No, Mr. President

JFK and newspapermen meeting in the Oval Office after the Bay of Pigs. Click to enlarge. (Photo credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston).

Meeting the President of the United States must be a profound experience, especially a President who was known for his charisma and charm.  On May 9, 1961, my great-great uncle sat in the Oval Office with John F. Kennedy and seven other newspaper executives.  The picture on the right is one of two I’ve seen documenting the meeting.

I like this picture, because it shows my great-great uncle, Mark Ferree, pointing his finger in the air and grinning with approval about something that had been said.

Mark Ferree was the president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1961.  He and seven other newspapermen were invited to the White House by Kennedy to discuss news coverage of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Two weeks earlier, on April 27th, Kennedy had given an address to the Association of Newspaper Publishers and reminded them of the importance of keeping national secrets.  In reference to some articles that had supposedly leaked information to the enemy prior to the invasion, JFK said:

“The newspapers which printed these stories were loyal, patriotic, responsible, and well-meaning. Had we been engaged in open warfare, they undoubtedly would not have published such items. But in the absence of open warfare, they recognized only the tests of journalism and not the tests of national security. And my question tonight is whether additional tests should not now be adopted.”

The President challenged newspapers to consider what they printed:  “I am asking the members of the newspaper profession and the industry in this country to reexamine their own responsibilities, to consider the degree and the nature of the present danger, and to heed the duty of self-restraint which that danger imposes upon us all. Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?’ All I suggest is that you add the question: ‘Is it in the interest of national security?'”

As a followup to the speech, JFK brought eight leading newspapermen to the Oval Office to continue the discussion.  Pierre Sallinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, later recalled in his memoir:  “The conference in the President’s office was a total failure.  Although JFK produced a number of recent news dispatches that clearly violated national security, the news executives told him bluntly that they would accept no new security restrictions–voluntary or official–in the absence of a declaration of national emergency.  The President replied that the cold war was a continuing emergency and that the requirement for greater restraint should be obvious.”

Me (around 4 years old, in April 1976) and my sister with my Uncle Mark and Aunt Ruth (Uncle Mark was my great grandmother's brother). Click to enlarge.

Questions of the balance between freedom of the press and national security persist to this day.  Each President handles it his own way.  In her later years, my great-great aunt said among members of my family that Kennedy brought the newspapermen to the Oval Office that day to lecture them.  But even in the face of a sitting President with a strong personality, the newspapermen stood up for freedom of the press and the importance of maintaining a society where leadership–even at the highest level–is accountable to the people.

I wish I could have sat and talked with my great-great uncle about what it was like to be with Kennedy–to dialogue with a President about national secrets and press coverage.  Most of all, I wonder how he would have described how it felt to say “No, Mr. President.”

To read the speech Kennedy gave to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961, visit Address to the American Newspaper Publishers.

To see more details about the photo included above, visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Another picture of the Oval Office meeting, featuring a more respectful pose of the newspapermen looking at Kennedy, is found in the May 10, 1961 New York Times.

The quote from Pierre Sallinger came from his memoir, With Kennedy, page 158.

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2 Responses to No, Mr. President

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    This is a terrific glimpse into recent history, Kevin, and examines serious questions that we’re still asking today. I find myself feeling ambivalent when news media report counter-terrorism measures for all to hear — all, including the terrorists themselves. I don’t believe in censorship, but who benefits from such information being broadcast, and could we be hurting those we should be protecting? The answers are not so simple.

    • Thanks, Charles. I agree entirely that the answers are not so simple. That’s why I believe dialogue is important. The free press plays such a key role in maintaining an open dialogue in a democratic society. Yet, there are always cases where the line is crossed between freedom of the press and restraint for the purpose of national security. It’s probably one of those debates that will have to continue. I think there are certain things that always have to be held in tension and the free press/national security debate may be one of them. Thanks for reading and commenting so thoughtfully.

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