For the 90th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt becoming president, author Harold Holzer discusses FDR’s relationship with the press and public relations, as well as his mastery of mass communication, in the 122nd episode of the Journalism History podcast.
Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City. He received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2008.
Harold Holzer: He had an understanding that great communicators have if the technology and the man and the moment meet, and that’s happened only a few times in our history.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. 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.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at Journalism-History.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
He led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II and is undoubtedly remembered as one of the greatest mass communicators in U.S. history. As today’s guest notes, few incoming presidents were more gifted or better prepared in the art of public persuasion and press relations than Franklin Roosevelt. In this episode to mark the 90th anniversary of Roosevelt becoming president in 1933, we examine the legacy of FDR and the media. Our guest, Harold Holzer, is the author of the book The Presidents Vs. the Press. Harold, welcome to the show.
Let’s start out talking about the media experience that Roosevelt had before he became president. For one, he was editor of the Harvard Crimson, but he also had an opportunity to pretty directly observe other presidents in action. Talk about what he learned about media relations that helped him later.
Harold Holzer: Thank you for having me, of course, and yes, he did learn from some pretty extraordinary teachers.
He was, of course, married to a bride who was given away by the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, and probably understood about presidential photo opportunities because Roosevelt would only consent to come to New York for Eleanor and Franklin’s wedding if it could be held on St. Patrick’s Day so that he could also be the grand – well, be in the – in the grandstand at New York’s big parade. So there was a – an interesting object lesson. He also worked in the Woodrow Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the Navy and dealt often with Wilson and his staff on how much information he could divulge about the activities of the Navy Department. He was practically the de facto cabinet member because the secretary was kind of happy to have someone do the work.
And he also held press briefings and learned an art from Wilson that he later carried on in his own presidency. And that was conducting off-the-record press conferences. So I’ll leave it there, but you’re absolutely right, he had extraordinary access and experience from those – from those presidents.
Teri Finneman: Like Lincoln, people nowadays admire Roosevelt and don’t think about the controversy and immense dislike that he generated during his time. You note that he faced powerful opposition from many of the nation’s newspapers when he ran for office and publishers were 4 to 1 against him in 1936. Why was that?
Harold Holzer: Well, yeah, it is extraordinary and, of course, he got around that by befriending reporters and photographers and kind of uniting with them in their disdain for their owners and their bosses.
Um, he never in any of his four elections had majority editorial support from the nation’s newspapers. And that was because the big chains like the Hearsts and the Pattersons in New York and their – their cousins in Chicago were firmly in the Republican camp and, frankly, horrified by the New Deal. They saw Communists under every bed in the White House and feared that everything Roosevelt was doing was going to stir the kind of labor expectation, not even unrest, that would eat into their own profits. So he – it’s – it is extraordinary, particularly in 1936 when he won 46 out of 48 states. He still did not have majority editorial support. And he – it infuriated him, no question about it.
Teri Finneman: FDR’s polio severely impacted the use of his legs, a fact that every journalist at the time who covered him knew about.
Yet they did not provide news coverage explaining the extent of his disability. Talk about the relationship between FDR and the press on this matter, not only in print but also in photography. Uh, you know, one of the facts that you mentioned in your book is that there was a review of 35,000 photos of Roosevelt and there were only two showing him in a wheelchair.
Harold Holzer: And in one of those – or as a result of one of those photographs when he was visiting Walter Reed Navy Hospital and was being pushed by an aide – the Navy passed a rule that photographers were not allowed anywhere at the institution, probably in reaction to that. So one would think that it was an official edict, but it didn’t start out that way. Roosevelt just – he somehow inspired sympathy in ordinary newsroom types, reporters and photographers.
I searched in vain for kind of a smoking gun where Roosevelt would offer something in return like a scoop or an exclusive and – and for which he might get back sympathetic coverage. But all I found were a few comments from photographers who said, well, he was such a nice man. He was trying so hard, we didn’t want to add to his burdens. I work in – I’m speaking to you now, Teri, from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s New York City home, I’m speaking to you from his mother’s bedroom.
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow.
Harold Holzer: Well, no longer her bedroom, but that’s where I work every day at Hunter College.
Teri Finneman: That’s fascinating.
Harold Holzer: Yeah, it’s really – it’s extraordinary because right downstairs is where he gave his first fireside chat and where he built the parameters of the New Deal during his transition. But anyway, we have one photograph on display showing him walking down the steps of – well, not quite walking.
