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What Can a President Learn from the News Media? The Instructive Case of Richard Nixon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2009


This study examines the media diet of Richard Nixon, whose exposure to the news consisted almost entirely of a White House-produced daily news summary. Nixon staffers repeatedly asserted that the summary was the most effective way to give the president a comprehensive, objective account of the previous day’s reporting. While the summaries covered a wide range of media sources, analysis of the framing and filtering done by the White House raises doubts about the assertion that summaries were an effective substitute for first-hand consumption of the news. Nixon’s handwritten marginal notes reveal that the summaries provoked reactions in the president that had important implications for his conduct of the presidency.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 ‘Five Presidents on Presidential Power’, CBS Documentary, 1973.

2 Gerald S. Strober and Deborah Hart Strober, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 80–1. Finch was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Nixon.

3 Douglass Cater, The Fourth Branch of Government (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1959); Michael B. Grossman and Martha J. Kumar, Portraying the President: The White House and the News Media (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); Stephen Hess, News and Newsmaking (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1996); Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

4 Grossman and Kumar, Portraying the President; Samuel Kernell, Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 3rd edn (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997); Lyn Ragsdale, ‘Presidential Speechmaking and the Public Audience: Individual Presidents and Group Attitudes’, Journal of Politics, 49 (1987), 704–36.

5 Clearly, chief executives enjoy other sources of information than the mass media. Unlike most ordinary citizens, they can learn about unfolding events from a variety of official and non-media sources. The balance between media and other sources is an important factor in understanding how presidents learn about events outside the White House, but it will not be the focus of this article. Here, when I refer to ‘news’, I mean the stories and depictions available in the news media, whether consumed directly or, as in the Nixon case, filtered through news summary efforts.

6 Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan (New York: The Free Press, 1990), p. 128.

7 As the opening epigraph indicates, he felt the information he received from the media was essential to his success, even going so far as to call the press an ‘invaluable arm of the presidency’.

8 Michael Kinsey, ‘Bush’s Filtered News’, Washington Post, 17 October 2003, p. A29.

9 During 1964, for example, the Democratic National Committee prepared a daily ‘political news summary’ for Lyndon Johnson (Washington Post, 9 May 1971). See also Grossman and Kumar, Portraying the President, on the news summaries generated in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, pp. 102–4.

10 The News Summary Series at the National Archives is, unfortunately, not complete, and the quality of the collection is a direct function of the record-keeping practices of the various staff secretaries who served during Nixon’s presidency. Between January 1969 and October 1971, only those pages of the news summary on which the president wrote were retained in the file. From October 1971 through August 1973, the entire summary was preserved, including those pages Nixon did not annotate. Unfortunately, not all the summaries from this period have survived. For the year 1972, for example, only 126 summaries are included in the collection of annotated summaries at the National Archives. In addition, an incomplete collection of unmarked news summaries exists for the period between September 1971 and August 1974. Despite these concerns about selection bias in the data, a significant number of the summaries have been preserved, and the summaries remain a unique source of insight into Nixon and his presidency.

11 Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: Volume Two, The Triumph of a Politician, 1962–1972 (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1989).

12 In a letter regarding the news summary, Pat Buchanan claimed that the president did have other important sources of information (National Archives, White House Special Files [hereafter WHSF], Staff Member and Office Files, Patrick J. Buchanan [hereafter PJB], January 1971), but it is not clear what these other sources might have been. Don Oberdorfer reported that the New York Times and Washington Post were delivered to the president’s White House residence each morning, but that the president did not read the papers regularly (‘Nixon’s Digest: Window on the Press’, Washington Post, 9 May 1971). In fact, Nixon publicly advertised that he did not read the press or watch the network news. Other than Buchanan’s letter, I find no strong evidence that Nixon had regular sources for news consumption besides the daily summary. All the other evidence points to the fact that the White House news summary was Nixon’s most consistent and regular source of news.

13 Ambrose, Nixon, p. 638.

14 Melvin Small, The Presidency of Richard Nixon (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 233. Don Oberdorfer reported that the summary team included Leslye Arsht, a 25-year-old former secretary for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and the White House, and Kenneth Smith, a 22-year-old graduate of American University, along with part-time clerks (‘Nixon’s Digest’, p. A3). A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Buchanan was the only member of the team with formal journalistic experience.

15 National Archives, WHSF, PJB, January 1971. The format of the news summaries changed somewhat during the course of the Nixon presidency. For the first few weeks following the inauguration, they tended to be short memos, but quickly settled into a longer, more organized format. At one point, Buchanan reports that the summaries were organized by source (wire stories, television reports, national papers and a digest of news comment), but by late 1971, the summary team had shifted to a topic system. In this format, the first pages comprised an Allin/Buchanan overview and commentary, followed by an overview of the major stories. The bulk of the summary was made up of brief reviews of news stories, organized by topic. In addition, there were regular ‘special reports’ that focused intensely on a featured story or news special, especially television news specials. Often, newspaper photographs or political cartoons or opinion pieces were appended to the end of the summary.

