Kennedy and the Media
Overall, John F. Kennedy has been well received in the media to this day. Hugh Sidney, the White House correspondent for Time magazine, put it this way: “We liked the guy. Just plain and simply, we liked the guy, and he liked us.”
Most presidents strive to have a good working relationship with the media to ensure a positive relationship with their people. However, only few accomplish this goal the way Kennedy did. Not just the good looks and natural charm, two things Kennedy definitely had, were the reason for this. It was also a lot of hard work of understanding the way the media functions and learning to present oneself in a favorable light.
JFK during press conference. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
In order to comprehend Kennedy’s excellent rapport with the press it is important to acknowledge Joseph P. Kennedy’s contribution to his son’s success. Long before the idea of JFK becoming president was thought of, his father had also had a career in politics among other endeavors, including producing movies in Hollywood. Here he not only made acquaintances with media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, but he also learned to create and cultivate his own public image and that of his entire family through opulent photo shoots in magazines such as Life as well as in newsreels. Hence, JFK had been accustomed to a public life from a very young age.
Through his father’s close relationship to the Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Arthur Krock, the young Harvard student was able to publish his senior thesis as a book. “Why England Slept” a bestseller in the United States, an achievement not many others could claim for themselves at that age, and an important stepping stone in Kennedy’s political career.
Another successful orchestrated media campaign turned John F. Kennedy into a war hero. During the Second World War he was the commander of the small torpedo boat PT-109 in the Pacific that was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy had personally saved some of his crewmen. He and his father used the opportunity to widen his national recognition by promoting a hero tale through the help of connections to large circulating magazines like Reader’s Digest, which reprinted an article on the incident from the New Yorker. Later, in the fifties, his engagement and marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier was, again, widely covered in the press. A cover story spread in Life magazine showed a young and beautiful couple with great ambitions and aspirations.
In the mid-twentieth century a relatively new form of media, the television, started to establish itself as one of the main sources of information for the American people. While most contemporaries did not seem to comprehend or even flat-out refused to realize the ever growing importance of this new medium, Kennedy, in stark contrast, was very well aware of its significance. During the fifties he and his wife Jackie appeared in numerous television shows such as Meet the Press or Person to Person, a program showcasing the lives of the rich and famous in their private homes.
Furthermore, even though Vice President Nixon also had experience with television, Kennedy seemed to have had an even better understanding of the power of television and how to apply it. Hence he had a clear advantage over Nixon, who was arguably more old-fashioned than his only slightly younger opponent.
Perhaps Nixon also underestimated the situation, and was thus less prepared than his opponent. During the First Presidential Debates of 1960 JFK was able to demonstrate all the media- savvy skills he had acquired growing up. In his campaign he opted for short five-minute spots rather than lengthy programs as Nixon did. As a result audiences were more likely to watch Kennedy’s compact, visually appealing, and modern ads, whereas Nixon’s longwinded and strictly factual spots tended to put people off.
Nixon-Kennedy Debate. AP Images / Picture Alliance
Once he became president, an idea thought of by Kennedy’s team as well as the media proved to be yet anotherinnovation that JFK mastered in a remarkable way, namely the live televised press conference. Despite being aware of potentially frustrating print reporters, whose importance was already diminishing through the rise of television, he was confident in his skills in front of a camera. But even more so, JFK knew it was a chance to reach the American people directly in their own four walls without being filtered by journalists. Moreover, he regularly used the press conferences for announcements and political statements, and he was able to shine with factual knowledge. During JFK’s presidency a majority of the American people were still inclined to believe in a president’s honesty and sincerity, this changed with his successors, Johnson and Nixon, especially after the latter's Watergate scandal. Another thing that helped, maybe not his political credibility, but certainly his credibility as a family man were the pictures published by the White House of his children playing in the Oval Office.
Children playing in the Oval Office. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston/Cecil Stoughton, White House
His easy-going relationship with the reporters and use of witty remarks was unprecedented at the time. Today we are more used to this kind of behavior as for example with Presidents Clinton and Obama, who were distinctly inspired by Kennedy’s interaction with the press, and who were were similarly laid-back in their dealings with the press. Today, over half a century later, Kennedy’s polished image in the media remains virtually unshaken. Not without reason. From early media campaigns such as the PT-109 incident to the Camelot Myth, initiated by Jackie Kennedy, his life had always been shaped in the light of the media and his public image.