He’s holding onto a railing that no longer exists and, you know, thrusting his legs down step by step. They were probably swinging in the air until he grounded them. A photographer took a picture here 90 years ago. And the – from the Daily News, the biggest news – the biggest circulating newspaper in the country at that time. And it was not published. It was rescued and given to us as a gift. And that’s because it showed his braces beneath his shoes. Even though he was on his feet and seeming to be walking, which is this illusion he created. It was just a – the most extraordinary gentleman’s agreement.
Now, it would never happen today. One of the things Roosevelt did before his – the election is go to one magazine and challenge them. This was kind of for show.
Challenge them to find out the details of his health. And then he arranged that doctors give overly optimistic, in fact, inaccurate reports about his good blood pressure, which wasn’t true, and his strength, which certainly was not terrific. And Liberty Magazine I think it was, which no longer exists, and that was a setup that would never play today. But again, it was such enormous goodwill between Roosevelt and the press that it did happen and it somehow passed muster. Now, during World War II, there were more official rules. And because it was a time of military emergency, reporters specifically were required not to take photographs of him showing him in a weakened or compromised position.
There was allegedly one time when he was getting off a ship and fell to the ground on the gangplank, a photographer took the picture and the Secret Service just took his camera away, emptied it, and that was the end of that record. A photographer took a picture of him accepting his fourth nomination, a day he was not doing well and looked terribly ashen and thin, was thrown out of the presidential press corps. So it did get tough during the war. But it was based on this amazing understanding.
Teri Finneman: Roosevelt was really a technology visionary for his time and saw the huge potential of radio. One could really think of it as like the social media of today where people can bypass the gatekeepers of the mainstream press and talk directly to the public. You note that FDR forever upended relations between presidents and the press by doing this. Why was FDR so effective over the radio?
Harold Holzer: Well, first of all as you – as you point out, he had an understanding that great communicators have if the technology and the man and the moment meet, and that’s happened only a few times in our history. Um, and just to jump ahead, one thinks of Kennedy and his mastery of television and Donald Trump and his mastery of social media, Twitter, etc. And that’s because they know how to do it and they have the right equipment for it. Trump’s correct equipment was that it seems that all he ever did was tweet and be provocative on Twitter. That was his MO.
Kennedy because of his looks and his voice was perfect for – for television. And Roosevelt, who came to office at the crest of the development of network radio, the great radio shows that were listened to by so many millions,
also was blessed with an absolutely beautiful speaking voice. Yes, he had a patrician accent, which didn’t seem to forfeit for him the affection that the nation’s poorest people had for him. But he also had that great vocal instrument and what’s more, he knew how to deploy it. He did not bray on the radio like I’m probably doing on this podcast. But –
Teri Finneman: [Laughs].
Harold Holzer: He did not – he – and if you listen to Hoover or Landon, his two opponents in ’32 and ’36, they did not really speak to the radio. They were speaking and the radio was capturing what they were saying. Well, he, you know, caressed the microphone. And the other – I love this story and I just –
to show you how onto and into the medium he was, he probably had a capped tooth and he was always worried that it was going to whistle when he spoke. He always took the cap out before he entered the map room or whatever room he was broadcasting from so that there wouldn’t be any extra noise coming out of his mouth.
Teri Finneman: That’s a fascinating little trivia bit.
Harold Holzer: Isn’t it a great tidbit? And by the way, anyone who wants to hear his fireside chats, all 28 of them, or the first one, which doesn’t count, but the one he did from right here in Roosevelt House, which was also recorded by the newsreels, they just – just have to go online. Some of them are quite extraordinary like his D-Day prayer, which he wrote himself. But just, you know, a combination of understanding, the technology had just become available, and his – the vocal instrument that he was blessed with.
Teri Finneman: Press conferences were also a critical tool for Roosevelt as he hosted almost 1,000 during his 12 years in office. Today, it’s not easy for the White House press corps to access the president, and there are complaints that there aren’t enough press conferences. So why did Roosevelt have so many press conferences?
Harold Holzer: Once again, he was convinced of his own ability to control, manipulate, entertain the press. And, you know, he liked having them in the tent. He liked having them where he could see them. And he liked being the messenger for his own administration on both domestic and foreign affairs. So he built on this tradition of – of press conferences that already existed and changed them by not requiring that reporters submit the questions in advance.
