McCune Podcast: The First Presidential Press Secretary

podcastlogoFor the 95th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Nick Hirshon, Meghan Menard McCune reviews the career of Ray Stannard Baker, the chief spokesman for President Woodrow Wilson during the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.

Meghan Menard McCune is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication. Her research interests are media history and government public relations. McCune received the 2019 John Maxwell Hamilton Fellowship for Media and Public Affairs.
 

Transcript 

Meghan McCune: You can look back and see President Wilson’s example. When he distanced himself from reporters, when he tried to use Baker as just a spokesperson and not as a conduit to the press, you know, that really had negative effects on his overall agenda.

Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.

Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.

Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Nick Hirshon:  And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly –

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pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They are committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.

Long before Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Jen Psaki took the podium at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson called upon a soft-spoken journalist named Ray Stannard Baker to promote his vision of post-war peace to the American press. Baker had been a muckraking reporter in Chicago, covering labor unions, writing exposes on the railroad industry, and starting a progressive magazine with Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Then he heard Wilson’s rhetoric about spreading democracy across the globe after World War I, and he began a secret mission for the State Department that turned into a job directing Wilson’s press bureau during the Paris Peace Conference.

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Historians have usually agreed that Herbert Hoover had the first full-time White House press secretary. But new research argues that Baker deserves this distinction, and that his efforts to build a rapport with journalists epitomize the role of a press secretary in a democracy.

On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine Baker’s legacy with Meghan Menard McCune, a Ph.D. student in media and public affairs at Louisiana State University.

Well, Meghan, thank you for joining me today. We’re here to discuss research that you conducted with a previous guest, actually, on the Journalism History podcast, John Maxwell Hamilton. He appeared on Episode 86 last summer to discuss his book, Manipulating the Masses. That was about the propaganda spread during World War I by President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Relations. And President Wilson is at the heart of our conversation today, too.

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We’ll be discussing a journalist who you argue was, in effect, Wilson’s press secretary and indeed the nation’s first presidential press secretary, Ray Stannard Baker.

A little background here to start us off: Baker grew up in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. He went to college in Michigan. And then he moved to Chicago in 1892 to become a reporter. This was a time, you write, of rapid change in journalism. From 1870 to 1909, the number of daily newspapers jumped from 574 to 2,600, and total circulation reached more than 24 million.

So, Baker worked at the Chicago Record and then McClure’s Magazine. Can we start off by talking about his first few decades as a reporter before he meets Wilson? What’s that like?

Meghan McCune: Okay, great. Yeah, so Baker is a really interesting, interesting character. And I think one of the keys to understanding him is that he was really always striving for understanding. He called himself a maker of understanding. That’s how he saw his role as a journalist.

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 And, as you mentioned, he was born in the 1870s in the Midwest, and so he lived through a lot of significant moments of American history. And so, his journey is kind of tracking his effort to understand these changing moments in American history and how he kind of fit into his new role.

And so when he started out as a reporter, he was really interested in labor issues, but he didn’t – he never painted anything as simple. You know, he was always trying to find the complexity of issues, and I think that’s really the key to understanding him. So he wasn’t very quick to draw conclusions, you know, just always after that search for understanding.

Nick Hirshon: And you describe him in the paper as soft-spoken, judicious, but kind of interesting to hear that, as a journalist, he’s getting political. He supported Theodore Roosevelt in 1898, then Roosevelt takes office and Baker feels that he’s too weak on social reform. And then in 1916, Baker starts campaigning –

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 for Wilson. And he was apparently swept up by Wilson’s rhetoric about making the world “safe for democracy.” So, what did Baker see in Wilson particularly?

Meghan McCune: I think he saw, really, an answer to the issues of – that progressives were focused on, all these domestic issues. And through his reporting of labor issues, he saw Wilson as really a champion to some of those progressive reforms.

And he, it is important to note, that he had a big falling out with Roosevelt, when Roosevelt discredited, in a way, the muckrakers. And, of course, Baker saw muckraking as really important to Theodore Roosevelt’s agenda and he had often complimented Baker’s reporting. And so that really kind of, you know, put a dent in their friendship and so Baker was looking for someone else to support and then along comes Wilson.

And Baker was able to interview Wilson before the 1916 –

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I mean, before the 1912 election, and he really found in Wilson what he was missing from his relationship with Roosevelt.

