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The following program was produced and recorded by the University of Michigan broadcasting service under a grant in aid from the Educational Television and Radio Center in collaboration with the National Association of educational broadcasters news in 20th century America. A series of radio documents on the gathering writing and dissemination of news compiled from interviews with men and women who make news their business presidential news conferences in our country are a unique example of democracy at work. The chief executive of the United States stands up before a group a group of middle aged men. From all parts of the world and how he answers the questions of the day that are asked extemporaneously and answered extemporaneously I think it does this. I think that when that conference is held and when it is finished the people of the United States and indeed the people of the world have a better
insight in the way the president of the United States is thinking on those questions and the way he is acting on those questions. The voice is that of James Haggerty press secretary to President Eisenhower last week in the series we presented some of the practices and problems of national news coverage in Washington D.C. this week we turn to a special phase of capital CORRESPONDENTS the presidential press conference. Mr. Haggerty is one of the distinguished group of newsman you will hear on the president and the press. Today's edition of news in 20th century America. Now here is your host at Burroughs for the greater part of the past 18 years. The duty of signaling the close of the presidential press conference with the words Thank you Mr. President has fallen to the dean of wire service correspondents at this post Merriman Smith of United Press International. Relaxing over a cup of coffee in the famous National Press Club in Washington Mr Smith described for us the journalistic
road he traveled in reaching his present eminence. I was born in. Savannah Georgia 1913 and went to. Grammar and high school in Savannah and had. Obstinately tender age began. Fooling around with things and planned. Before I. Ever went to college I. Worked on newspapers and Savannah and Jacksonville. Not as a writer. I want to bash newspaper guy I would have had no jesting with collecting for deadbeat want to ads in Jacksonville Florida. I say interesting because I was thrown out of more places the average Bowery mom. But I want on to Oglethorpe University which is outside of Atlanta at a time when demand our first had quite an interest in that
school and. I didn't play football but I got what was to me better than a football scholarship. I got a full time job on the Hearst paper and I was a sports writer and after college I worked around on several papers I worked on the Atlanta Journal on Atlanta Georgia NW and then. Was managing editor of a small North Georgia daily. The Athens times and learned an awful lot about newspaper production there. We didn't have much of a staff everybody had to do everything. And from Athens I joined the United Press in 1936 as a sports writer. And then got into politics covering politics when our state capital man took ill. Just in front of a session of the legislature and I had never seen a legislature knew barely what they were. Couldn't have cared less and was sent to Tallahassee
covering the. Legislature and from that day to this I've been largely involved in. Covering the activities of politicians in the years since 1941 when he was assigned to the White House. Merriman Smith has seen many changes in the character of the presidents press conferences. We asked him to review that history for us. Well no changes have been oh no substantial. There are that in which I went to the White House was. Crushed. FDR Franklin Delano Roosevelt a man who really invented the press conference. It's true that presidents before him had attempted the press conference but. The results were hit and miss. They were never sustained their efforts to control them but the press conference as we know it
today is a. Rather free swinging question and answer period. Evolved. From the Roosevelt days in the White House. Now the conference is under rather about Candide and all the candidates actually were much more exciting than they are and wished I'd known. One thing it was a more exciting era. There was more drama to the problems facing an administration and Roosevelt was a superb dramatist himself. The contests were held in his office with the reporters crowded around the desk. The characters were quite personal in that. Birdwell did not hesitate to upbraid a correspondent if he thought he'd asked a silly question or if the Saudi dash something that was particularly curveball. When
