The president and the press have a volatile but necessary relationship, a panel of historians and journalists said Monday night.
Historian Douglas Brinkley said since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, presidents have surrounded themselves with the media.
“[The press and presidents] have a love/hate relationship. All presidents cultivate a relationship with reporters, but there is risk involved with the media,” Brinkley said. “Theodore Roosevelt would have reporters around him at all times.”
Host Marvin Kalb interrupted, “Suppose they didn’t write what he wanted them to write?”
Brinkley joked, “He’d slay them.”
Brinkley, along with fellow historian Martha Joynt Kumar and ABC News contributor Sam Donaldson, said the press is a necessary resource for presidents to be successful.
“Presidents preceding Theodore Roosevelt had a sense of the press and a sense that they needed it to achieve,” Donaldson said. “JFK learned about the press quite astutely when he won people over in Congress. [Barack] Obama had it, maybe he’s losing it now.”
The panelists discussed how the rapid information exchange is now forcing the White House to be more responsive to and aware of the 24-hour news cycle.
“Obama was smart to be the BlackBerry president, and use technologies to fundraise. [Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah] Palin has a reality show, and radio shows. This is congruent with a history of wanting to get the message out there, but it is just so fast-paced,” Brinkley said.
The panelists praised Obama’s savvy political skills but criticized him for his lack of experience before taking office.
“Presidents have political problems, not press problems,” Kumar said. “There is a notion that if I change the message, people will think differently. Obama has had a lot of access to the press and opportunities to reach the public, but his problems are political, like health care.”
For the aspiring journalists in the room, Donaldson and Kumar both advised students to be well-versed in government and history, in addition to journalism.
“Your role is key to the success of government,” Kumar said. “Understanding government will increase understanding of all citizens. You’ll find work, different work than in the past, but we will always need journalism.”