Nick Hirshon: And, interesting here, cause we’re going to get into that relationship that a journalist might have with a politician that certainly there’s different standards for today than there may have been back then. And this goes right to the point of, in February 1918, Baker begins a nearly year-long mission as a special assistant to the Department of State while he’s still presenting himself as a journalist. He traveled to Europe to assist the outlook of the liberal and labor groups that Wilson needed for a cooperative peace.

He’s acting under, what you call in your paper, a kind of plan for camouflage because he’s ostensibly a correspondent during this trip for the New Republic and the New York World, but he’s not writing for publication. And as a former reporter myself, I’m reading this being struck by the fact that someone in a profession now known for neutrality – you wouldn’t be taking sides of a certain politician – is not only campaigning for Wilson –

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but then he represents Wilson abroad. And he’s misrepresenting himself as a correspondent when he’s not really writing as a correspondent. So maybe you can parse some of that for us. It’s obviously something that would be considered ethically unacceptable today, but how did Baker get away with that in his time?

Meghan McCune: Yeah, so that’s a great question, and this kind of ties into how we came across and how we started this research. As you mentioned, Dr. Hamilton wrote the book Manipulating the Masses on Wilson and the CPI, and so he discusses Baker’s role in Paris then. But also how Baker gets involved in Paris is that he was on the secret mission with the State Department.

And so my dissertation research looks at Baker and other journalists who filled these roles, where I call them government agents. They were, in some cases, they worked behind the scenes; in some cases they worked publicly for the government.

But Baker is really an interesting case because he continued his – he was not reporting, right, he was acting as a reporter –

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 and that camouflage, plan of camouflage, actually gave him tremendous access. And so he was able to get interviews and talk to people in different positions of power in order to report back for the government.

And I think, you know, it certainly was the lines of – the ethical lines that we’ve drawn today for journalists were certainly not drawn then. There was a lot of blurriness there with the relationship between government and the press. And so these lines were crossed, and I think it was certainly the effect of war, right?

Total war, where everyone is feeling that they have to contribute to the war effort. But for Baker, it also goes back to this idea that he is a maker of understanding. At first, when the, when the U.S. entered the war, a lot of progressives were against us, right? They wanted to stay home and focus on their domestic reform. They thought that the war would be a distraction to that. A lot of them were swept up–  

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in this Wilsonian rhetoric of a war to make the world safe for democracy. And for Baker, he didn’t see a role for himself at the beginning of the war. But then he really saw that he could fill this need as a maker of understanding.

He thought that, you know, he had tremendous faith in Wilson’s plan for peace and his Fourteen Points. And so he felt that with getting information, right, with publicity, even though it wasn’t widespread publicity – publicity to the Wilson administration, he could ultimately help the administration in their effort that he had, you know, really a lot of respect and hope for.

Nick Hirshon: You have this quote in the piece that you wrote when Baker was writing in March 1906, in McClure’s. He’s doing this exposé on the railroad publicity machine. And he says, “The more true publicity there is, the better. For the public mind should not only be made up, but made up right.”

And you describe how he has this reverence –

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for publicity, which has a different meaning today. It’s kind of used in maybe more of a negative connotation of self-promotion or somehow shamelessly spreading misinformation about yourself or your company. But back then it had a kind of a respect for the public.

So then his, Baker’s special assignment ends, and he moves into the role that’s at the crux of the research really we’re going to be talking about. He had spent nearly a year in Europe, and he was eager to return home to Massachusetts, but Wilson offers him the publicity position in Paris. And Baker describes how he has “many misgivings” about the position. He thought he lacked the executive and semi-political qualifications for this job, but ultimately, we know he accepts it. So why did he do that?

Meghan McCune: I think he accepted – well, he accepted it first after a meeting with Wilson, so he has a discussion with Wilson’s advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, and he kind of shares his misgivings. He really did want to return home. He was on the job for an –

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extended period of time where he was traveling all over Europe.

So they tell him – House and other advisors tell him to go talk to Wilson. And so in this meeting, he is really convinced by Wilson’s plan that, you know, this is a historic moment and he had an opportunity to play a role here.

And then again, he could be kind of this maker of understanding. He could, you know, act as not only as spokesperson for Wilson but really an advocate for the press.

Nick Hirshon: And so he takes this role with reservations. In December 1918, right after he started, he writes in his diary – it’s also great, by the way, you have so much of his diary in here. It’s not often that we get to hear directly from people, at the moment, as they’re mulling these different decisions and really voicing misgivings that we otherwise would know about. So it’s terrific that your paper includes so much of that. But he writes in his diary in –

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 December of 1918, “Never busier in my life, getting the new publicity department underway.” So describe for us what was keeping him so busy? What were some of the main projects and objectives he had for Wilson?

