It was 1962. NBC's Sander Vanocur asked John F. Kennedy whether he remained an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. Kennedy used it as an opportunity to opine on the virtues of journalism.
"There is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove," he said. "There isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press."
The response was progressive at the time. And it was probably an honest one. But considering how the media's reporting about government has transformed in the years since, it now rings with some irony. In Kennedy's day, and some might say fortunately for him, certain topics were left well enough alone. The personal lives of public officials were generally off limits. Statements were taken more at face value. Policies were reported, not necessarily critiqued.
Indeed, as we continue our own campaign to honor Federal Times' 50-year anniversary by dissecting 50 years of government operations, it occurred to me that a lot has changed about the role that media plays. Much to its dismay perhaps, government's tight control over messaging has diminished. The lines dividing what's fair game and what's nobody's business have blurred. The definition of journalism — and journalists — has become murky. And how news is distributed and consumed has transformed.
The turning point? Certainly television played a role. As noted by his own presidential library, Kennedy was "the first president to effectively use the new medium of television to speak directly to the American people." No previous president had conducted live televised press conferences without delay or editing.
That exposure cuts both ways. Consider Vietnam, when cameras on the front line enabled some of the most horrific aspects of combat to filter in people's living rooms, fueling an anti-war movement and compelling the media to ask tougher questions.
Then there's the Watergate scandal, when a certain naiveté about politics was lost among Americans, a newfound appreciation of investigative journalism emerged, and government realized that press might not be so easily contained.
But more than any one event, I'd point to the influence of technology – so often the catalyst for change – as the most transformative. It has provided journalists with new methods of accessing information, government with an alternative means of disseminating its message, and consumers with an explosion of content from a variety of sources. It's also provided leakers like Manning and Snowden alternatives to shadowy parking garages for passing off government information to reporters.
Also influential recently is the general disenchantment with the media industry, as partisan politics made way for partisan reporting — an oxymoron for those of us who still subscribe to the notion of objectivity and neutrality in journalism. The public at large is distrustful of news, so why wouldn't government be?
That said, while a return to journalism's more virtuous roots may be in order, I don't long for the era epitomized by Kennedy, when media and government seemed too often to reside squarely on the same side of the story. Nor do I believe reporters should act solely as disseminators of news as was more often the case of the traditional newsman of decades past. Bias has no place in reporting, but healthy skepticism and infused perspective certainly do. It's a journalist's job to make sense of the story, then let the audience decide where it fits within their own sensibilities. It's a fine line, but a significant one.
So I guess it’s fair to say that where we’ve landed is an interesting place: where government and media have both a mutual respect and a mutual skepticism. Perhaps that’s the healthiest and most productive relationship under the circumstances.
Jill Aitoro was editor of Defense News. She was also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brought over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.