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The Press and the Presidency: It's Complicated!

The Obama administration has had a "chilling effect" on a free press and on the work of White House reporters, three senior White House correspondents told host Marvin Kalb on the latest edition of The Kalb Report.

"This administration has undertaken more criminal prosecutions because of press leaks than every other administration in the history of the country put together," USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page said.

When the White House secretly subpoenaed the Associated Press's telephone records, she said, a lot of reporters and sources stopped communicating by telephone.

"The stories that are most important in a democracy, where you're uncovering wrongdoing, where the administration has erred, are the ones that require people to tell you things they're not supposed to tell you," she said. "And this has had a real chilling effect."

In a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between the press and the presidency through American history, Page was joined on the dais by Ann Compton, who had covered the White House for ABC News since the Ford administration; Fox News Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry; Clinton White House Spokesman Mike McCurry; and historian Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press.

While some may wish for the more genteel era of press relations in the Eisenhower administration, all panelists agreed that the natural relationship between the news media and the president must be adversarial.

"We are supposed to be pressing people who are in power—Democrat, Republican, man or now potentially a woman," Henry said.

But what has changed, McCurry said, is that the adversarial relationship has become acrimonious, and reporters look at everything in a jaundiced way. "That poisons the system," he said.

The White House has a hard time explaining its policies when the news media is only interested in scandal, McCurry added.

Compton said that in the 40 years that she has covered seven presidents, what has changed is the impact of digital media. "White House aides and reporters have their eyes down on their smart phones."

Reporters and aides have less personal contact, she said. "The White House now feels it can go beyond the press and put out its own story, using the same tools that we do. And that's not healthy."

But looking historically, Holzer said, if one wants to talk about the chilling effect an administration had on newspapers, the Lincoln administration was far more radical.

"During the Civil War, I counted nearly 200 newspapers that the Lincoln administration shut down," he said, including in border states and large cities such as New York, because they were disloyal to the Union recruitment effort. "Newspapers were barred from the U.S. mail, editors imprisoned."

But back then, he said, newspapers were openly partisan toward one party or the other, and presidents had official newspapers that got the news first and reaped advertising rewards and political favors.

"Maybe the suspicion in the White House is that partisan journalism reigns again," Holzer said, "so why should I deal with it?"

About The Kalb Report

The Kalb Report is produced by UMUC, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. The George Washington University and Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy join in organizing The Kalb Report. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.