Editor’s note: Every Sunday Fortune publishes a favorite story from its magazine archives. This week, which marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, we turn to a March 1963 essay on his interaction with the press.
By Arthur Krock
President-elect John F. Kennedy talks to reporters after leaving a White House conference in January 1961.
Arthur Krock climbed to his eminent Washington point of view along a road paved with solid journalistic accomplishment. A native Kentuckian, he first covered the national capital for the Louisville Times when William Howard Taft was in the White House. After a term as the paper’s editor-in-chief, and another with Publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, he joined the New York Times editorial board in 1927. As chief of the Times Washington bureau from 1932 to 1953, he won two Pulitzer prizes, had exclusive interviews with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and earned respect, as well, for depth reporting on political philosophy and the law. Krock, seventy-six, now devotes himself to his Times column of news commentary, “In the Nation.” During New Deal days he became a close friend of Joseph P. Kennedy, and it was he who persuaded young Jack Kennedy to publish his 1940 Harvard thesis as a book, Why England Slept.
Every President after Jefferson has professed agreement with Jefferson’s concept that the freedom of the American press to print its version of the facts, background, and likely consequences of human events was a constitutional principle permanently reserved from any form of interference by government. Consequently Jefferson denounced as a violation of this principle either direct or indirect attempts by government to do what in current parlance has become known as “management of the news.”
Yet few Presidents have not used their personal influence and the publicity processes of government, as these were enlarged, perfected, and expertized, to turn the news into channels that would best irrigate their political pastures.
It is normal for a President to view himself as the incarnation of the “national interest.” And because most chief executives have been professional politicians, it is normal for them to conclude that any political injury to them or their party that news presentation inflicts is an injury to this “national interest.” For do they not behold it every morning in the shaving mirror?
However, on the strength of almost fifty years of reporting, executive editing, and editorial commentary on the news, most of it in Washington; I would make two general judgments on the management of the news by the present President and—on its understanding of his will and attitude—by his Administration as a whole:
1. A news management policy not only exists but, in the form of direct and deliberate action, has been enforced more cynically and boldly than by any previous Administration in a period when the U.S. was not in a war or without visible means of regression from the verge of war.
2. In the form of indirect but equally deliberate action, the policy has been much more effective than direct action in coloring the several facets of public information, because it has been employed with subtlety and imagination for which there is no historic parallel known to me.
In the narrow twilight zone between the direct and indirect methods, the Administration incessantly resorts to three ways to push its news product that work deplorably well with the press. Vulnerable and/ or discreditable acts in foreign policy—such as forcing the Dutch to surrender West New Guinea to Indonesian blackmail, promoting U.N. charter violation in the Congo, etc.—are explained on the purely assumptive ground that they were necessary to “prevent a confrontation with Soviet Russia likely to result in nuclear war.” Executive decisions sure to be unpopular are explained as in line with or compelled by policies adopted by the Eisenhower Administration. And when the White House is the center of such revelations of ineptness in the Kennedy regime as our public intrusion in the Canadian parliamentary debate on nuclear policy, his subordinates make oath that the President, though daily represented as omniscient, knew nothing about it and is “furious.” (But nobody gets fired.)
In my professional lexicon, active management of the news by government consists of attempts by any official unit or individual in an area of authority to influence the presentation of the news. This can be done by suppression, concealment, distortion, and false weighting of the facts to which the public is entitled (this excludes the areas in which national security is plainly or potentially involved). It can be done through threats, or implication of threats, of shutting off legitimate sources of information to reporters who have dug out facts whose publication embarrasses government for personal, policy, or political reasons. Or it can even be involved in the requirement that information will only be given “off the record.” Under this last restriction, the news account, though derived from official sources, must be passed on to the readers without the imprint of authority and responsibility, and is open to repudiation by its very source if repudiation becomes expedient.
Management of the news by indirection, though pursued to the same purpose as active management, requires a far wider definition. One principal form that it takes in the present Administration is social flattery of Washington reporters and commentators many more than ever got this “treatment” in the past—by the President and his high-level subordinates.
The chosen few
President Kennedy reads more newspapers regularly than any predecessor appears to have done. And his bristling sensitiveness to critical analysis has not been exceeded by that of any previous occupant of the White House. Consequently, selective personal patronage is another form of news management by indirection that is highly in favor. Mr. Kennedy’s operation is in even more striking contrast to its large previous employment for the same purpose by the President of the New Deal and the second world war. Roosevelt granted only one “exclusive interview,” which in the trade means authority for direct attribution to the President, including some passages in quotation marks, of the product of the interview.
The precedent shattered by Roosevelt was then so firm that at his subsequent news conference the protest of the Washington corps of correspondents broke out with such force that Roosevelt promised he would never grant another such interview as he had given to the Washington correspondent of the New York Times. And he never did, although on a few occasions he did receive journalists privately—including my brilliant colleague Anne O’Hare McCormick—who reported his “thinking” authoritatively.
President Truman characteristically rejected a similar protest against an exclusive interview he gave for publication to the same correspondent for the same newspaper; he would, he said, repeat this action any time he chose to do so. When, however, he again resolved that choice affirmatively, a few months later, he ruled that the plainly visible source be lightly veiled.
