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Press Secretaries


Using the media for political purposes is nearly as old as the U.S. government itself. The news media developed right alongside the political parties, and early newspapers served as a battleground for the Federalists and the Republicans. The first media moguls of the late 1800s often saw their newspapers as podiums from which to promote themselves. George Hearst bought the San Francisco Examiner in 1885 for the sole purpose of helping him campaign for Congress.

The presidential press secretary job was created in 1929. The first person to hold this role was George Akerson, serving President Herbert Hoover through 1931. Unlike other presidential secretaries who helped with communicating with reporters, Akerson's job was dedicated solely to dealing with the media. As described in a Pew Research Center article, the job of press secretaries continues to be "to position themselves--sometimes as a conduit, sometimes as a shield--between the commander in chief and the Fourth Estate." The Fourth Estate refers to the press and news media.

The latter half of the 20th century introduced whole other forms of media, which were quickly exploited by politicians seeking offices. Many historians mark the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 as the moment when television coverage first became a key factor in the election process. Those who read of the debate in the next day's newspapers were under the impression that Nixon had easily won, but it was Kennedy's composure and appeal on camera that made the most powerful impression. Negative campaigning first showed its powerful influence in 1964, when Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson ran ads featuring a girl picking a flower while a nuclear bomb exploded in the background, which commented on Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's advocacy of strong military action in Vietnam.

Bill Clinton is just one president who benefited from the art of "spin," as his press secretaries and political managers were actively involved in dealing with his scandals and keeping his approval ratings high among the public. James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, working for Clinton's 1992 campaign, had the task of playing up Clinton's strengths as an intelligent, gifted politician, while down-playing his questionable moral background. Their efforts were portrayed in the documentary The War Room, and their success earned them national renown as "spin doctors." Press secretaries for George W. Bush dealt with the challenges of communicating about such issues as the 9/11 and post-9/11 events. In his 2008 memoir What Happened, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan (2003–2006) criticized the Bush administration for not making a "full case" for the invasion of Iraq. Robert Lane Gibbs (2009–2011), President Barack Obama's press secretary, helped tackle opponents' disinformation tactics during Obama's presidential election campaign. Gibbs earned the nickname "the enforcer" because of his aggressive tactics. It is not uncommon for presidents to have several press secretaries throughout their tenure. For example, President Trump had four press secretaries during his term.

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