A Convenient Relationship: FDR and the Press

“The president’s performance, observers agreed, was superb, his technique incomparable, and his virtuosity of a kind that, irrespective of where their basic sympathies lay, the Washington correspondents could neither fail to benefit from nor cease to admire,” concludes historian Graham J. White.

Much ink has been spilled on Franklin D. Roosevelt and his complex, sometimes questionable relationship with the news media. Roosevelt established certain press procedures which have been utilized by his successors and have come to be expected by the news media since. A contemporary historian claimed that Roosevelt’s relations with the press were part of a larger press cycle. Another concluded that Roosevelt’s sincere admiration for the press was the reason for his success. Roosevelt balanced the often conflicting concerns of censorship and free speech, claimed others. Yet, more recent historians have had varied opinions about Roosevelt’s objectives and the reasons for his achievements with the press. While most historians agree that FDR had an intimate, successful relationship with the press, few have been able to agree on his intentions and the reasons behind his successes. Since his presidency, scholars of history have not been able to reach a conclusion about his motives behind forming a close relationship with the press, nor have they been able to create any noticeable cycle of historical writing which has demonstrated one reason or another for FDR’s cultivation of the press.

Reflecting on the media phenomenon of the Roosevelt administration from 1933-1937 in Leo Rosten’s “President Roosevelt and the Washington Correspondents” Public Opinion Quarterly Volume 1 (January 1937), 36-52, Rosten concludes that, while the president did indeed display a great deal of charm and charisma, his initial success with the news media was a result of a natural cycle of journalism – whoever was in the White House would have experienced the same success. Rosten describes this “myth-making” and “myth-destroying” occurrence as something which is both explainable and common among new presidents.

The article does give credit to the tactics Roosevelt used initially in his presidency. Soon thereafter, the “honeymoon” wore off and the relationship between the president and the media grew uncomfortable.

“The Roosevelt smile was maliciously likened to a faucet, turned on and off with calculated purpose,” claims Rosten. The article notes Roosevelt’s use of first names when calling on correspondents as a psychological bribery, a concept which other historians fail to recognize.

It also attempts to explain why journalists fell out of favor with the president and vice versa. Journalists had developed a set of fictional characteristics assigned to the president which he could not deliver. Reporters had, in a sense, entranced themselves. Reston also believes that the separation in the relationship was a result of the guilt felt within the profession for granting Roosevelt so much positive press coverage. He predicts that post-election guilt (referring to the election of 1936) would result in another natural cycle of journalism. This was the first scholarly work published reflecting Roosevelt’s relationship with the press. It has been cited in numerous works including the well-renowned biography of Franklin Roosevelt, James MacGregor Burns’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956, and in Graham J. White’s groundbreaking FDR and the Press. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979. While Rosten was not an historian, he gives one other journalist and countless historians precedent of debate from which to build upon.

John Gunther, a journalist throughout the Roosevelt presidency, attempted to write the first biography of Franklin Roosevelt in Roosevelt in Retrospect. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950. Two things seem evident throughout the book; Gunther was a journalist and one who knew and had met with FDR. His use of personal experiences with the president while on the job adds a new perspective which few historians can contribute. However, it also creates an obvious slant in his book. Gunther fails to see Roosevelt’s less admirable characteristics. While the book is indeed a biography, he does devote an adequate section of the book dealing with the president’s relationship with the press corps. From the beginning of the Roosevelt presidency until its sudden completion in 1945, Gunther claims FDR maintained friendly, genial associations with every correspondent covering him. The book speaks to his admiration of the president, remembering he “sat down with men who worked for other men who loathed him, established the most friendly contact, won them over, became their friends, and made his partnership with them of highly effective value to the nation.”

While other historians have well made note of the sometimes turbulent association between the press and the president during the mid to late 1930’s, Gunther believes FDR maintained close relations with the press throughout his entire presidency. His characterization of FDR is one of a father-like figure to journalists; he looked out for them and cared for them because it was his inherent nature to do so. Six years after Roosevelt in Retrospect was published, James MacGregor Burns published the first of his two-volume, renowned biography. While Burns’s work is seemingly far more academic and comprehensive, Roosevelt in Retrospect has also been referenced by historians since – not for his enthusiasm towards FDR’s press relations but as a detailed secondary source coming from a correspondent who worked under FDR.

It was Burn’s Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox which gained a great deal of attention among historians.

Burns, aside from incorporating many other essential facets of FDR’s private life and presidency, assesses the cooperation and effectiveness of media towards his administration. The book sees Roosevelt as a political genius who used media outlets to their greatest advantage. Burns sees Roosevelt’s knack for using government to its fullest best displayed in his use of the press. Roosevelt’s success was largely because he made a great deal of news, which made the job of reporters much easier. While Wendell Willkie received more favorable press coverage, Roosevelt received more attention in the newspapers. This is just one of many examples employed in Roosevelt.

