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JFK and Obama: Press Access Lessons

On a day when the nation is awash with memories of John F. Kennedy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one comparison between JFK and Barack Obama is highly instructive: their attitudes toward the press and the control of information.

Few presidents have been as secretive as President Obama. As Chuck Todd rightly pointed out yesterday during the daily brief at the White House, this administration has not merely done its best to shut down the working press and silence dissent from within the ranks of the government with an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions over leaks. It has also created what amounts to nothing less than a state media as the White House has excluded journalists from some events and instead distributed its own official photos and stories via official websites (which unlike the ObamaCare site, don’t crash). Doing so enables the president to control the story in a way that few of his predecessors, even before the era of the mass media, could have dreamed of doing. By contrast, President Kennedy offered reporters and photographers an equally unprecedented amount of access.

The irony here is that by treating the press as his friends and allies rather than enemies, Kennedy was able to keep secrets about his health and his disgraceful personal conduct during his presidency since none of his journalistic cronies and enablers wished to undermine their friend in the Oval Office. He smartly used press conferences to reach the American people directly where he could show off his wit and command of the issues, but in doing so he knew the press he had seduced had his back.

Though most of the White House press corps is as, if not more, eager to help Obama as their predecessors were to aid Kennedy, over the course of five years of stonewalling, deceptions, and end runs, he has managed to alienate even liberals who now are justified in complaining that the White House is little different from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime when it comes to control of information.

The moral of the story is not just that Obama seems a lot closer to Richard Nixon in his behavior than to that of his avowed hero Kennedy, though that is a fair conclusion. Rather, it is that what is most needed in a democracy is a vigorous and free press that is neither prevented from doing its job by a semi-official government media run publishing propaganda from the White House nor compromised by the hero worship and cronyism.

Looking back on the history of the Kennedy era, the press should never lose the sense of shame that it ought to feel about its cover ups of the truth about the president’s health and his dissolute and even reckless personal behavior (having mistresses is one thing, debauching interns and sleeping with the molls of gangsters under federal investigation is quite another). But neither should it allow itself to be intimidated by a White House press operation that appears to be the polar opposite of Kennedy’s clever decision to co-opt the press.

Is it too much to ask that journalists not go into the tank for politicians or to be allowed to do their job without being superseded by a state propaganda arm? No, it’s not. Instead, of obsessing about Kennedy’s death, our media would do better to learn the lessons of JFK and Obama’s abuse of press freedom.