He was just a two-a-week press conference guy, and – and they took place in the White House and Hyde Park and Warm Springs, on battleships, on destroyers, at summit conferences in Africa and – and Asia. It was the routine. Just a few days before he died, he held a press conference and anyone who thinks that he was really failing need only read the transcript. He barely let anyone else speak. He was so happy to be back before the press. But I think part of it was that he loved it.
Teri Finneman: What were some of the ground rules he had for the media during these? And also talk a little bit about how he planted questions.
Harold Holzer: Yes, well, he did – I’ll start with that because you brought it up. Yeah, if there was something he wanted to get out, he would plant it with the friendliest of the reporters. But the other ground rule with – the principle ground rule was that everything was off the record. Only the first one of the 996 or , I forget the number, were recorded.
But they were all transcribed, and they all survived in transcription. So the ground – first ground rule was it’s off the record unless you ask the president if it could be put on the record. And then he would usually ask his press secretary to, you know, mimeograph something, meaning put out a press release. After the first couple of press conferences, the other ground rule was, and this sounds kind of like yelling fire in a movie theater, but the door was locked because he thought it was – he thought reporters were straying outside during – while the press conferences were going on and giving in – and calling in stories while he was still, you know, sharing them.
So that – the reporters were locked in. There’s the other ground rules were, you know, he did most of the press conferences from his – from the Oval Office, from his desk.
The reporters encircled him. He was always seated at his chair, no wheelchair in sight. Photographers were allowed occasionally. There was a lot of banter while people filed in. The senior guys, and I say guys on purpose, were given the front, you know, the closest access. And I think the most extraordinary thing was the banter. You know, where did you get that suit? Let’s make this fast so you guys can go fishing or play golf. Um, again, that kind of endearment went a long way. And just to get back to the overwhelmingly male press corps, very, very few women.
And the ones who were there got teased. Today, they would be reported to HR. But Roosevelt was one of the teasers. Uh, you know, do we need to get a special seat for you? Do you need hair and makeup, that kind of thing.
It’s amazing what the culture endured and what women endured to be in the workplace. By the way, Eleanor was having 300 of her own press conferences, usually once a week in the White House for women only. So this was a press savvy administration.
Teri Finneman: Indeed, I’m glad that you mentioned Eleanor. I mean, we could obviously have a whole show about her.
Harold Holzer: I know.
Teri Finneman: And – and in a previous show, we do have Maurine Beasley talking a little bit about Eleanor’s legacy as well. But, yes, a phenomenal media power couple both of them, for sure. So from a PR perspective, Roosevelt also employed journalists at government departments and agencies to act as public information officers and pitch stories to the media, referred to by one person as Roosevelt’s propaganda trust. Talk about some of these strategic communication initiatives.
Harold Holzer: Well, Roosevelt discovered when he – as his cabinet did when they all got to Washington – was that the information officers at the departments basically waited until someone requested information.
And FDR made sure that it became a much more proactive operation, that they were actually publicizing the New Deal outreach. And there were hundreds of skilled journalists who not only knew how to get a story out, but had each lots of friends in we call – I was going to say the media, but in the newspaper world and maybe in radio as well – who could get stories out. There were two versions of this propaganda, Roosevelt propaganda machine. One was the peacetime operation, which was really, you know, promoting Roosevelt and the administration and the New Deal, which scared some people, not the more desperate, but – but many, including those newspapers and their publishers whom we spoke about a moment ago.
Uh, but after 19 – you know, January of 1942 or so, a propaganda unit took on a responsibility that were much more akin to government propaganda in World War I under Wilson’s political –under Roosevelt’s political hero, Woodrow Wilson. And that is aggressive promoting of American interests abroad, aggressive promoting of America in foreign consulates recruitment efforts, and also censorship that would prevent the dissemination of any information that could be useful to the enemy overseas or to spies or sympathizers in the United States. And suddenly, you know, Roosevelt propaganda was replaced by his beloved credo, loose lips sink ships.
So it was – and – and at the same time, Roosevelt hired the nation’s – oh, well, Roosevelt saw to it as a big, big movie fan that the nation’s leading movie directors were – joined the Army for a number of temporary stints because he thought movies should still be produced in Hollywood. But to take film, to make films really artistic and extraordinary films of Naval, Air Force, and Army operations. So you have Frank Capra and John Houston and George Stevens, among others, John Ford, filming in the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters of war. Creating, you know, propaganda documentaries supreme like Why We Fight, which is a classic. So not Leni Riefenstahl, but close in terms of propagandizing the war.
