Two years into his Presidency, the 35th President John F. Kennedy (JFK) sat down with Bill Lawrence of ABC News, George Herman of CBS News and Sander Vanocur of NBC News for a radio and television interview entitled “After Two Years: A Conversation with the President”.
The interview was recorded in the Oval Office on December 16th, 1962 and aired the following day and was conducted in a cordial round-robin fashion. The interviewers were professional but still asked the President real questions, unlike what we see now where being combative and accusatory is somehow good journalism. They asked the President a range of questions, questions such as how the President felt when his conversations leaked to the Press and many more.
Before the Rise of Fake News
Yes, there was a time when the news wasn’t “Fake News” or overly sensationalized and when the thought of truly pushing an agenda and ideology wasn’t heard of nor was it passed off as journalism. In those days there were only three major national networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, these were also the only networks that had any real national news coverage. However, these networks weren’t 24/7/365, which was unheard of until 1980 and the Cable News Network aka CNN came on the scene. These original networks (to include CNN in its infancy) didn’t engage in shock journalism where they ran on a hunch and the motto of “if it bleeds it leads” as we see now.
In fact, they had journalists and correspondents who were about reporting facts and the news as soon as it could be verified. This is evidenced by simply fast-forwarding from this interview’s airdate of December 17th, 1962 to a little less than a year later, when on November 22nd, 1963, Walter Cronkite of CBS News held off on reporting the death of JFK until it could be verified. Many people think he was the first to announce the death of JFK, but he wasn’t, but being first wasn’t important to him, being factual was. If you were watching or listening in those days or are a student of history, you likely remember his famous lines which are “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Being a student of history myself, I’ve watched many documentaries of that day and how Mr. Cronkite knew that by not reporting on the unconfirmed reports that many Americans would tune to other networks, but that truth and accuracy was more important. He knew if he reported on the unconfirmed reports and got it wrong, that simply issuing a correction to his reporting wouldn’t suffice with many Americans, so he waited. This is one of many examples of why he was regularly voted “the most trusted man in America” throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Newsmen were also about removing their own bias and not allowing personal or political bias to sully a story. Walter Cronkite was in good company on this front as most reporters in those days put their own personal and political ideology aside and went after the truth instead of making it up as they went along. “Fake News” wasn’t something to even consider, now we get it ‘round the clock, but in those days the networks used to sign off the air at midnight with the playing of the national anthem and today, the national anthem is passé according to the left. However, that’s a story for another article on another day.
President Kennedy vs Leakers
The Question: Mr. President during the Cuban crisis there was some problem which you are apparently familiar with and bored with by now about the possibility of a President talking in very private and secret conversations with his advisers and that somehow leaking out, do you think that this is going to inhibit the free Frank flow of advice that every President has to have?
President Kennedy: No, I think it’s unfortunate when there are these sorts of conversations, but there are what 1,300 reporters accredited to the White House alone. There are I suppose a hundred and fifty people familiar with what goes on in the Security Council meeting. One way or another you’ve got the people actually there and you’ve got others who are given instructions as a result of the decisions there and I suppose people do talk and then there’s what I said at the time of the Cuban disaster of April ‘61 that success has a hundred fathers and defeats an orphan. And I suppose when something goes well there’s more a tendency to talk at all levels and frequently the reports are inaccurate. I would say the security is pretty good at the National Security Council but unfortunate when breached.
President Kennedy vs The Press
The Question: You once said that you were reading more and enjoying it less are you still as avid a newspaper reader, magazine? I remember those of us who traveled with you on the campaign a magazine wasn’t safe around you.
President Kennedy: No, I think it’s invaluable even though it may cause you some unpleasantness reading as things of frequently that are not agreeable news but I would say that it’s an invaluable arm of the Presidency as a check really on what’s going on in an administration and more things come to my attention that causes me concern or gives me information…
Even though we never like it, and even though we don’t, even though we wish they didn’t write it and even though we disapproved, it still is, there isn’t any doubt that we couldn’t do the job at all in a free society without a very active press.
Now on the other hand, the press has the responsibility not to distort things for political purposes, not to just take some news in order to prove a political point, seems to me their obligation is to be as tough as they can on an administration, but do it in a way which is directed towards getting as close to the truth as they can get and not merely because of some political motivation.
Final Thoughts: The Cuban Missile Crisis
During the interview, the “Cuban Missile Crisis” (called the “Cuban Crisis” by the three journalists and the “Cuban Disaster” by JFK), came up many times. If there had been leaks from the National Security Council or the Executive Committee (EXCOM) of the National Security Council, there wouldn’t have been any way to have had a peaceful resolution to the crisis as we saw. Also, if there had been leakers, it wouldn’t have been possible to keep the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba secret from the American public until the 9th day after the first U2 flight. By keeping the existence secret, it allowed the President and his administration to work the problems and find reasonable solutions.
If there had been leakers like we have today, the President wouldn’t have been able to easily reject a strike on the Soviet missile emplacements which was one of the three options presented by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. If there had been leaks, the President would have likely faced overwhelming pressure from Congress and the American public to use Military force as a first option instead of opting for backdoor-diplomacy and the eventual quarantine. One might say, that the lack of leaks allowed for President Kennedy to avoid a disastrous altercation that could have led to a global nuclear war.
Today, with the modern media and everyone seemingly looking to make a name for themselves, garner a book deal, speaking engagements or a recurring spot on a news outlet, leaks are more commonplace. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the original U2 flight took place on October 14th and the American public wasn’t made aware until President Kennedy took to the airwaves for 18 minutes on October 22nd where he laid out all the facts that he could. Since there weren’t leaks, President Kennedy was able to negotiate directly and indirectly (through back-door diplomacy) with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. If leaks had existed, President Kennedy wouldn’t have been able to agree to remove missiles from Turkey.
The White House portrayed the Soviet’s withdrawal as the result of President Kennedy’s toughness in the face of Soviet aggression. Really, it was a result of being able to negotiate and conduct diplomacy and handle sensitive negotiations without leaks undermining the process.
My purpose here isn’t to give an in-depth history lesson or to give the impression that the news media has until recently been the beacon of truth we sometimes attribute to certain media icons of yesteryear such as Walter Cronkite. My basic point is to show that Presidents of the past and the media could sit down and be cordial, not combative and that the media personalities weren’t looking to make themselves a brand or sell you a book or play gotcha games. I also wanted to point out that those serving in the government weren’t looking for a big payday for when they leave government service. They weren’t looking to curry favor by leaking at every turn nor did they regularly allow political ideology to take precedence over their oath of office. Today, we see far too many in the media who are called “media-personalities”, not journalists or reporters, far too many are being called commentators or an opinion journalist. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as an “opinion journalist,” either you’re getting at the truth or you’re not and if you’re only giving your opinion, no matter how educated, you’re not a journalist. My hope is the leaks we’re seeing and the political games the media currently plays isn’t something we’re going to see in the decades to come, obviously this will be up to every citizen saying enough. I pray we can reign in our media and those future Presidents can trust that their conversations aren’t going to be leaked or placed under idiotic political scrutiny.
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Author’s Notes and Disclosure: I removed some starts and stops in the questions and answers, the “uhs” and “ahs” and the stutters, repeating of words, as well as parts that were obvious sidebars or laughter, jokes, etc. Given this was a conversation, I added basic punctuation and corrections to misspelled words in the transcript. This is my reference material: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GolP-zmeqZM
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