Meghan McCune: So, he had 150 American correspondents in Paris that he was in charge of managing. So, it’s a huge, huge amount of – a big group and a lot of different responsibilities. So, he was in charge of communicating with the commission and trying to get news out of Wilson. And then he was also working with very news-hungry reporters. And they were having trouble, especially at first, getting news. And so he’s setting up an office. He’s expecting a lot of reporters to call him and to, you know, keep on trying to get news. And so he’s aware that the reporters are going to be a big issue for him.

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But actually what turns out, what ends up happening is that Wilson was the greater detriment to his fulfilling his role that he had so much hope for.

Nick Hirshon: Well then, let’s get into that relationship between Baker and Wilson. As you said, you know, Baker has reservations and frustrations over the limits that Wilson’s imposing on his work. At one point, Baker writes in his diary, “He” – referring to Wilson – “depends on publicity for his support and power, and yet he dreads publicity.”

 Meanwhile, you say later in the paper Wilson seems to like Baker for the most part. He described him in one letter as a man of ability, vision, and ideals. Of course, what he’s saying publicly might be different than what he feels internally.

So what of that relationship, the give and go between Wilson being reluctant maybe to talk to the press, reveal information, and Baker, as a former journalist, understanding that this publicity is the way to maybe advance Wilson’s agenda?

Meghan McCune: Right. So I think there was a lot of tension there.

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Wilson had a long history of kind of a strained relationship with the press, even before he got into – or right when he got into the White House, really. He starts biweekly press conferences when he enters the White House and then, you know, finds excuses to end those.  

You know, for Wilson he liked kind of lecturing from the podium and really disliked the kind of, the smaller, more intimate relationships with journalists, with the journalistic press corps. He really regretted that some of the things he would say would be published before any final decision was made. So for Wilson, the press should publicize already made decisions.

But for Baker, you know, Baker saw, as a journalist himself, saw tremendous value in publicizing ongoing negotiations and how decisions are made. And of course, he knew that that’s what reporters were most interested in in Paris.

He mentions many times in his diary that he, you know, challenged Wilson to, to meet with the press and often told him — and convinced him that sharing information with the press would help him.

And so he was able to do this on at least a few occasions where he was able to kind of pull information out of Wilson and –

 [ 00:15:00]

convince him that, you know, the press can be helpful here and we need to use the press. For Baker, the press was what he called ambassadors of public opinion. You know, they were there really fulfilling a democratic role in Paris and so to not use this resource was a great failure in Baker’s eyes.

Nick Hirshon: And I’ve mentioned now a few times Baker’s diary. We can understand maybe where you’d be able to pick up some of the publications that were covering Wilson at the time. You’d be able to find those in the archives and the work that Baker had done for McClure’s, for example, is, I’m sure, available somewhere.

But you have a lot of this great primary sourcing. Can you just discuss a little bit, like, where did you find all of this information? How’d you get such great insights into what these men were thinking at the time?

Meghan McCune: So I think one of the great things, and what I’ve learned through –

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my dissertation research especially was that one of the great things about studying journalists is that they leave so much writing behind. And Baker was just – he wrote all the time. He had numerous diaries. He wrote books. I mean, many, many articles. So, you know, having access to that material really did, like you said, it just gives you some insight into what they’re thinking as they’re going through this time. And for Baker, you know, he was very self-aware, and you can kind see that in his diary.He’s very self-reflective and so he really does question some of the decisions he makes and kind of lays out his thinking process, and so it’s really helpful as a researcher to be able to read through this.

Nick Hirshon: And so now we’re talking about the relationship that Baker had with Wilson, but also his relationship then with these reporters, his former brethren, who now he’s having to deal with their grievances.

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And very early in his time as press secretary, I guess about a month in, on January 12, 1919, Wilson met with leaders from France, Britain, and Italy behind a soundproof door, and the meeting ended, and Baker received only a single-sentence statement about what was discussed.

You described it in the paper as virtually worthless, just a list of three general topics that the leaders talked about, no details about what was said or which decisions were made. And the correspondents are understandably angry about this.

They already knew that, I guess, Wilson had this kind of testy or weird relationship with the press, so they’re alert to this. So how did Baker try to smooth that over and then interact with either Wilson or the reporters and eventually try to build more of a rapport with the press corps?

