Excerpts from the Press Conference Held for Journalism School Faculty
THE PRESIDENT: Glad to see you! Mr. Martin, will you and Mr. Olsen come and stand in behind the barrier and protect me? (Laughter) I thought we would treat this group just like any other Press Conference. All right, Gus!
(The main group was ushered in.)
How many of these people coming in are students?Mr. Martin: None; they are faculty members, and all of them, I think, have had years of newspaper experience.
THE PRESIDENT: Gather right around, right up to the desk, just like the press.
MR. MARTIN; All in, Sir!
THE PRESIDENT: I was just telling Dean Martin and Mr. Olsen I thought we would run this just as if it were a regular Press Conference. I asked Dean Martin and Mr. Olsen in here to protect me, the way Steve Early and Marvin McIntyre protect me at the regular press conferences. You came in rather slowly and diffidently; the regular conference come in very fast and noisily and crowd up just as close as they can get.
I am tremendously interested in the schools of journalism in this country. I think they are doing a very fine job. I understand nearly all of you have had a number of years' experience before taking up your teaching capacities.
Are there any questions you want to ask in regard to press conferences or otherwise? Of course this is off the record-like the regular press conferences! (Laughter)
Q. Mr. President, what about the press conferences?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it is a grand idea. I got my first training in the old Navy Department days. We had a press conference-the Secretary or the Acting Secretary—once or twice a day, which was quite a strain. . . .
I think press conferences are very helpful. Of course in Albany I carried on the same system. We had conferences there not always twice a day, but sometimes; here we have them twice a week—on Tuesday afternoon for the morning paper people, and Friday morning for the afternoon-paper people. They ask all kinds of questions. I think it is very effective in straightening out a good deal in the way of misconception and lack of understanding that arise because of the infinite variety of new experiences in Washington.
MR. EARLY: You might tell them about the Canadian trade conference and the special conference.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. Occasionally we have special conferences, such as when we explain the textbook. The textbook every year is the Budget; and at that time I have in the people primarily who are going to write the Budget stories—either the heads of bureaus here or the people who are interested in the financial picture. We go over the Budget message that is to go up to Congress the following day, and take it apart. Anybody can ask any question he wants about it.
Of course the Budget message is a terribly difficult thing to write a good accurate story about. The average of the newspaper profession knows less about dollars and cents—c-e-n-t-s—than almost any other profession—except possibly the clergy. That is the reason for a great many of these perfectly crazy, wild stories that come out of Washington about Government finances, though I am trying all I can to keep the accuracy of these financial stories on a little higher level.
Q. Don't you think the conference, as a whole, leads toward accuracy?
THE PRESIDENT: I think so, very much.
Q. Do you have any trouble at all with intentional violations?
THE PRESIDENT: Only from a very small percentage of the press. . . .
Q. You do have to give a certain amount of background material that is "off the record"?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q. Do these correspondents cause you quite a lot of trouble and put you "on the spot"?
THE PRESIDENT: A great deal! Then of course here is another thing: they get a lot of queries sent to them from their own desks. Some are perfect fool questions, but they have to present them in order to retain their jobs. They do not want to. And they may get quite a tart answer from me, but they have to do it. That is one of the great difficulties the average newspaper man labors under in this town and any other town-the orders from the desk. Of course the order from the desk isn't always the fault of the fellow who is running the desk; it nearly always traces back to the man who owns the paper.
Q. You haven't found it necessary, as some previous Administrations have done, to have the correspondents submit questions in writing?
THE PRESIDENT; No, I take "pot luck" on that. It works out, on the whole, very well and is rather stimulating.
I'll tell you another thing: I know when a question is either a "planted" question or a question that is sent to them from their editors; but taking it by and large, the run of my conference questions usually gives me a sense of public opinion-of how a subject is going to be treated. What they are looking for is perfectly legitimate stories.
A word as to the relative value of news: Sometimes I think a perfectly tremendous matter of very great importance is going to be the subject of the press conference, and I get ready. It is obvious to me that that is the news; and when the conference comes, nobody asks me about it! (Laughter)
Q. What is the relationship of your conferences in the White House to other department conferences, if any?
THE PRESIDENT; None at all. I do think the other departments have people that come in to check on what I have said, and then tell the-chiefs of their own departments what I have said. There is a type of story which it is almost impossible to control—and yet I suppose it is because all the departments are readily accessible to the press and questioning—and that is the story which is built up on what the chief clerk in the Interior Department says to some newspaper friend; what the Assistant Secretary of Commerce says; what the Third Assistant Secretary of State says, et cetera.
A newspaper man down here will very often say, "I have to write a good story on such and such a policy." He goes around and collects a dab of information here and there and the other place, without any relation to each other. Having got all these dabs of information, he sits down and goes through a process of mental evolution. He says if this is so, that will follow, and something else will follow because there is a little suggestion of it in what somebody has said. The interesting thing is that things built up on that kind of background of information are nearly always wrong. It is not a good way to write a story. It is a case based on many individual premises that in most cases do not dovetail in the picture; and it lays us open to criticism. . . .
Q. If the newspapers desire information between conferences, they can get it from the Secretary?
THE PRESIDENT; Yes, Steve (Early, Secretary to the President) is out there in the room next to theirs, and if anything comes up in the middle of a day, they ask Steve about it.
Then, there is one thing that is always a little difficult, and that is the people who come to call on me. A great many of them want to get publicity out of the call for themselves. It is perfectly natural. They come in. We may talk about the weather and glittering generalities and the individual's family and things like that; and then he goes out and announces to the boys outside—the press— that he has taken up such and such a new dam or irrigation system with me (laughter), which is of course immediately telegraphed back to his home district. (Prolonged laughter)
There is also the fellow who occasionally does misquote. Of course they are not supposed to quote at all, but that is a thing we have to take a chance on. . . .
THE PRESIDENT: You have a very great responsibility. There is one problem in journalism, as in law, in medicine, and in other professions, which one hesitates always to talk about in any profession. But as you are teaching youngsters I think it is fair to bring it before them— and that is this ethical question: How long should a man stay on a paper and, in order to retain his job, write things, under orders, he doesn't believe are true or that he thinks are unfair, personally? As I say, that is not a problem that is peculiar to journalism. Nevertheless, it is a problem, and it has been a constant problem down here. With a great many newspapers in this country, the tendency has been in the last, I would say, six or eight years, more than during the entire previous time that I have been in public life, to color news stories. That tendency has been growing; and I think it is a terribly dangerous thing for the future of journalism. . . .
There is a growing tendency on the part of the public not to believe what they read in a certain type of newspaper. I think it is not the editorial end, because, as you know, very few people read the editorials. . . .
Lack of confidence in the press today is not because of the editorials but because of the colored news stories and the failure on the part of some papers to print the news. Very often, as you know, they will kill a story if it is contrary to the policy of the owner of the paper. It is not the man at the desk in most cases. It is not the reporter. It goes back to the owner of the paper.
Q. You find that particularly true in politics and Government.
THE PRESIDENT: And many other things. Not only Government but I think a great many other matters, such as crime news.
Q. Is there any remedy?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know enough about it. (Pause) It is good to see you all.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Held for Journalism School Faculty Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/208373