Truman came into office he tried to continue the road about system of two conferences where they realized first that was too many. Probably it was. Mr. Truman also realized in holding conferences in his office that. A reporter could stand in the back of the room and curl up a really sharp. Question. With a lot of fish hooks attached to it. And bear little or no responsibility for it because he'd be on identified. And under the guise of making the car spawn it's more comfortable. Mr. Truman moved the conference's across the street from the White House into the old Indian Treaty Room. Which is now the executive office building used to be the old State Department. Here the reporters are seated. And they stand to
ask a question and before putting a question to the president they. They give their names in the newspaper. Then when Mr. Eisenhower came in office Jim Haggerty The press secretary was long determined had long determined to. Bring television and the wife of a president. GM worked on the series that. Television had become another medium of communication. It was here to stay and had a definite right. So I hope. Jim brought the TV cameras and the press guy for the entire Q&A is recorded on film for later showing. The networks and stations when this was a novelty. And it didn't last very long that we showed the whole proceeding. Now they show on the
excerpts and in that same banner very few newspapers. That print the entire press conference transcript. Several of the big ones do. But. The medium to small newspapers just can't afford that much type. Of press conference transcript. It takes just about one solid eight column page and it's a 16 page paper and you can't afford it. But a paper the size of the New York Times or The Herald Tribune The Philadelphia Inquirer the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the Chicago Tribune they've got the space they can do. We thought Oh there were some of our people who thought that the advent of television would produce a rather theatrical. Note in the press car. I don't think it has. It was a curiosity at first you know having floodlights in the room and cameras and we
rather expected First that. There would be some exhibitionism. But I don't think it's really developed. It's been we've been doing this for well nearly six years six years and this late wonder and. I haven't seen truly objectionable theatrical as in show up. I think this is true I think there are some of my colleagues who on occasion. Leapt to their feet with questions when under pre-TV circumstances they might not have done it. It's a matter of getting your name in the report as it were. But beyond that I haven't seen any real show offs. There are two or three questioners in every president's conferences who are fairly objectionable to the president. And a president usually tries not to show it. The public sometimes gets
the idea that he's persecuted public. Also sometimes gets the idea from the same set of facts that he is being pretty resistant. But we understand that these things exist he does and it hasn't because the complection of the Q&A changed more. When we left the presidents office and white chairs and standing up to ask questions than it did with the advent of television. That was Merriman Smith dean of White House wire service correspondence has just met will have more to say on this subject in our next program. Douglas Kater Washington editor of The Reporter magazine and a long time student of the Washington scene has written a book on the press and government. We asked Mr. Cater what significant changes he had remarked in the presidential press conference. The president's press conference has gone through an interesting evolution of which the entry of television is only the latest stage in
Roosevelt's time there were the reporters herded into the president's own office. They stood around his desk while he's being crippled maintained his seat and they fired their questions rather informally and he gave them a very quick and immediate answer as he had these conferences usually two and three times a week. Under Truman the press conference was moved across out of the White House into the Executive Office Building next door. And it even there it took on a more formal almost class room. The aspect the reporter was seated the president came in and stood at the front of the class and the rich reporter stood up to ask his question and to be recognized. This in itself was the beginning of a more formal institution a more rigid institution than the old haphazard days.