16 Gerald S. Strober and Deborah Hart Strober, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 71.

17 Alexander Butterfield, Testimony at Impeachment Inquiry, 2 July 1974.

18 Richard Tanner Johnson, ‘Presidential Style’, in Aaron Wildavsky, ed., Perspectives on the Presidency (Boston, Mass.: Little Brown, 1975), pp. 262–301.

19 Cook, Governing with the News; see also Grossman and Kumar, Portraying the President.

20 John P. Burke and Fred I. Greenstein, How Presidents Test Reality (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989). Burke and Greenstein define reality testing as ‘the way presidents and other actors assess their environment’ (p. 4).

21 John F. Kennedy, for example, drew a stark contrast between the information available to him through the press and the secrecy of the Soviet regime: ‘I would think that Mr. Khruschev, while operating a totalitarian system that has many advantages in terms of operating in secret and all the rest, there’s a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration.’ (‘Five Presidents on Presidential Power’, CBS Documentary, 1973.)

22 Quoted in Johnson, ‘Presidential Style,’ pp. 289–90.

23 WHSF, PJB, January 1971.

24 Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro, ‘The Rise of Presidential Polling: The Nixon White House in Historical Perspective’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 59 (1995), 163–95, p. 165.

25 The claims of Nixon White House staffers parallel those of Grossman and Kumar in Portraying the President, who assert that news summaries generally serve three important functions – keeping the president informed, providing ideas that can be turned into agenda for action, and legitimating news by providing a forum through which aides can highlight certain information or attempt to shape the president’s thinking. As my analysis will show, the Nixon news summaries served all three of these purposes, though the effects were both positive and negative.

26 WHSF, PJB, February 1971.

27 ‘How Nixon Handles World’s Biggest Job: Interview with H. R. Haldeman, Assistant to the President’, U.S. News and World Report, 19 September 1970.

28 Preservation of the news summary material was primarily the responsibility of the staff secretary, and no uniform rule for preserving the summaries was followed through the course of the Nixon presidency (see fn. 3). I chose to analyse summaries from 1972 because it is the only year for which a large number of complete, annotated summaries have survived. For the month of January, seventeen summaries are contained in the National Archive collection, which represents approximately 14 per cent of the 1972 summaries.

29 It is impossible to tell from the summaries themselves exactly how many sources were used, because not every source was explicitly cited.

30 Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’, p. A3.

31 The summaries were organized by topic, and I have collapsed the large number of topics found in the summaries into a smaller number of distinct topic codes. A complete list of topics and their associated codes is available from the author, but a few words of explanation are needed here. The Overview of Major Stories was usually found at the beginning of the document and represents the stories Buchanan and Allin felt were the most important for the day. The Cover Memo was separate from the main body of the summary and represented Buchanan and Allin’s assessment of the political impact of the day’s news. The Politics category is taken directly from the summary and usually included discussions of rival candidates or political figures. The General Domestic category includes a very large number of topics, including farming, transport, education, the environment, the space programme and welfare. The Media topic includes stories about the business aspects of media companies as well as other coverage of changes within the print or broadcast world. Miscellaneous stories are those labelled ‘Miscellany’ by the summary team. They often did not fit comfortably in any of the other usual categories.

32 Here and in subsequent tables, the Cover Memo is listed as a separate ‘topic’ because it was a distinct section of the news summary and often included overtly political advice and commentary. While the Cover Memo is not technically a substantive issue area, I have included it in this analysis because doing so reveals the summaries’ own organizational scheme most clearly.

33 Quoted in Johnson, ‘Presidential Style’, pp. 289–90.

34 Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’, p. A1.

35 Johnson, ‘Presidential Style’.

36 Future extensions of this project can include computer analysis of the tone and framing of the 1972 summaries.

37 Gerald S. Strober and Deborah Hart Strober, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 80–1.

38 Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’, pp. A1, A3.

39 Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’, p. A1.

40 Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’, p. A3.

41 To Oberdorfer’s charges, the news summary staff responded that subtle changes in meaning or emphasis could not be avoided in the process of condensing such large quantities of news each day. Any errors or omissions were, they insisted, ‘unimportant and unintentional’. The goal was simply to give the president ‘an accurate reflection of the thrust of the news’ rather than a detailed account of the day’s events (see Oberdorfer, ‘Nixon’s Digest’).

42 In his response, Nixon revealed his antipathy towards the press and his desire to have a system of immediate response to perceived media bias: ‘H – See that N.B.C. gets a hard kick from Klein on this – and again when are we going to have a system where this is immediately done and reported to me?’ (Annotated News Summary file, September 1969).

43 Ambrose, Nixon: Volume Two, pp. 248–9.

44 WHSF, PJB, February 1971.

45 Nixon frequently exhibited a tendency to micro-manage the public relations efforts of the White House. He commented repeatedly about the need to improve the White House image, to embarrass enemies and to shape public opinion through the media. One of his most common responses to negative stories was to order a ‘letters to the editor’ campaign which would create the appearance of strong public approval for the Nixon administration’s policies.

46 According to Sam McClure, an archivist at the Nixon Project, evidence of these worries can also be heard in the conversations between Nixon and Haldeman on the White House tapes. Including these tapes will be an important part of future research on the role of the news summaries in the Nixon White House.