Teri Finneman: You note there were also significant problems with the Roosevelt administration’s media relations, including their treatment of the Black press.
It was February 1944, almost the end of his time as president, before the first Black White House correspondent was admitted, Harry McAlpin, from the Atlanta Daily World. So you talked a little bit about women earlier. Uh, talk about his administration’s stances toward the Black press as well.
Harold Holzer: Well, a few presidents had dealt with Black journalists separately and on equal – equally. Um, Woodrow Wilson infamously met with a Black journalist – and um, basically after a few challenging questions asked him to leave the Oval Office. So there was no tradition of granting equal access to the Black press.
And one has to remember, not forgive, but remember that FDR’s press secretary, Stephen Early, considered by many to be one of the greatest of all presidential press secretaries, certainly the first full-time, hands-on press person in the White House, was the collateral descendent of a Confederate general, Jubal Early. And he was a Dixiecrat, and he did not believe that Black journalists should be given equal access to the president. It was that simple.
And his excuse, you know, hard to believe excuse was that there was only room in the Oval for daily newspapers, a rotation of daily newspapers. He knew full well that the Black press was by tradition a weekly press. But he used that requirement as a means of exclusion or an excuse for exclusion.
What you mentioned that Harry McAlpin, who yes he was from the Atlanta Daily World, but the Atlanta Daily World and several other Black papers began a news service like a wire service. So now there was a Black news service, a Black AP, a Black UPI, you know, one organization to compete. And Stephen Early had no more excuses. But – but it wasn’t until 1944, like 800 of the 998 press conferences in, before McAlpin became the first Black reporter at a White House news conference. And, you know, Roosevelt greeted him very cordially. It’s in the transcript.
But I would add that in 1944 at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Roosevelt for the fourth and final time, the Black press box was a segregated press area from the white press box.
Teri Finneman: During the war, the administration created various offices of war information, including an office of censorship. Talk about FDR’s strategic communication and relationship with the press during World War II.
Harold Holzer: Well, we talked a bit about it. He did allow journalists to travel with him on to the summits and – in Casablanca and Yalta. If not with him, at least to get there and – and to have some access. Occasionally, he could be crabby and – and keep everybody out if he – if that was his mood. But there was kind of a remarkable exposure to the president. If you look at some of the press conferences he held onboard ship returning from Casablanca in – in 1943, for example, you notice that he did feel a responsibility to report to the extent that he could share the information with journalists and via the journalists to the American people.
He needed to communicate that the trips were worthwhile and – and productive and he did that to an extraordinary degree. And when we talked about censorship, there were times when he just didn’t answer questions at World War II era press conferences and once again, as we discussed at the very outset of the program, used fireside chats and newsreels to go through and around them to speak directly to the American people within the parameters that he chose.
Teri Finneman: At the end of Roosevelt’s life, journalists knew he was clearly unwell. Yet just as they hid his disability from the public, they did not report on how bad of shape he was actually in. Now, of course, media go overboard in the opposite direction today by reporting on the littlest thing about presidents, like when Joe Biden fell off his bike. What do you think –
Harold Holzer: Right.
Teri Finneman: Is the role of the press in the presidency?
Harold Holzer: Well, I think it’s evolved clearly and – and you mentioned the bike. Uh, Woodrow Wilson once threatened to punch a press photographer in the nose for taking a picture of his daughter on a bicycle, which was apparently considered, you know, scandalously unladylike or something. Um and, of course, it was Wilson who was sort of the father of obscuring health issues to the press. Um, most famously after his stroke while barnstorming for the League of Nations. The press was given a daily bulletin that assured people of Wilson’s slow but sure recovery. And, in fact, he was so sick that it was said that his wife was kind of running the executive operation for months.
And that was never shared with the public, and as I said, FDR learned a great deal of how to be president from the activism of – of TR and kind of the stealth operation of Woodrow Wilson. There’s a great story about Wilson, which I must say I did not use in my book, although I did get it into a new introduction I was able to write for the paperback edition. Wilson took a press corps to the – to the Versailles treaty discussions after World War I. And they were thrilled that they were going to be in the know. But then after the first few days and then after the first number of days, other world leaders were giving stories to their press corps.