Reinstating frequent press conferences and treating reporters with a friendly attitude are very important attributes of the president. Burns applauds Roosevelt’s handling of the press conferences, but suggests they could potentially be a double-edged sword. Burns rarely criticizes Roosevelt for his sometimes seemingly vindictive attitude toward the press. Although mostly restrained, he did occasionally lash out at reporters during his frustration with the media after his failed attempt to manipulate the Supreme Court. Roosevelt claims that this was the only time when FDR seemed to become upset – when it involved reporters.

While some thought Roosevelt had lost his touch, Burns finds ample evidence which states otherwise. In fact, Burns sees Roosevelt’s association with the press much stronger in the mid to late 1930’s reflecting characteristics of a seasoned politician. While there are other dynamics present, such as economic and political circumstances, Burns seems to suggest that it was Franklin Roosevelt who made the relationship with the press strong.

Groundbreaking work also appeared in 1979 with the publication of Graham J. White’s FDR and the Press. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979. For nearly twenty years, there were few books published on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Seemingly with the advancement of new technology, an interest arose in the political potential of the media. The person pioneering this concept half a century earlier was Franklin Roosevelt. White’s book is the first to solely study the White House-press relationship of the Roosevelt administration, and does so by largely examining his philosophical reasoning behind why he interacted with editors and journalists. White accuses Burn’s biography of focusing too largely on the complexities of Roosevelt, and sees the more basic conflicting philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton better able to describe the association.

However, White cannot help exploring the complexities of Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt was “a brilliant and accomplished actor, who met the challenge of a critical audience and took pleasure and pride in his own performance,” states White.

He claims that news correspondents loved FDR; however the feelings were not mutual. Employing a quantitative study of contemporary newspaper articles, White finds that much of the newspaper editorials and news coverage was in favor of the administration. While the president consistently read many newspapers every day, he continued to falsely believe that journalists and their boss newspaper owners were significantly writing against him. FDR was told of this untrue assumption by the reports generated through his own administration, but to no avail at convincing him otherwise. White concludes that it was Roosevelt’s inflexibility to believe differently that generated “deep-seated hostility.”

In stark contrast to Gunther and Burns, White not only sees Roosevelt as not enjoying the press corps, but rather developing a hatred for the press throughout his entire presidency.

Since the publication of White’s FDR and the Press, there have been several books published dealing specifically with Roosevelt’s use of the media including Richard W. Steele’s Propaganda in an Open Society: The Roosevelt Administration and the Media 1933-1941. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985, Betty Houchin Winfield’s FDR and the News Media. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, and Michael G. Carew’s The Power to Persuade: FDR, the Newsmagazines, and Going to War, 1939-1941. Lanham, University Press of America, 2005. Steele’s book largely focuses on the Roosevelt administration’s use of propaganda and the constitutional dilemma’s it created. How could government claim to offer freedom of speech while restricting and influencing the press? Propaganda’s thesis, well demonstrated throughout the book, is that the press had a final say in what was published, consequently determining the public image of government. While Roosevelt could deliver messages and determine the agenda of his administration, he was at the mercy of the press whose presentation could either please or frustrate the president. Contrary to Rosten’s article, Steele believes that FDR’s success was unique to his presidency, but not through his own doing. He also sees FDR’s weaknesses during the late 1930’s in his increased criticisms of the press, and he agrees with White that Roosevelt’s hatred of the press was unfounded and that his work in disproving this is very valuable to the conversation.

Steele also focuses on a larger concept: the Roosevelt administration’s use of propaganda in the lead up to U.S. entry into World War II. As tensions in Europe began to rise, American newspapers began to shift towards an obvious slant in favor of the administration’s agenda. While Americans were overwhelming isolationists, Steele greatly admires Roosevelt’s resistance to use censorship on a national scale to persuade Americans into a more interventionist agenda. Propaganda gives several examples where Roosevelt denied the use of censorship from those highly advocating it within his own administration.

Steele does suggest, however, that it was only because of the unpopularity that censorship would have brought that led Roosevelt to resist its use. Perhaps otherwise, he was a crude politician. Propaganda’s unique suggestion that the media’s sway was the most important factor in determining the Roosevelt administration’s success has only added to the historical discussion revolving around FDR’s cultivation of the media. Betty Winfield would agree with Steele that Roosevelt did an adequate job at balancing democratic principles and classifying certain government actions in the presence of the media.

