Kennedy Crises: Press, Presidency, and Foreign Policy

The article, “The Kennedy Crises: The Press, the Presidency and Foreign Policy” uses the four main crises that took place during Kennedy’s presidency as empirical evidence to analyze the role of the press in the formulation of a country’s policies, particularly those concerning foreign affairs. The main argument that the article analyses in this connection are whether the press has considerable influence over the president in his policy-making or that the president dominates the relationship. Another major aspect that the article examines is how competing political forces are at work on an issue.

According to the article, the pressure that the press puts on a president is affected by the professional settings and political environment of the reporters, editors, and columnists; as such the press is a reflective institution. Two major elements determine whether the press or the president has the dominating influence: the strength of the critique developing in the papers during a period of domestic criticism and the divides existing in the administration. The president dominates the press coverage primarily in situations where competing forces don’t appear with force among influential circles. In the early phases of all the four crises i.e. Laotian, Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam, the press assisted in defining issues that originated elsewhere than the press. Studying the press in these crises clearly shows that the press may be free, but not always independent as they are capable of highlighting some issues and playing down others.

The main reasons put forth by the article for the press being a reflective institution are 1) determination of timing of issues by the government, domestic politicians, or other public segments or interest groups. 2) Partisanship of the press as the publishers, editors and columnists often take positions based not on the merits of an issue but support for a politician, ideological faction, or a party. And 3) Pitching coverage to readership orientations.

Because of the reflective nature of the press, the president can greatly influence it if his competition is not very strong. Politicians, whether supportive or in opposition are often given greater coverage in the press for three reasons: politicians either already possess or are contenders of power, their views carry a ‘primary news value’ as they often involve conflict, and because giving coverage to politicians who oppose the administration is viewed by reporters as responsible journalism.

The president can enhance his ability to influence the press by developing and adopting skillful press strategies. The president can carefully orchestrate his influence on the press through selective, purposeful leaks to friendly reporters and columnists, new pronouncements that snatch away the first page, and provision of interviews to journalists of varied ideological perspectives.

Poor press strategies, on the other hand, can reduce a president’s effectiveness with the press. In the 1960s withholding information on a cardinally important issue which can then be revealed from other sources was viewed as a poor press strategy, as was the case with Kennedy withholding information about Khrushchev’s ultimatum on Germany in June 1961. However, press strategies alone do not determine presidential effectiveness with the press. A proof of this is indicated by the fact that the high press-visibility approach adopted by Kennedy in September 1962, involving press conferences, policy announcements, and a military buildup did not turn the press away from the Republican critique. Partisanship was found more effective in that scenario.

The press becomes a challenge for the president if he is going through a period of indecision; as was seen in the early stages of the Berlin crises, in this case, the void created causes confusion and questioning by the supporting as well as opposing parties which sensitize the press to the issue. The press also becomes a challenge when the opposition parties exploit the press partisanship and magnify an issue; this was the case with the issue of Cuba during an election which later on caused problems in the Vietnam issue.

Much has changed since the Kennedy reign. Although he had several advantages that the presidents today lack, he still faced many difficulties. The public has become more informed and no longer holds as common an opinion on foreign policy as it was in the recent post World War II years, thus making it difficult for the president to know the nature of public opinion. The press itself has changed since then while television news has taken up a much more prominent role. In the absence of domestic criticism, the president dominates television news coverage. But in conditions of internal policy debate and strong domestic criticism, the pressure builds on the president. Although the nature of media has changed, this alone is not responsible for the increased public relations challenges faced by presidents today. Society has also changed since the Kennedy years and contributes its share to these challenges.

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