During his eight years in the White House, President Eisenhower all but eliminated this controversial element of special treatment of reporters that Mr. Kennedy has practiced with such skill, profit, and immunity from resentment. I don’t know whether the General was following this course on the counsel of his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, or whether his policy reflected the concept that evenhanded fairness to all was especially imposed on the President of the United States.
But whatever was General Eisenhower’s guide, it disappeared from presidential press relations the moment John F. Kennedy entered the White House.
The awesome aura
In the new Administration, the quotable exclusive interview has ceased to be a rarity. But Mr. Kennedy prefers the intimate background briefings of journalists, and their publishers, on a large scale, from which members emerge in a state of protracted enchantment evoked by the President’s charm and the awesome aura of his office. The success of his efforts is attested by a continent-wide glow in news reporting, editorializing and comment, which otherwise might register the lower temperature of impersonal objectivity. The considerable proportions of this new type of indirect news management are sufficiently illustrated by the following brief calendar of President Kennedy’s announced meetings with press groups in 1961 and 1962:
1961: Luncheon in May with eight Florida editors. Same month, a private reception and candid exchanges with a group of journalists from the U.S.S.R., chaperoned by H. E. Salisbury, former Moscow correspondent of the New York Times. Luncheon in October with an enthralled congeries of New Jersey newspaper publishers. Same month, luncheon for twenty-four publishers and news executives from the state of Washington. In November, a two-hour interview (for publication in Soviet Russia and thence throughout the world) with Izveslia‘s editor Adzhubei, who is also Premier Khrushchev’s son-in-law. In December, administration of this flattering unction by a White House luncheon for twenty-five Minnesota newspaper executives.
1962: A group of editors and publishers, guests of the President at the midday meal on January 23. On January 30, Adzbubei, again in the brilliant limelight of select White House hospitality, with his wife, née Khrushchev, as Mr. Kennedy’s luncheon guests.
Twenty-three news executives from Michigan on March 16; eleven publishers from Idaho on June 15, followed by several professional brethren from Colorado on June 22; on August 2 an invitational “briefing” of the President by four of the twelve American editors who had recently toured the U.S.S.R. and interviewed Premier Khrushchev; next day an informal presidential exchange of views at luncheon with twenty-five California journalists; this repeated on August 10 for Utah members of the same craft; and on the night of December 17, the TV rocking-chair-hour—unprecedented in format and audience magnitude, and the product of favorable publicity—during which three cooperative network reporters and the President informally discussed world problems and government policies.
To this crowded catalog only one additional item is needed to demonstrate that the most intensive indirect effort by any President of the U.S. to manage the news has been John F. Kennedy’s devoted wooing of the press. Susceptibility being an endearing human weakness from which even the sternest sense of duty cannot be expected wholly to immunize the press, I have myself on occasion been infused with the warmth of goodwill engendered by this courtship by a suitor of such charm and unique public distinction.
A call for the FBI
lt is when news-management policy is put down in departmental directives that it becomes more recognizable as an affront to Jefferson. Few more illustrations of direct management should be required than the “informational directives” prescribed for the Pentagon and the Department of State when the crisis over Cuba began to harden.
As Assistant Secretary of Defense Sylvester frankly pointed out, management of the news of the activities of the military establishment is one of the “weapons” essential to national security, a “weapon” made more vital to our arsenal by the current world tensions than ever before. But its proper use in a democracy is the limited one of concealing from the enemy the military plans and movements by means of which power is created to force his retreat or subjugation. The improper use is as propaganda in behalf of the establishment, to inflate success or gloss over error after both the military plans and movements have been revealed to the enemy in action. But this is one of the ways in which the “weapon” bas been employed in the aftermath of half-won showdowns—such as President Kennedy’s with respect to the Soviet rearmament of Cuba.
The State Department ‘s direct attempt to manage the news lacked the justification for the Pentagon’s that was candidly conceded by Sylvester, and had the additional factor of assuring the suppression of information to which the people are entitled and which offers no threat to national security. The Assistant Secretary in charge of Public Information directed all personnel that requests from the press for news, or for guidance in evaluating this, could be supplied only under one of two conditions. In the event, not necessarily certain, that the official to whom the request was made was authorized to entertain it, and in the further event that the subject of the inquiry was not already “classified” (“top secret,” “secret,” “confidential,” and whatnot), this official could discuss the matter involved provided that (1) an official colleague was also present, or that (2) the subject discussed was at once made known to the Assistant Secretary’s office.
The result, of course, was sharply to reduce the transmission to the American people of objective and informed analysis of actions in foreign policy and international situations to which these actions were addressed. Moreover, it had become well known by this time that President Kennedy was prone to turn loose the FBI in a search for the official source of any published information that appeared in a form displeasing to him for one reason or another, especially when the publication was in the nature of an unmanaged “leak.” (Managed “leaks” are everyday occurrences on the New Frontier.)
Although the State Department directive was subsequently canceled after protests from correspondents, its effects are bound to persist in the prevailing climate. Suppression, inquisitions by the amorphous FBI, and even the bureaucratic infighting involved in intra-departmental surveillance are part of the product of direct management of a kind of news that could not successfully be tortured into even reasonable resemblance to disclosures of real or potential peril to the national interest.