Winfield’s FDR and the News Media, considers the role the press played throughout the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression and World War II. She concludes that Roosevelt treated each crisis differently with respect to the news media. However, any crisis inherently brings stronger presidential roles that sometimes threaten the media’s independent power. In accordance with the fourth estate’s theoretical role as a “watchdog” agency on the presidency (according to the Jeffersonian model which Roosevelt relied upon), Winfield claims that an internal crisis leads to more open government than an external crisis.

Roosevelt was exceptionally open during the New Deal years. Aside from reiterating the adroitness which Roosevelt employed when dealing with the press, Winfield notes his openness with many news correspondents. He would candidly joke with them about contemporary issues and provide them with background information helpful to many news stories.

He did so with a political purpose: “to create a publicity bureau for the administration… [and] to ‘plant’ stories on its behalf.”

FDR and the News Media treats press Secretary Stephen Early with greater importance than other previous works had done. Early was so involved in White House press relations that news correspondents “gave his word almost as much importance as that credited to Franklin Roosevelt himself.”

Winfield gives great recognition (more so than any previous historian in this study) to Eleanor Roosevelt for her role in the administration’s press relationship. She would hold her own female-only press conferences and sit in and comment on many of FDR’s. Eleanor was incredibly newsworthy and had a significant number of reporters attending her conferences and following her inspection trips.

As the United States became involved in World War II, the Roosevelt administration began withholding information from the press. Even though Roosevelt didn’t believe in all out censorship, he developed public information agencies to determine what would be released to the media and what should remain classified. While Winfield sees censorship almost as the antithesis to America’s first amendment, she boldly claims, “To tell the truth in a democracy during an all-out war would undercut the official wartime policy and possibly jeopardize the war effort.”

FDR and the News Media concludes that Roosevelt was indeed a propagandist. Nevertheless, he was a propagandist who took what already existed (newspapers, radio, and film) and used it to his greatest advantage. Even during the war years, FDR still maintained respect for first amendment rights. The significance of Winfield’s work, while emphasizing the importance of Eleanor Roosevelt and concluding that FDR’s use of propaganda was acceptable, has been appreciated by many historians, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael G. Carew.

While Winfield’s comprehensive study mostly concentrated on Roosevelt’s ability to propagandize and sway the media, Thomas J. Johnson, Wanye Wanta, John T. Byrd, and Cindy Lee’s “Exploring FDR’s Relationship with the Press: A Historical Agenda-Setting Study,” Political Communication 12 (April-June 1995): 157-172 was a case study which concentrated on the influence of newspapers in relation to FDR’s political agenda. The study concluded that Roosevelt reacted more to, and less influenced administration coverage in newspapers he read, while conversely having a greater influence and reacting less to newspapers which he did not read.

The case study examines press treatment in seven newspapers (some of which Roosevelt frequently read) one month before and one month after Roosevelt’s first seven State of the Union Addresses. The article suggests that historians cannot properly judge newspaper coverage after the 1941 State of the Union Address because it would be too slanted during wartime. The article notes that because the Roosevelt administration made so much news, the president established his views and agenda before the American people and Congress through the use of the media. During the beginning of his presidency, any lukewarm relations between Roosevelt and news correspondents were most likely the result of a confusing domestic agenda filled with alphabet soup legislation.

This is something which hitherto, had not been proposed. “Exploring FDR’s Relationship” asserts. “Historians may have underemphasized the media’s influence on FDR because they tend to characterize the relationship based on FDR’s dealing with the press during his first 100 days in office.”

Greatly emphasizing the importance reading newspapers may have been to the Roosevelt administration, the article demonstrates, with the use of correlation tables, that FDR was more influenced by what he read than he was able to interject into the press. The authors analyze and explain their findings without empirical, number-based phrasing, which is rarely understood in its context by the audience. The advantage to this methodology is that a hypothesis may be more clearly proven (as in this case) through the use of data, unlike conclusions reached employing other schools of history.

Carew’s The Power to Persuade: FDR, the Newsmagazines, and Going to War, 1939-1941 emphasizes the powerful role newsmagazines had prior to WWII, and how the Roosevelt administration carefully used this medium. Belittling other important news media of the day, such as radio and newspapers, Carew sees FDR’s use of newsmagazines as being the most successful medium in accomplishing Roosevelt’s desire to persuade Americans towards intervention in WWII. The book analyzes four Magazines, Life, Look. Time, and Newsweek much like “Exploring FDR’s Relationship” did with the seven newspapers- in a numerical, data-oriented manner. While acknowledging that America depended on its news media for a greater understanding of events in Europe and Asia, newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and radio “did not operate effectively in the realm of broad political issues,” but newsmagazines did.

