In order to be successful, presidents and their staffs must expend a great deal of effort cultivating and shaping public opinion. This requires careful planning, tact, and a good relationship with the press. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to recognize the importance of courting the press to help insure that news stories read by the voters portrayed his policies and actions in a positive way. When the West Wing of the White House was built, Roosevelt included a pressroom so newspapermen would have a private area to gather and work.
President Hoover hired the first press secretary whose job was to keep the press informed of the president's views
and actions, especially with regard to combating the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt expanded the role of the press secretary,
making the position responsible for catering to the information needs of the public, while also managing the content and flow
of information in the trying times of the Depression and later under the extreme conditions of global war.
Over a span of decades, cooperation between the press and the White House evolved. What began as independent reporters gathering news directly from the president or cabinet heads grew to a structured conduit for passing information from the White House to the people via the media in all its electronic and print forms. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, the press secretary has headed a large staff that not only has the job of providing information to the press, but also briefs the president and White House staff on what the media wants to know and the best way to present the information. In addition, the office of the press secretary arranges interviews, advises the press of photo opportunities, and coordinates the dissemination of information on all levels to the public.
The press secretary is responsible for orchestrating press conferences where the president or other government officials may read a statement and take questions from the media. In some cases, press conferences can be scripted affairs where the press is asked to confine questions to the topic at hand and the president delivers what are essentially prepared answers. At other times, press conferences may be more informal where the press is allowed to ask questions on a variety of topics and the responses are more spontaneous.
Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt held as many as two press conferences a week as a means to communicate with the people. Modern presidents carefully weigh their communications to the press since poorly considered or impulsive remarks can haunt an administration. For this reason, presidents now give on average one press conference a month. In other public commentary, presidents generally confine their remarks to prepared speeches that have been screened to insure they convey the desired message and avoid communicating messages that might be misinterpreted. In this way, presidents and their staffs feel that they can communicate ideas clearly and build recognition of precisely chosen words and phrases that are insightful, memorable, and likely to influence public thinking and political decisions.
The news media also covers the daily activities of the president, which are often more interesting to the public than issues and decisions. For this reason, the press may spend relatively little time detailing a president‘s actual policy and agenda. The evening news may show the president boarding a helicopter or Air Force-1 but may neglect to later cover the critical meeting or conference at his destination. In this way, the choices of the media shape public perception, but not always in the best interests of the president, the nation, or the people.
The media and the president have a mutual goal in their desire to inform the public. Some presidents relish this relationship. Kennedy and Clinton, for instance, were comfortable functioning in the public eye and perhaps even enjoyed a bit of grandstanding. Other presidents, such as Nixon and Carter, were not as comfortable being the constant focus of often-critical attention. They found the press intrusive and felt that media demands consumed time that could have been better spent actually running the country. Naturally, a reluctant or disdainful president will tend to be portrayed more negatively by the press than one who caters to reporters, and this in turn influences approval ratings. Modern presidents are intensely cognizant of the role the press plays in their personal success and the success of their policies and party.
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