Into the economic sphere
More subtle, perhaps, is the management of economic news on which so much of the business world increasingly depends. President F. D . Roosevelt instituted the system, obviously justified by the circumstances, of management of the news of national financing by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board. Under the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and now the Kennedy administrations these activities were improperly extended to the Bureau of the Budget, with some subsequent glaring examples of abuse.
Last year President Kennedy and his fiscal and economic subordinates announced a prospective balance of the budget that informed reporters could almost surely demonstrate would be a deficit. But the standard of responsible journalism required the reporter (and hence the headline writer) to lead off, and lengthily, with what government had asserted; and to avoid the charge of “coloring the news” by subordinating in his account the facts in plain disproof. Thereby high journalistic standards are exploited by government to create a false first impression on the public, and first impressions are always difficult, and often impossible, for the truth to overtake.
All administrations, since the marriage of the handout and the mimeograph, which provides instant and profuse production, have learned and employed the trick of issuing handouts at a time when (1) devotedly objective reporters of the printed press, to which there are few exceptions in Washington, and (2) such as may exist in the government-licensed electronic news media, have no time to check the handout in the dispatch that summarizes the handout. For example, President Kennedy announced the investigation of the raw-material stockpile glut at 6:00 P.M. in a suddenly summoned news conference. Consequently, the TV -radio broadcasts that night and the dispatches in the next morning’s newspapers were limited to the circulation of charges, made for political effect, that reporters had been given no opportunity to analyze or check for factual accuracy or political motives.
Perhaps the sterling example of this direct news management by timing was provided by the Administration’s announcement of a decision to review the delicate issue of oil imports. The handout, designed to assure the support of the President’s trade expansion bill by the late Senator Kerr of Oklahoma, was distributed to the press on the train returning to Washington from the Army-Navy game at Philadelphia in December 1961, on a Saturday, a day when, all concerned well knew, the newspapers must go early to bed.
One increasingly popular method of management of economic news is the denial off the record (so that the reporter is obliged to present them as anonymous) of the trend of the economy that solid statistics plainly demonstrate. By this means the reporter cannot identify the official prevaricator, even though his editor has given him the latitude of proving the prevarication in the same news item. The current product of this system is that, though the balance-of-payments problem is visibly growing worse, and the economic growth is lagging for reasons other than those officially given, the reporter nevertheless continues to be forced to controvert on his own authority statements made for publication that carry the weight of the government imprint.
The phantom returns
The most familiar technique of direct and deliberate government management of news came most visibly into the open with the invention by President Coolidge of “The White House spokesman”—the concept being to protect the President, who was, of course, this very spokesman, from any untoward consequences of even his laconic replies to questions that also, in those days, were either planted or submitted in writing in advance. But though President Eisenhower junked this discreditable artifice by allowing full motion-picture coverage and subsequent full TV releases of his news conferences, President Kennedy at Palm Beach recently reverted to it in a Q-and-A session with the newsmen on special assignment there, by requiring that the views he expressed could be attributed only to that phantom figure described as “the highest authority.” This compelled them to present as a matter of their own knowledge that “the President feels” so-and-so, when actually he was the authority for the assertion.
In view of Mr. Kennedy’s numerous manifestoes, in the 1960 campaign and thereafter, on the responsibility of the President to face the American people in propria persona and eye to eye, this was a depressing retreat from visibility of his direct management of the news.
Many more instances of news management can be cited from the record. But I believe I can rest my case with confidence after noting only these few others:
Item. After spending three months in a vain request for access to a classified history of government stockpiling, subject to conditions imposed on what might be made public, a reporter of the current Senate investigation of this inventory was finally allowed to see the book. But he was forbidden to publish a scrap of what the history revealed.
Itern: The official releases of information in the areas of nuclear and space exploration are not determined on whether the American public that pays is entitled to the facts. Nor is safeguarding the national security the determining factor, though this is always the explanation for concealment. The controlling policy factor is whether the release will or will not improve our “world image,” and give this government a lead in the psychological sector of the cold war. On these considerations, reporters were barred from a Nevada testing series they had previously been allowed to observe. And, reversing the procedure of the Eisenhower Administration, official confirmation is now refused of Soviet spacecraft launchings or the list of Soviet objects in orbit.
Item: The Council of Economic Advisers commissioned the Brookings Institution to make, at taxpayers’ expense, a “Study in Depth” of the balance-of-payments problem. This was delivered on January 15. The Administration has thus far declined even to summarize its contents for public information.
Where the onus rests
But it is the indirect methods—previously described here in part—by which “management of the news” is chiefly being accomplished by the Kennedy Administration. This is a public-relations project and the President is its most brilliant operator. Since the immediate objectives of this selling job are the news reporters in general (most definitely including the TV and radio broadcasters), widely read commentators and flattered editors, publishers and network moguls in particular, the project is much more accurately identified by the phrase “managing the purveyors of the news.” And for any degree to which this project has been successful the principal onus rests on the printed and electronic press itself.