Like Steele’s analysis in the wake of WWII, Carew deals with the issue of isolationism and the Roosevelt administration’s power to persuade otherwise. They both agree that newspapers were often hostile to the administration, thus unreliable. In the four magazines analyzed, Roosevelt was friends with all of the owners. Eleanor Roosevelt was actually related to the owner of Look. Many members of the Roosevelt administration regularly wrote for these newsmagazines including Eleanor.

FDR’s influence in these newsmagazines is undeniable. He would sometimes directly edit articles in Newsweek, as it was owned by his good friend Vincent Astor.

Carew studied these four newsmagazines for content and organized much of it in the three years, from 1939 to 1941, into isolationist and interventionist categories. He found that there was a significant increasing emphasis on international affairs and support of interventionism – an agenda perfectly in sync with FDR’s. While other historical works have specialized on specific news mediums, Carew’s work placed a heavy emphasis on the role of the newsmagazines leading up to World War II.

In the nearly six and a half decades since Franklin Roosevelt was president, there has been an ongoing conversation about his use of the news media during the Great Depression and World War II. While some historians have concentrated on his overall development of the press, others have chosen to investigate a specific element of the media. While there may never be one “objective truth” of how and why Franklin Roosevelt cultivated, used, and exploited the press, it is important for historians and political scientists alike to understand the different ways his use has been interpreted. Understanding this debate and its significance today may help determine the future of the conversation.

When Roosevelt first took office in March, 1933, few politicians understood radio’s capability in politics. Certainly almost all scholars of FDR would agree that his presidency pioneered and maximized the use of radio within his own time period. His remarkable use of the press, as it was understood during his presidency, gained him much support for his political agenda. A politician’s ability to communicate information with the American public is essential to his achievement. This is probably the largest reason why this debate is so important and has initiated such a large collection of written material. Books such as James E. Pollard’s The Presidents and the Press. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946 and John Tebbel and Sarah Watts’s The Press and the Presidency: From George Washington to Ronald Reagan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985 stress the magnitude of importance a president’s relationship with the Fourth Estate can be.

During the election of President Barak Obama, there was a great deal of commentary about his use of Facebook as a medium to reach America’s younger generation. Many political scientists have attributed Obama’s large success in securing young American votes to his use of Facebook. In much of the same way Franklin Roosevelt reached out to millions of down-trodden Americans from the mid-West to the East coast through his adroit use of radio, Obama captured millions of votes through social networking. Part of Roosevelt’s continued success was his employment of multiple mediums reaching across many different audiences. As the world advances in technology, the possible political use of that technology increases. While politicians look for newer ways to gain support, they should examine the ways Roosevelt used and adapted mediums of his day. No two historians have completely agreed on how or why FDR cultivated the press the way he did. Examining each historian’s understanding of that phenomenon would greatly benefit any elected official looking to increase his support. Therefore, the future of this discussion will follow the innovations of technology and their use among politicians.

Whether it was trying to win support for experimental, constantly changing economic policies attempting to combat the Great Depression, an effort to undermine and change the Supreme Court, or a buildup to World War II, most historians (and all examined in this essay) would agree that Franklin Roosevelt employed great dexterity in his cultivation of the press. They too would agree, while FDR was not the first president to use the media for political gain, he did a far superior job than his immediate predecessors. However, historians have not been able to agree on the level of effectiveness of Roosevelt’s use, or how and why he used news media to the extent he did. The immense amount of historical publication that does exist surrounding FDR’s media use rarely agrees with one another and creates no apparent cycle of writing which accounts for a pattern of agreement for FDR’s cultivation of the press.

Bibliography:

Burns, James MacGregor Burns. Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956.

Carew, Michael G. The Power to Persuade: FDR, the Newsmagazines, and Going to War, 1939- 1941. Lanham, University Press of America, 2005.

Gunther, John. Roosevelt in Retrospect. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.

Johnson, Thomas J., Wayne Wanta,  John Byrd, and Cindy Lee. “Exploring FDR’s Relationship with the Press: A Historical Agenda-Setting Study” Political Communication. 12 no. 2 (April-June 1995) 157-172.

Rosten, Leo C. “President Roosevelt and the Washington Correspondents” Public Opinion Quarterly Volume 1 (January 1937), 36-52.

Steele, Richard W. Propaganda in an Open Society: The Roosevelt Administration and the Media 1933-1941. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

White, Graham J. FDR and the Press. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979.

Winfield, Betty Houchin. FDR and the News Media. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

About brentgstewart

I am a 20th century historian with a focus on political history. My primary work has focussed on the personal life of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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