The relationship between presidents and the media? It's complicated

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jan 31, 2019 at 10:42 AM

From the battles between Federalist and Anti-Federalist publications in early America to the public’s fascination with President John F. Kennedy, the institutions of government and mass media have always had a complicated relationship, long before the battles between the current president and media.

To explore this often-turbulent relationship, East Tennessee State University hosted a panel discussion on “The U.S. Presidency and the Media” at Reece Museum Wednesday afternoon.

Panelists included ETSU President Brian Noland, ETSU history professor Daryl Carter, media professor Andrew Dunn and two ETSU political science professors, David Briley and Colin Glennon. WJHL news anchor Josh Smith moderated the panel.

The elephant in the room was undoubtedly President Donald Trump’s adversarial stance toward much of the media, which he has repeatedly dubbed the “enemy of the people.” While Carter characterized this as “unhealthy” for a democratic society, Dunn said this adversarial relationship with the press is nothing new in American history.

“We can go all the way back to John Adams and the Federalists — and the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 — where we had people jailed for sedition and criticism of the government,” Dunn said. “Back then, you would buy your newspaper based on your politics, and you would have some who were more critical of Adams, and they didn’t like that.

“Point was, he went after his critics — his journalist critics,” Dunn later continued. “He actually put some in jail – roughly about 12 or 13. Most of them were Jeffersonian newspaper people.”

One of the things that have changed since then has been the means in which the public viewed American presidents, according to Noland, who said the relationship between the media and president became more personal and changed dramatically during President John F. Kennedy’s era. 

“Kennedy was the first president to understand the power of the modern press,” Noland said.

Briley said things were different before then with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who worked to hide his polio from journalists and from the public.

“Certainly during FDR, they were very watchful over him,” he said, pointing out that there was more separation between press and the president back then.

But as the media has continued to change and social media continues to play an increasingly important role in how a president relates to his base, Glennon said Trump has changed the game. 

“Whether or not you like that, I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that he hasn’t benefited from that — connecting that way with his base,” Glennon said of the way the president uses Twitter. “I think that’s an interesting trend.”

Carter said the way in which many politicians like Trump communicate with their base and with their opponents is problematic.

“This anti-intellectualism — this bringing us down to the base level — is a serious problem in American politics,” Carter said.

Wednesday’s panel was part of the university's first annual Festival of Ideas, which ETSU Festival Co-Chairman Jeff Howard said aims to “provide an opportunity for the exchange of ideas, information and experiences between noted speakers and members of the ETSU community, as well as the region.”

The inaugural festival began with “An Evening with Jennifer Palmieri,” the former White House communications director for President Obama and former communications director for the Hillary Clinton Campaign, who held a question-and-answer session with the public at the Millennium Center.

The festival will conclude on Thursday with “An Evening with Doris Kearns Goodwin” at 6:30 p.m. at the Millennium Center. Goodwin is a presidential historian and author of the New York Times bestseller “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” Doors will open for the free public event at 5:30 p.m. 

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