A Century of Feuding Between Presidents and the Press

Years before it began its annual dinner, the White House Correspondents’ Association started as an effort to hold the president accountable to the press—a mission as urgent as ever.

A portrait of President Trump hangs in a gallery of presidents in a hallway at the 2017 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, which Trump did not attend. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

For the second time, President Trump won’t attend the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. As Washington’s elite journalists gather to celebrate their work this weekend, the president will hold a rally in Michigan. What better way to dismiss the “fake news” press corps that he sees as hostile than by setting up counter-programming of his own?

Trump’s absence is part of a bigger pattern. Not only has the president been extremely hostile to the press, questioning their legitimacy and vilifying them as enemies of the state, but he has cut off access to almost everyone outside the Fox News-Breitbart orbit. Most notable of all has been his decision to hold just one solo press conference since taking office.

Before the WHCA was known for its annual dinner, it was established as a professional organization meant to protect journalists’ access to the president of the United States. Calvin Coolidge, though not known for having good press relations, was the first president to attend the dinner regularly and deliver an address. Most of his successors felt pressure to follow suit. After all, the press needed each president to attend to make the dinner an A-list event in Washington, and the president needed to keep the press happy. As Douglass Cater put it, “Presidents come and go, but press bureau chiefs are apt to remain a while.” They were also stag dinners until 1962—no women were allowed into this old boys’ club, despite the fact that there were female members of the WHCA.

The association itself dates back to February 24, 1914. An informal White House press corps had been taking form since the late 19th century. Presidents and reporters developed informal rules and procedures to guide them in their interactions. As the executive branch grew in size and the presidency became a bigger part of national life, the number of city newspapers assigning people to cover the office on a full-time basis increased. Theodore Roosevelt saw all of these trends and ran with them during his two terms, insisting that Cabinet officials respond quickly to press queries and vastly expanding access to the media. Though President Taft pushed back against some of these changes, the White House “beat” became an integral part of Washington’s journalistic world.

President Woodrow Wilson believed that allowing the press access could help him communicate with the nation. At 12:45 p.m. on March 15, 1913, he institutionalized the changes that had been taking place informally by convening the first formal presidential press conference. The discussion with 100 Washington correspondents was not particularly intriguing. One reporter for the Evening Post left with the distinct feeling that “a pleasant time was not had by all.”

The discussion might have been uninteresting, but the fact that it happened was a historic moment in presidential-press relations. Wilson continued the practice on a regular basis. A few weeks after his inaugural conversation, Wilson implored those who were at another press conference to join with him in guiding the nation. “I feel that a large part of the success of public affairs depends upon the newspapermen—not so much on the editorial writers, because we can live down what they say, as upon the news writers, because the news is the atmosphere of public affairs. Unless you get the right setting to affairs—disperse the right impression—things go wrong.” He urged the reporters to “go into partnership with me, that you lend me your assistance as nobody else can, and then, after you have brought this precious freight of opinion into Washington, let us try and make true gold here that will go out for Washington.” In his first year as president, Wilson convened 64 press conferences.

Once the initial euphoria wore off, tensions started to mount. In July, Wilson held a press conference to discuss the revolution taking place in Mexico. Speaking in what he thought was a confidential moment, the president admitted to reporters that he did not think that the Mexican government could survive. A few hours later, he blew up when he saw his comments quoted in a newspaper. Wilson threatened to stop holding the press conferences. He backed away from the threat but faced the same situation in January 1914 when more leaks made it into the paper.

Wilson also grew increasingly frustrated with rumors that reporters were working on stories about his wife and daughters. Imploring them to stop, he told reporters: “Gentlemen, I want to say something to you this afternoon … I am a public character for the time being, but the ladies of my household are not servants of the government and they are not public characters. I deeply resent the treatment they are receiving at the hands of newspapers at this time … Now put yourself in my place and give me the best cooperation in this that you can, and then we can dismiss a painful subject and go to our afternoon’s business.”

The president now wanted stronger guarantees that these kinds of stories and these kinds of leaks from the press conferences would stop. He also wanted assurances that the press would control who attended these events, as all sorts of characters were gaining access, many of whom had minimal credentials if any.

Wilson had become so upset that he threatened to stop having the press conferences altogether. The Standing Committee of Correspondents, created in 1879 by congressional reporters, offered to control who had access to the White House press conferences and to regulate the way in which the conversations were conducted.

The journalists covering the White House were not happy. They feared losing easy access to the president and control over how they would interact with him. The correspondents decided to formally organize. On February 25, 1914, 11 reporters, most of whom were only in their twenties, announced the creation of the White House Correspondents’ Association. In their opening charter, the WHCA vowed to protect “the interests of those reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House.” Their first president was William Wallace Price, the oldest member of the group and a veteran reporter for the Washington Evening Star.

The formation of the association was not much of a surprise. This was a period in American history when all sorts of professions were creating associations to protect their internal integrity, and to make themselves stronger as a political force: the American Economics Association (1885), the American Psychological Association (1892), the American Political Science Association (1903), the American Sociological Association (1905), and older groups like the American Medical Association revamped into their modern form.

The WHCA didn’t have much of an impact in its early years. It was unable to stop Wilson in the middle of 1915, when he canceled press conferences as a result of growing tensions overseas. But Wilson reinstituted the press conferences by 1916. Because it was largely successful in the long-term at protecting their access and maintaining control over their own membership, the association moved on to handle other matters, including holding an annual banquet, now known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which started at the Old Arlington Hotel in 1921.

At a moment in political history where the tensions between the president and the press have become extremely severe, and the president has been unusually aggressive in cutting off journalists from direct access to him in most of the conventional forums of interaction, it is worth remembering why the WHCA originally formed and what the association still does outside the dinner. The young founders of the WHCA cherished the potential of their profession, and understood how journalism could contribute to the national dialogue. Although journalists still believe in those goals in 2018, they now work in an environment in which the White House is making it increasingly difficult for them to do that work.

The celebrations this weekend surrounding the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and the president’s counter-programming in Michigan, both serve as reminders of the origins of the association—and of the chilling effect when presidents decide that they want to build a wall between themselves and the reporters who try to keep the nation informed of what’s happening inside the nation’s capital.