47 H. R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House. The Complete Multimedia Edition, distributed by Sony Electronic Publishing Company, 1994. Diary entry for 3 January 1973.

48 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries, 28 February 1972.

49 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries, 29 February 1972.

50 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries.

51 Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder, News That Matters: Television and American Opinion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 4.

52 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries, 30 September 1969.

53 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries, 10 November 1969.

54 Ambrose, Nixon: Volume Two, p. 409.

55 Annotated News Summary file, June 1969.

56 Annotated News Summary file, May 1969.

57 Annotated News Summary file, June 1969.

58 Annotated News Summary file, October 1969.

59 The variety of different Nixon images that have emerged over the years can be overwhelming, and as Fawn Brodie and many others have written, the paradoxes of these various images form a striking study in complexity and contrasts (see Fawn Brodie, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981)). Because of these many contradictions, coming to grips with Nixon is a daunting task, and scholarly analyses of the former president’s multi-faceted personality have varied in both their explanations and their quality, with a few degenerating into broad oversimplification and embarrassing psychological reductionism. He has been called a ‘compulsive obsessive’ (see Eli S. Chesen, President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile: A Psychodynamic-Genetic Interpretation (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1973)); a narcissist (see Bruce Mazlish, In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1972); Leo Rangell, The Mind of Watergate: An Exploration of the Compromise of Integrity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1980)); a paranoid, emotionally stunted man with a severe character disorder and persistent oral and anal fixations (see David Abrahamsen, Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1976)); a liar with a severe identity crisis accompanied by grandiose fantasies (see Brodie, Richard Nixon); an anxiety-ridden personality prone to self-punishment, exaggerated narcissism and dependency (see Vamik D. Volkan, Norman Itzkowitz and Andrw W. Dod, Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Chesen, President Nixon’s Psychiatric Profile)); an ‘active-negative’ personality type driven by a core need for power and prone to catastrophe (see James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, 4th edn (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992)); and an individual whose defining characteristics are role identification, ambivalence and denial (see Mazlish, In Search of Nixon).

60 Rowland Evans Jr and Robert D. Novak, Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1971).

61 Jeb Stuart Magruder, An American Life: One Man’s Road to Watergate (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 77.

62 William Safire, Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980).

63 Strober and Strober, Nixon, p. 45. Safire concurred with this assessment. Nixon’s attitude was something deeper and angrier than the kind of ‘us-against-them’ mentality that pervades most White Houses: ‘He was saying exactly what he meant: “The press is the enemy to be hated and beaten”’ (Safire, Before the Fall, p. 443).

64 Strober and Strober, Nixon, p. 72.

65 Small, The Presidency of Richard Nixon, p. 233.

66 Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries, 23 September 1969.

67 Johnson, ‘Presidential Style’.

68 Aides like Ehrlichman and Haldeman believed that part of their job was to know the difference between venting and real policy. As Ehrlichman noted, ‘You had to know the difference between what he really intended and what was his blowing off of steam’ (Strober and Strober, Nixon, p. 83).

69 Annotated News Summary file, 19 January 1972.

70 Annotated News Summary file, 19 January 1972.

71 Annotated News Summary file, 19 January 1972.

72 Upon reading of a welcome home rally in San Mateo, California, for soldiers returning from Vietnam, for example, Nixon appreciatively instructs Haldeman to ‘see that whoever was in charge of this welcome gets a note from RN’ (Annotated News Summary file, 24 January 1972).

73 An expanded version of this project could involve coding the summaries for their tone in order to trace a more definitive connection between the framing of the Buchanan/Allin document and Nixon’s marginal responses. For now, the relationship between summary tone and Nixon response is more suggestive and impressionistic.

74 These results should be treated with caution for several different reasons. First and by far most importantly, because all the responses came from one individual – Nixon – we cannot necessarily assume that the responses are independent. If we are willing to grant the assumption that writing one marginal comment was independent of making the next marginal comment, however, there are still reasons to treat the Poisson regression with care. The Poisson distribution tends to underestimate the number of 0 counts in the data, and it also forces the mean to equal the variance of the model. Other model specifications also yield very similar results, however.

75 As noted earlier, Nixon does make a number of comments about the race issue, but some of these are not picked up as direct responses to race stories, because the comments are included in the Cover Memo or other sections of the summary. The coding scheme I employed does not identify the specific issue in the Cover Memo to which Nixon was responding.

76 Alexander L. George, Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980), p. 148.

77 Similarly, the literature on personality and politics underscores the need to understand the environmental stimuli that might provoke potentially less effective responses. See Fred Greenstein, Personality and Politics: Problems of Evidence, Inference, and Conceptualization (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987); Daniel Katz, ‘The Functional Approach to the Study of Attitudes’, in Fred I. Greenstein and Michael Lerner, eds, A Source Book for the Study of Personality and Politics (Chicago: Markham, 1971), pp. 198–230; M. Brewster Smith, ‘A Map for the Analysis of Personality and Politics’, in Greenstein and Lerner, eds, A Source Book for the Study of Personality and Politics, pp. 34–44.

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