Friday, November 14, 2014

The Origin of the Presidential Press Conference

One of our favorite e-mails most mornings comes from Delanceyplace, which sends a brief excerpt from a notable nonfiction book. It’s always informative, and usually fascinating.

Today’s is a particular treat for anyone interested in media relations or public affairs. It’s from “Wilson,” a biography of the former president by A. Scott Berg, and it describes the origins of the institution known as the presidential press briefing.

On March 15, 1913, Wilson invited 125 reporters into his office to talk to them as a group and even answer questions. It was unprecedented. Before that, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, for example, would occasionally select friendly members of the press for informal discussions and sometimes even a brief Q&A session – but never an open press conference.

Wilson knew he was especially good at extemporaneous speaking, and wanted to take advantage of that talent. Sure enough, the press briefing was a big hit. The New York Times wrote: “There was something so unaffected and honest about his way of talking … that it won everybody, despite the fact that many of the men there had come prejudiced against him.”

Wilson was also the first president since John Quincy Adams to deliver the State of the Union Address in person, speaking before a joint session of Congress. He began that address – all of nine minutes long – with an explanation: he wanted to show that the President “is a person, not a mere department of the Government [but] a human being trying to cooperate with other human beings in a common service.” It sounds as if the same reasoning could be applied to the press briefing.

He was clearly satisfied with the results. In the next nine months he arranged 60 more press briefings. And an institution was born, for better or worse.

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