But Wilson was not anywhere to be seen or heard, and they were furious. Well, the explanation was another active health concealment. Wilson had come down with what was called the Spanish Flu.
The deadly pandemic of 1917-18, and, it was days before he had recovered. Apparently, he had a very bad case. I just thought that – this is how prescient I wasn’t – I just thought, you know, we’re never going to have a pandemic again, why bother to write about something that’s so obscure and such a relic, such a relic of the time before modern medicine. So much for that. Um, but, yes, every time a president gets a colonoscopy or a vaccine, it is considered fair game. Have we gone too far? Probably not when two of the most powerful people in the world, the president and the speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi at the time of taping] are over 80. And when the former president is close to 80.
I think it’s probably fair game. I mean, in 20 years, 80 may be today’s 45, I don’t know. But right now, it invites and I think requires some degree of scrutiny over people’s physical and mental acuity. I think it’s fair.
Teri Finneman: So as I mentioned at the very top of the show talking about your book, you examined a, you know, a lot of presidents and – and the relationship with the press. What did you find most interesting about FDR and the media yourself?
Harold Holzer: I would say what I found most compelling about FDR’s relationship is something we’ve discussed earlier and that is the sympathetic turning away from the serious disability that limited his movements. It was just not gentlemanly to say he was in a wheelchair. It was just not appropriate to report that to get into a plane, train, or automobile, he had to be lifted like a doll.
It was something that was not on the need-to-know basis. And that’s just kind of – it’s kind of remarkable. Looking back at other presidents, you know, Lincoln – who I know more about, I suppose, most about among the presidents I’ve written on – caught smallpox at Gettysburg and was in bed for about two and a half weeks, and he was reported on, his illness was reported on. And people thought it was important that during a Civil War the president was – was, you know, unable to function. And Lincoln did not go to his office until December.
So I don’t know, it’s a fine line, it’s a very fine line. Um, but Roosevelt’s – the friendship and the esteem and the respect and, you know, the out-and-out affection that people had for FDR is – is extraordinary.
Replicated by Kennedy in a way, who palled around with journalist, but not by many. And how did he do it? Um, he invited them to use the White House pool and, you know, play water polo with him. Eleanor invited them to use the tennis courts, joking that, you know, president’s not going to use the tennis courts. Franklin and Eleanor had journalists to dinner, and they certainly didn’t come because of the food. They came because of the opportunity to pal around off the record with the president. They sent condolence letters and flowers when the journalist’s spouses or parents died or – or worse, when their children died in the war.
They were – they made an effort to befriend and keep close the journalists who were covering them. It’s an object lesson that you’d think subsequent presidents would have learned. But if you look at Johnson and Nixon and Trump, enemies lists become more important than invitation lists.
And I think Roosevelt taught us that invitation lists can be just as important.
Teri Finneman: So our final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?
Harold Holzer: Well, I guess the clichéd answer, but it’s a good answer, is that journalists write the first draft of history. And often they come back and write the second draft if they do memoirs or reminisces. And, boy, I just loved reading from the Lincoln era to the Roosevelt and Wilson era, through Roosevelt and the second Roosevelt and Kennedy, of course, forward, the books written by extraordinary journalists. You know, William Allen White set a standard for writing more than journalism and the people around the presidents wrote fascination stories about their experiences with the White House.
Most recently, Helen Thomas – she wrote four or five books. She repeated herself, but she had some great inside stories about the presidency. I mean, just thinking of her banging on the door, the locked door that separated the press room from the press secretary’s office in the Clinton administration was worth its weight in gold. So journalism matters because they are the source of history. I’ve just – just about almost like 99 percent finished with a book about immigration in the Lincoln era.
It’s the journalist to whom I’ve turned most often, it’s the editors, the war correspondents writing about ethnic groups, about the immigration issue. Sometimes reflecting public opinion, but often influencing public opinion with great power.
I mean, the medium or the media may be different now, but the message still goes through journalism. I hope that never changes because I think that filter has – has been of benefit to the body politic for 250 years.
Teri Finneman: Wonderful, well, I’m so glad we had you on the show today. As I told you before, I used your book in my presidency and the press class and the students really enjoyed it. It’s a wonderful book. Thank you so much for being on our show today.
Harold Holzer: Thank you, Teri, thank you for having me, and I hope students continue to express interest, not just in the book, but that’s nice, too, but in the subject. It’s so crucial.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Morrow, good night and good luck.