Meghan McCune: So to Baker’s credit, you know, he really did focus on building that trust with reporters. In a letter that he wrote to a friend in 1921, a few years after the conference, he says that what he’d really tried to do in Paris –

[ 00:18:00]

was do “the real work of publicity.” And for Baker that meant getting out as much information as he possibly could to – as far as he was permitted to do.

So he held briefings with correspondents every day and in one of the first meetings he promised them that he would be trustworthy. He included in his diary a paragraph that he had given to his reporter – that he had told the reporters and he said, you know, “I’m not going to lie to you.”

So that was one of the first things that he told the reporters. And he was very frank with them. “If I have information that I can tell you, I will tell you. And if I don’t think I can tell you, I’ll tell you that I don’t think I can tell you this information.” So he was very upfront with the reporters and very transparent. I mean, he knew that there were members in the press corps that disliked Wilson. And he knew there were some that were favorable to Wilson, but he knew for both of those groups the best way would be to be trustworthy and to be transparent.

[ 00:19:00]

And so that, to his credit, that is really what he worked to do.

And as far as with Wilson and the other leaders, you know, he really did push back on some of their efforts to kind of limit journalists’ access. And one of the greater, I think, examples of this was when the leaders decided to bar reporters, or not bar, but they decided to kind of limit the access that reporters had to the ceremony that – the ceremony in which Germany was given the treaty.

And so this meeting was in May 1919 and when Baker saw where they were going to put the press correspondents, he was just shocked that they were kind of in the “dugouts,” which is what some of the correspondents were calling the area. And so he went and he talked to Wilson. He arranged a meeting and they ultimately –

[ 00:20:00]

the leaders ultimately traveled to Versailles to see the area where the reporters were going to be. And in the end, he actually won greater access for those reporters to that ceremony.

Nick Hirshon: You’re getting into, actually, the point that I was going to ask you about next: What were some of his accomplishments as press secretary since he’s facing such an obstacle, and Wilson himself sometimes being resistant to the change here?

You conclude the paper by noting that Baker didn’t realize as much as he would’ve wanted his progressive vision of serving the public interest of worldwide publicity, because Wilson wasn’t earnestly engaged in that process. But he does have some achievements here, right, because he meets with Wilson every evening hoping to gather information that he can pass along to reporters. He does convince Wilson to leak information on occasion. So as you look back on Baker’s legacy overall as press secretary, what are some of those accomplishments?

Meghan McCune: Yeah, and this is great. I think that one of the –

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one of the trends we see in some of the literature is that there’s an effort, maybe to just kind of bypass or downplay Baker’s role for a few very good reasons.

One was that there was a media blackout in Paris. There was, you know, very limited access for reporters. The leaders of the conference barred reporters from closed-door negotiations and limited discussions that leaders could have with the press about those discussions. And so what Baker – what we argue in the paper is that Baker actually did have some successes, right?

And even despite this media blackout and despite Wilson’s distance from reporters, he really did, you know, as we mentioned, kind of tried to build a trustful, you know, relationship with the reporters based on trust. He pushed back on a lot of the efforts with the leaders and especially with Wilson.

He was also innovative, and I think one of the prime examples of this is that he –

[ 00:22:00]

before the negotiations really got started, there was a lot of reporters in Paris looking for news, and without much to report. And Baker kind of noticed that some of the European reporters were able to discuss the background of issues and were able to kind of write up what kind of discussions, negotiations might be coming and how that might play with historical background information.

 So, what Baker did was he got experts that were involved in the American Peace Commission. He got them to write briefing papers about some of the decisions that would come up.Some of the negotiations that were at play in the negotiations. Then he distributed those to the correspondents. So this was a way to really get them some information, some news, something to write and talk about. And he found tremendous success with those briefing papers.

[00:23:00]

Nick Hirshon: Well, and so there’s a few different values here to the research that you’ve done. One is just, it’s really interesting to learn the nuances of how Baker’s interacting with Wilson and the press corps, and any press secretary, how they interact with the reporters and with the president. But specifically with your paper, there’s this larger, broader argument that your research is significant because Baker was the first presidential press secretary. So can you describe why is that important? What contribution are you making here to the literature about press secretaries?

Meghan McCune: Yeah. So to go back a little bit, George Akerson of the Herbert Hoover administration is often identified as kind of, in effect, the first press secretary. He briefed reporters daily and he was seen as a spokesperson for the president. And then the first person to officially have that title was Stephen Early in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. So we argue, though, really that that Baker deserves this title because he was the first full-time presidential press secretary.

