. the president sent out a tweet that said if you see anonymous sources stop reading, it's a lie. reporters make up anonymous sources. for legitimate news organizations that's not true, with he try very hard to limit the number of anonymous sources with he use, with he try to identify them as much as we can. you see that now where articles will say according to five sources, three of whom were in the room, you know, you try to build -- it's all an effort to
build credibility in what you read. when we make mistakes and we will, we need to correct them in a way that is fast and that is honest. it doesn't -- we try to weasel out of a correction, but says we made a mistake on this, we apologize, we're going to make it right, we will try not to make the same mistake again. the only way we build the credibility we lost is to do our job every single day as well as we can and to kind of hold on tight because these are turbulent times. >> a couple points. one is just to show you the kinds of things we're up against, so many people can get their information from sources that are completely unfiltered, completely uncorroborated and -- and so, in other words, we in the mainstream media are sort of taking a secondary role because people can get any view reinforced on the internet whatever they want to do as an example i give a lot of speeches these days, there was an occasion where i gave four
speeches over a few weeks and i got the same question after each speech privately asked. the person came up, asked in the same way, why don't you people in the white house press corps do the biggest story in washington? now, this was a couple years ago. and i said, what would that be? well, the reply was the same in each case. we all know that michelle obama is a man. now, how do you deal with that? so i'd say, well, where did you hear that? and the people said in exactly the same way, i don't know, but i know it's true. now, that's what we're dealing with. >> where were you giving your speech? >> all over the place. >> he was on the barstool. >> yeah, i was getting my exercise. exercise. but the interesting thing was, it was the same question asked in the same way. so it's -- that's part of it. but the other thing is, i think for one side or the other side, we have to have the same sort of
suggestion. the politicians in the white house need to understand that we're not monolith ik in the press corp. there are some good reporters and some bad reporters. and we need to understand they're not monolithic either. there are good sources people we can trust and people we can't. it works both ways. >> i'd be interested in your thoughts on this. i think several of us at times, in your presidential lie br librariries, i spent a lot of time at the reagan library. in the context of this conversation, the fraught relationship between the press and the healthy adversarial relationship between the press and the presidency and our current moment and the larger trend that we've got about people not understanding their
government. people not being historical in nature, we're rather ahistorical, which is not a good thing. what do you think that presidential libraries and presidential homes and historic sites can do through their work to bring to light this weird relationship that the press and the presidency have? mike? >> one suggestion i have to all of you who are here with those kind of responsibilities, is to highlight the importance of this relationship between the president and the presidency and the fourth estate, the media. there are wonderful photos, probably archive materials that would lift us up so that those who visit your sites see how important this relationship is and the way in which we function as a democracy. so lift up and pick out those
things that really, at this moment in which the press is being called the enemy of the people, we need to understand how important this equation is in the way in which presidents have functioned and the way in which we've come to understand them throughout history. >> there is criticism and all presidents really have had their criticisms. so how should that be represented as well? >> fully and fairly. i think some of the great letters, the truman letter to -- who was it who said -- >> the krcritic? >> yeah, i would otherwise deliver my response on the bridge of your nose. that letter bill clinton had hanging in the oval office at one point. so there are things like that that kind of highlight some of the tension and some of the add ve -- adversarialism in the
relationships. >> we worry so much about today. but i was thinking about marking the anniversary of 1968, which was a tumultuous year, so that's helpful in terms of trying to understand today to have a sense of what happened yesterday. i've been struck by how helpful some of the programs the presidential libraries do and can be, because they have a kind of credibility, i think presidents gain credibility once they leave office sometimes. they're seen as less political. they have the ability to pull together officials from past administrations to talk in a way that sometimes officials who might be reluctant to do some other form. and i think that has been a real asset. >> i've had the privilege of doing research at presidential libraries for years, for a number of books i've written and they are fabulous resources.