Then they'd be the tapering record I was introduced into the press conference and a transcript maintained of the press conference which again gave it a formality previously the reporter had only his own scribble notes usually on the back of a non-dual of in the press conference as the record of what went on. Now you begin to get an official record. Then under. Eisenhower had his first step toward a further development and to some reporters the decay of the press conference was to release the tape recording to the networks and allow them to play certain parts of it verbatim. And when they did this of course the newspapers also the New York Times in particular printed week by week the full text of question and answer. So it you had a a definite It seems to me and substantial change. The
the the the press conference transcript became a a an almost an official document of government. It was read in Batum form all over the world. Finally you had the introduction of the television camera which was gave it one more aspect of making the report I'm a participant in a show rather than the first object of the press conference. I must admit I have mixed feelings about that in this case. I do think that the press conference of the news conference is primarily an instrument for the president. It's a it's a an opportunity for him to communicate informally with his publics and that any way that he can do this responsibly and responsibly use those two words. I mean he should be permitted to do. On the
other hand I must note that the introduction of the of a television camera in particular has tended to make this institution less of a free give and take than it used to be. The reporter is more or less on stage which is a role that a reporter should attempt to avoid. And I feel a lot of a press conference is in many ways a not as productive and not as much of a real interrogation as they once were. Douglas cater Washington editor of The Reporter magazine speaking on changes in the conduct of the president's press conference. Merriman Smith thought the television camera had less impact than the introduction of the more formal Q&A as he called it. Douglas Cato thought the camera was chiefly responsible for a formalizing of the conference. We sought out other reporters in Washington for their opinions on the introduction of the electronic media. Chalmers Roberts covers foreign news in
Washington for The Washington Post and Times-Herald and is a winner of the Raymond Clapper award. Mr. Roberts Well I think it's been a bad time to have either a television camera or the tape recorder for one reason. There are some people who claim that one device of the system which started it started since Eisenhower has been president is that it makes newspaper men and the actors that would be actors and I suppose in some cases that's true. But basically I think it's bad because it puts the president on the record very Batum. On answers that he is for the most part giving off the cuff on matters of national and especially international importance. I don't say that that you should not have press
conferences of course you should and I think we should have more than Mr Eisenhower has. However until he started this system the rule was that you could not quote the president directly. You could only paraphrases answer and this was a form of protection against a slip of the town here. The president used the slang word to describe some prime minister that might very well regret a few minutes later or the secretary of state would be very unhappy if you didn't put in a quotation. It makes quite a bit of difference. And I think the president is entitled to that much protection. I think television and the tape recorder for radio have. Robbed him of that protection and I suppose it can be argued that this tends to inhibit the answers.
Howard K. Smith of The CBS staff in Washington has spent many years abroad and had an opportunity to study and compare foreign methods with our own. What does he think about television and the president. Well here's where I suffer schizophrenia. Now as a journalist I have to say that I think it's marvelous. We get everything the president says as he says it with all the marvelous spontaneity of utterance and expression. But as a citizen. A non-journalist citizen I think that the president subject himself unnecessarily to an ideal. I know of no public official not even the secretary of state who allows what he says to go on just as he says it on the spur of the moment. Now none of us. I think no president of the United States has been such a genius a literary genius that he could on the spur of the moment concoct exactly what he wanted to say in the nation's interest. I think on looking over his remarks he would find there's an things he shouldn't have said I should have phrased differently.
Well with the president we get in the way he said and that's all there is to it. And the president has many fine qualities but articulation is not one of them so that he is a strange president to allow this procedure to take place. And sometimes I think he says things that if he had more time to think about it would be unwise now the secretary of state lets us get these things. But he has the privilege of amending or correcting his remarks later. And frankly if I if I were a man and I office I would insist on that right. In the British House of Commons a spriggan to compare the president's press conference to Question Time in the House of Commons prime minister Macmillan was here recently and made that comparison in fact it's not so. The prime minister and the other ministers of the British Cabinet received their questions long beforehand. They parcel these questions out to a staff of assistants these assistants research those questions and provide them with written answers. They go into the House of Commons and read out the written answers. When the president receives his questions on the spur of the moment and he answers on the spur of the moment which is a dangerous procedure for the chief of perhaps the
greatest government in the world whose words all acquire a triple weight when they appear in foreign news. Robert De Hartman Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times is a newspaper man. But when we queried him about changes in the press conference he did not appear to be overly concerned. I have noticed any significant change of scenery air television come in people with cameras and microphones tending to her out of a certain type. It was kind of her best friends used to be assertive and exchange your points of view. Set piece which formal questions are asked and answers to the order that I think that