[ 00:24:00]

Um, and so a few reasons that he deserves this title. One, he was working full time in press relations.He was a personal intermediary with the press. And this really distinguishes him from presidential secretaries in previous administrations who maybe interacted with the press from time to time. And there was a lot of individuals in Wilson’s orbit who interacted with the press. Wilson’s secretary, for example, you know, often met with the press, tried to manage press, but he also had tremendous other amount of responsibilities, right? That was not his full-time job.

So when Baker’s hired, that is his full-time job, is press relations. And he is seen as a spokesperson for the president. And he did a lot of the things that we consider, you know, what the role of press secretary today. He wrote and publicized statements on the president’s behalf. He held daily briefings with reporters. He traveled with the president. He distributed conference session passes to journalists. And he met with the president and other commission leaders –

[ 00:25:00]   

to stay informed and to pass along information with reporters.

Nick Hirshon: So definitely an original, new contribution to the research, and we appreciate what you’re adding there. I wonder then, if you look at the press secretaries since Baker, what sort of conclusions you draw. I noted earlier you said that Baker told the reporters, “I’m not going to lie to you,” and I feel like we’ve heard that a lot from press secretaries over the years. And we’ve also had a lot of press secretaries who have dabbled in journalism before they came into the role.

We had Jay Carney, more recently, with President Obama. And then we had a lot of people who maybe were not involved in journalism before, but they used the platform of being the White House press secretary to then land a lot of media opportunities.  And we have people in recent years from the Trump administration – Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kayleigh McEnany – who, you know, had been seen maybe already here and there as surrogates to the media, but certainly ended up going on book tours –

[ 00:26:00]

and having a much larger media platform after their time in the White House. So what kind of conclusions did you draw about how the press secretary role has evolved over the years since Baker?

Meghan McCune: Yeah. So I think one of the important points of Baker’s role here is that he set an exceptional example as the first to have this position, we argue. You know, he really saw the role as a democratic position, right?

He really handled it as not just a spokesperson for the president, but he saw himself as an advocate for the press. And so I think that’s important to remember. And kind of what we argue is that for presidents especially you can look back and see President Wilson’s example. When he distanced himself from reporters, when he tried to use Baker as just a spokesperson and not as a conduit to the press, you know, that really had negative effects on his overall agenda. The treaty was not ratified, and a lot of scholars attribute that to –

[ 00:27:00]

his distance from the press and Paris. So one of the, you know, primary legacies that a president can leave is, of course, an appreciation for the democratic role, and a key to that is transparency. And so, for us, for – what we argue here is that Baker, because of that exceptional role, he can stand as an example for press secretaries in the future.

Nick Hirshon: And we thank you for adding him into that conversation where maybe he’s been excluded in the past.

 And the point that you make to close your piece here that public servants can leave no better legacy than respect for democracy. As you just said, this transparency.

So as we wrap up today’s episode, given the context of what we’ve been talking about, I’d like to pose a question to you that we ask all of our guests on the Journalism History podcast. Why does journalism history matter?

Meghan McCune: That’s a great question. And I think that – and one we always need to try to answer in various ways.

[ 00:28:00]

I think when, when I think about historical research, I think that the main goal is to answer that “so what?” question. And the way we do that, I think – or by answering that “so what?” question, we often see patterns in the past that can sometimes contribute to insights into the future and to contemporary issues.

So I think if we’re focusing on this “so what” question, we can go back and we can ask what is – what’s the point of Baker? Why does it matter that Baker was the first press secretary? And I think we can come back to that example that he set.And really, you know, we can see Baker in some of the trends that were ongoing during this time, right? So, he’s an example of the hope and optimism that journalists felt when they got to Paris. You know, Michael Schudson says that war is good for generals as it is for journalists, and a lot of these journalists came to Paris with the end of wartime censorship, thinking that –

[ 00:29:00]

you know, this was really going to be a time for publicity and a time for transparency and a new diplomacy and then they are kind of disillusioned.

And Baker really kind of tries to hold that – shows us that pattern evolving, you know, where he comes to Paris really advocating for a democratic role of the press secretary, where he tries to really fill that role and he does so very well, but in the end, it’s this kind of backward trend toward closed-door negotiations that really limit his ability to fill that role.

Nick Hirshon: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for contributing this terrific article to our discussion. We appreciate the time today on the Journalism History podcast.

Meghan McCune: Thanks so much.

Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal.

[ 00:30:00]

Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”

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