there are a lot of things you can get online now. it's very easy, easier than it's ever been. fabulous resources. i think one thing in frank's question is maybe posting the first amendment might be a great idea and just leave that up there somewhere as an exhibit. i think that also programs are helpful and i think that -- and the presidential libraries do a good job with this already. i'm about to go to the bush library in college station to do a program on white house photographers, as ron was saying about president ford wanting to deal with the media. dealing with photographers, including president ford's own photographer, extraordinary access that he allowed the pictures out there so people could see what he was like as a person. i think that helped him and helped the country understand him. i think for the presidential libraries to continue the programs they do, maybe
permanent exhibits on presidents and the media without all the blemishes showing but nevertheless illustrating the importance of the relationship. >> i've been to the ford library, of course, in grand rapids. and again i think one of the effects that presidential libraries have is that you can step back from the kind of day-to-day political coverage and so forth and, you know, with the passage of time you can get like a broader view of what was going on, who was saying what. and in the -- with the passage of time, you will know, oh, well, he was right about that, wasn't he. and i think that's one of the great things -- >> context. >> -- about presidential libraries, yeah. >> donald rumsfelled talked about the snapshot by straw. >> i think the presidential
libraries and presidential sites could do more programs and exhibits about the relationship between the press and the presidency, because it's an important one. the public is aware of it. they don't think about it in too many terms of how it's supposed to operate. maybe we don't get enough of it in the schools, of that kind of discussion and that kind of examination, that needs to be done because it is sort of like the foundation of our democracy. that the relationship between the public and the public officials is -- is -- is conducted through the press. and the media. and so that it's fundamental to just -- for people -- i don't know what they're doing in the high schools these days. they could be doing a lot more. i think that all educational institutions can be doing a lot more in talking about the relationship, especially in these times when the relationship has become so
controversial. >> one of the interesting dynamics here, anyone with a question make your way to the mic, is how the technology came. there would be those who said we don't need you anymore, the president can communicate directly -- >> they would be wrong. >> they would be wrong because we need independent trained eyes, ears and brains on the power. >> we also need to teach media literacy in our schools. we have, you know, get beginning at an early age with kids, get them to understand where reliable sources of information are and what's not reliable. and what the important role of the press is. most of you know allen miller, he used at the la times he runs a program in news literacy now and that is fundamentally important. >> go ahead. >> thank you, frank and everybody for a wonderful panel
session. i'm reflecting on comparison between yesterday morning's panel on presidential memory and history and what both richard and frank talked about today, and that is how the perception of a president changes over the decades after they leave office. and the -- my question is, if that's true, that means that the perception of the president that's presented by the media currently is not accurate, and whether that's fake news or it's not fake news, i wonder if -- since i don't hear it very often, if there's any reflection that you hear among journalists and people who study this issue as to whether there could be a better job done by journalists instead of just always apologizing for how good journalism is and how the president is the one, like you were saying, that's always just angry over being covered in that way, if history changes the view, then maybe journalism is
not doing its job today. >> good question. we have about seven minutes left so we'll do this quickly and take as many questions as we can. >> i would disagree saying what we cover today is not accurate. it's not complete. it doesn't have the benefit of history. we don't know what the consequences of what a president does until we see those consequences unfold and sometimes they unfold in ways that are more positive than we think and sometimes they unfold in ways that are more negative. i think it is important that we keep a sense of history's skepticisms. we shouldn't declare a president over or a presidency a success. we should keep in mind we're a snapshot in time and that may change over time. >> i think there should be some -- i think there needs to be, if i can, much more humility in the media about what is done and how it's done. there's too much back padding and too much let's dress up and take our awards. we have to recognize that the
media is a very big, very plural word. "the washington journal" is media, so is bright bart and cnn, especially in the cable news and online world where everything is streaming instantly and all at once, more context is needed. you're going to hear from judy wood rough shortly. the news hour gives context every day. people have to be -- news consumers are going to need to be much smarter about where they go and how they consume. and we need to help them, and news organizations need to help them too. your question is -- if an airline industry, had the level of public trust right now that the media had right now they'd be flying empty airplanes and that needs to be addressed.