small press conference or something like that as her introduction. Our eyes and ears meet them in their minds. There's room in the wrong interview which is one of the writer was Tyler's friend techniques. Journalism has been largely lost but the thing which was as great as ours was as big as a press conference doesn't change matters what's supposed to be read. In that everything you said Were there has been one of the things perhaps because your prez and I are friends counter and so on and that he very often uses sentence
structure which layers you and consider them dire as to what he meant to say. And speaking extemporaneously has syntax and sometimes so far under the rules where you didn't hurt the president directly but had to paraphrase everything you said and we had to ponder over those things and stack some kind of a conclusion and rather that what we do know was from regret perplexed we said but rotation rags around the past our propensity under the reader whether this serves a useful purpose in journalism run that server that comes the other way was better as far as actually getting the information out with a man who was there to kill him and putting his ideas across. It was probably when it
would seem natural that the journalists working in the television medium would defend the use of the camera in the press conferences. They are quick to point out that these are film cameras and not live television cameras and that film and tape can be edited but still has the mere presence of recorder and camera affected the character of the press conference. This remains an essential question. We asked Mark in the grand scheme of NBC. There are many opinions about that and. I would answer you know I'm inclined to think that the president and all of us. Are inclined to. Ignore the cameras in a way I don't think we put our question to the president with the idea that we are on camera as we're putting it and I don't think he makes his answer with the idea that he's on camera as he answers it. Don't forget that the
president must realize as a secretary of state must realize that every word that he says must be said responsibly. And that responsibility is the controlling factor I think not the not not the not that the cameras are on him as he says. After all before the cameras were permitted every word that the president said was transcribed. So there was a permanent record in that sense anyway. This is merely another medium in which a permanent record is kept. So I personally don't feel that the presence of the cameras changes the character the nature the coverage. Mr. grand scale speaks of a permanent transcript of the president's press conference having existed before the advent of the electronic media. Mr. Cater and others have already indicated that if such a transcript was made it was not necessarily complete nor was it all made public. In
conclusion we asked James Haggerty White House press secretary to sum up his ideas on the press conference and his reasons for permitting the use of the film camera and tape recorder in such conferences. Presidential news conferences in our country are a unique example of democracy at work. The chief executive of the United States stands up before a group a group of news men from all parts of the world and he answers the questions of the day that are asked extemporaneously and answer extemporaneously. I think it does this. I think that when that conference is held and when it is finished there are people in the United States and indeed the people of the world. I have a better insight in the way the president of the United States is thinking on those questions and the way he is acting on those questions. I think I extend Corineus questions and answers I'm much better than a form that
we used to have many years ago when I Government I when written questions were submitted and the president then picked and chose a few questions that he would like to answer. I myself I think also. They innovation that we have started since the president has been here committing television film cameras and radio tape to cover those conferences. Also is it allows a greater dissemination of reviews and answers by the president. It allows they use on radio and television as well as typewriters and newspapers and the skull and the printed word. And we also know this may not be known generally. I but we also have our US I make a short film version of those press conferences taking out across the purely domestic problems are questions and that we send those films to every embassy all over the world all our embassies the American embassies when they arrive there. The
ambassador usually has a reception on bikes members of that government country in to see the film. And they maintain then get a more direct feeling I have seen the president listening to him and getting his views on the subject so I went off in answer to your question. I think the presidential press conference has many advantages. I do not see any disadvantages. As you can see from the comments of these different men there are few areas of complete agreement on the advantages or disadvantages of the president's press conference as it is now constituted because there are so many shades of opinion expressed and the ideas of these news men are so vital to an understanding of our democratic process EAS we will continue this discussion in our next program. Merriman Smith will also be heard discussing in detail his experiences traveling with the
Series
News in 20th Century America
Episode Number
7
Episode
President & Press
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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cpb-aacip/500-2f7jts7g
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News in 20th Century America is a radio series on the gathering, writing, and dissemination of news. Each episode addresses a specific topic in the news industry, and features interviews with men and women who make news their business. This program is produced by the University of Michigan Broadcasting Service in cooperation with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
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Journalism
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Sound
Duration
00:29:21
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-48-7 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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Duration: 00:29:22
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Chicago: “News in 20th Century America; 7; President & Press,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 17, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-2f7jts7g.
MLA: “News in 20th Century America; 7; President & Press.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 17, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-2f7jts7g>.
APA: News in 20th Century America; 7; President & Press. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-2f7jts7g