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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doris Kearns Goodwin on Journalism and the President

In the past, some US Presidents have instinctively known how to get along with the news media, while others have ignored this responsibility.Yet, the days are past when US President's can lead our nation, while remaining aloof of the news media. Moreover, the days are also  in the past when a US President can create news with facts alone. 

News has become a 24/7 experience whereby facts are re-processed by well paid personality pundits. By the time a 24 hour news cycle passes, the facts of any given story are filtered through the spin of liberal and conservative think tanks. At the end of this punditry, facts often become irrelevant while spin becomes reality. 

Clearly, the free press relies on the ability of reporters to tell people what's going on in the world, without anybody editing the facts. Obviously, reporters want their accounts of the news to be fresh and more timely than their peers, who are often competing for the same stories. At the same time, those who create the news are often preferential to reporters who present favorable impressions of the facts. In other words, news reporting is a synergistic relationship between news makers and the media. They need to work together.
But, who prevents a synergistic relationship from becoming cozy?

President Franklin Roosevelt's leadership ability relied on his symbiotic relationship with the press, says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Roosevelt was able to take press criticism in stride. His presidency was marked by the innovative use of a term he coined, "the bully pulpit," or the national platform afforded to the presidency to shape public opinion.
The president of the United States must have — at a very minimum — a decent relationship with the press. This symbiotic relationship, best understood by Theodore Roosevelt, is a hallmark of democracy that the commander in chief must embrace, says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about this relationship between US Presidents and the media in her most recent book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

First, breaking news comes in. Before you know it, she says, whatever it was you were focusing on, something else comes in the way.  Complicating the problem, she says, is when everyone has their own bully pulpit, like the bloggers, or people on Facebook, who can start talking with a megaphone which can be as loud sometimes as the president.
There was once a time when reporters enjoyed spontaneous discussions with US Presidents. But now, media handlers sculpt every word. Today, even the seconds between a question and an answer are timed. Don't wait too long to answer a question, or the length of the pause makes news. Words matter today, more so than ever before. Instant communications prevents candid conversations. Actor James Cagney's colorful portrayal of "off the record", as in this YouTube video, is today's entertaining anachronism .

At risk in this symbiotic relationship is the potential loss of highly qualified leaders who simply can't be media personalities. For example, Thomas Jefferson couldn't have kept his relationship with his Negro mistress quiet in today''s intense media spotlight.

Yet, American democracy was engineered by Thomas Jefferson.

As Americans bereave the 50th annivesary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we realize how this young president's style raised the bar for presidential media relations. Kennedy had a natural instinct for managing the media and shielding his family from negative news. He could be glib and humerous, like he was during press conferences. Conversely, he also knew when to be extremely serious, as he was during the Cuban Missle Crises.  

Fortunately, President Kennedy used his bully pulpit to improve the human condition or to defend our nation. Consider how a similarly charismatic leader could use the same talent for nefarious purposes. 

Consequently, it's essential for our news media to hold all leaders accountable to the truth. A symbiotic or synergistic relationship between US presidents and the media should never be allowed to become cozy. Americans need oversight of the media because competition in the news business can create compromising relationships.

Although bloggers and facebook pundits can be annoying because we are challenged by objecivity, we can also serve the purpose of keeping media moguls honest. Independent oversight of the media's symbiotic relationship with the US President can assure transparent freedom of the press.  

Perhaps Doris Kearns Goodwin can be a blogger after she is finished writing all of her interesting history books. She could sure help to keep the bully pulpit transparent. 

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