>> all of you mentioned the impact of the immediateness of social media and the way people perceive stories to be real, fake, whatever. there was a time in this country where major events would bring the country together, most recently, of course, 9/11, the death of presidents, first ladies, hurricane harvey, katrina, what responsibility do you feel the press should have in allowing the country using these events to come together at least for a brief period of time and what period of time do you think that should be? >> great question. ken? >> well, i think one way of looking at this from a journalist's point of view is i was brought up in the field that you have an educational function, we're public educators
in some ways and we have an entertainment function. too much of what we do now is the entertainment function. the lines are blurred. all these different groups, look at the panelists on television, who's the journalist, the politician, the strategist, it's all blurred together so i can understand the public not understanding the distinctions to what is a journalists anymore. but as far as the moments we're hard to discourage from a media perception because we're so polarized. even the death of john mccain is an occasion for people to beat on each other. this is the point we are at now. i hope we come to the point we're more uni fied. we can do this and try to have rallying moments. even political conventions used to be unifying for political parties, but that's hard to see.
>> sort of. >> we'll try to take as many more questions as we can with quick answers from the panel. >> one thing that has happened to journalism that has affected the coverage and what people are getting to know is that back a couple decades ago, the networks and the major newspapers had full time reporters assigned to the state department and the pentagon and five reporters on the house side, five reporters on the senate side and so forth. you became an expert on your beat. you got to know all the players, all the sources and so forth. now for economic reasons, there's been a big cut back and everyone is a general assignment reporter. you go to the office and get your assignment and you don't have this expertise of covering a beat. >> yes, sir. >> steve gilroy, i have a question for mr. nessen. talking about the relationship between the presidency and the press. when president ford pardoned
president nixon, what caused you to resign and how did president ford react to that and how did it affect your relationship with him? >> i agree with you that was the really big turning point in ford's relationship with the press. and i think there was -- there was a feeling among the press that when the -- when the vice president, spearo agnew resigned, ford was appointed vice president by nixon. there was a theory that nixon knew he was in trouble and he thought he would appoint ford who would be more protective of him. so i think that's one of the things that happened, and then about a month after ford became president, nixon resigned, ford became president and then ford pardoned nixon. and what he said was, he was spending 25% of his time, the
staff was spending 25% of its time on leftover nixon matters and he needed to spend 100% of his time because the vietnam war was going on, big depression in the country and so forth. i think there has always been this view that there was a deal that if nixon would appoint ford his vice president to replace the resigned vice president, then ford would promise to not -- to save nixon from -- >> the question about your resignation and how that affected you -- >> well, the way it affected me was -- >> you didn't -- you didn't resign? >> no. it's the other way around. >> jerry -- >> resigned. >> jerry resigned. >> he resigned because he disagreed with the pardoned. i was covering the white house for nbc and i had covered ford as vice president, i was one of the ford five, travelled all over the country with him in this little two-engine propeller
driven airplane. so he asked me -- and i wrote a book later called it sure looks different from the inside. the reason i took the job is that i had covered the white house from the outside as a reporter, i wanted to see what it looked like on the inside, so that's why i took the job. >> we're almost out of time, so we'll be really quick. >> we haven't touched upon editorial cartoons and how much they act as a synthesis of these journalistic assessments, can you touch on that? >> mike and susan quickly and then that's the last question because you have another terrific discussion. >> it is great humor. it is what we need more of at the white house and more context. we actually invited a bunch of editorial cartoonists to travel with president clinton from time to time and some of the wonderful images that came out of that are one of them hanging
in my own house as a matter of fact. but they capture sometimes the essence of what is so improbably insane about some of the things that happened at the white house, and i think it's an important point. >> cartoonists are amazing. since i've been looking at barbara bush, i don't know if you saw the cartoon that showed barbara bush going to heaven and robyn greeting her there, her daughter who died when she was 3. cartoonists can hit a cord, can make a point, sharp or soft like that one that is beyond words. >> i would like to thank you all of you on behalf of all of us, i would like to thank this terrific panel for their conversation. i think we'll leave you with this thought, which is that accountability is the key word, but it should also and must also and must continue to work both ways. accountability both for the white house and for those who are covering it. thank you all very, very much.