Gerald Ford’s media relations calm compared with others

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Capital News Service

LANSING – When Gerald Ford became president in 1974, the nation was in agony. 

His predecessor, Richard Nixon, had resigned from the Oval Office rather than face certain impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The previous year, the last American combat troops had withdrawn from Vietnam amid intense anti-war protests, dwindling trust in the federal government and the subsequent collapse of the corruption-riddled regime of U.S. ally South Vietnam.

Cover of “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.”

Potomac Books.

Cover of “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.”

Ford, the quiet Republican vice president from Grand Rapids, faced the challenge of helping the nation heal from the anguish of White House corruption and the trauma of a deeply unpopular war.

His first official act was to pardon Nixon, a decision that political analysts say doomed his chances of winning the presidency in his own right in 1976.

After that, Ford’s tenure in the White House was unspectacular as he wrestled with problems that are familiar to Americans today, such as high inflation, recession and international conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

He endured no crises that rose to the level of creating major conflict with journalists and news organizations, unlike what the nation witnessed with presidents Donald Trump, Nixon and several others.

And thus Ford – the only president to come from Michigan – received only two brief references in Northwestern University journalism professor Jon Marshall’s new book, “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis” (Potomac Books, $36.95).

Bill Ballenger, the publisher of the political newsletter “Ballenger Report” and a former Republican state legislator, observed, “Generally speaking, I thought the press did a pretty good job covering Ford.”

“He wasn’t a polarizing personality by any means,” Ballenger said.

Ford had built good will with the press during his years as minority leader of the U.S. House, Ballenger said, and his selection as vice president was well received by the press.

“Ford had good connections in the traditional Washington press corps, Ballenger said, and that’s where he turned to staff his press office rather than picking public relations practitioners or people who “were not really journalists, like you’ve seen in recent years.”

As president, he drew on veteran Michigan reporters, starting with Detroit News chief Washington correspondent Jerry terHorst, whom Ballenger described as “a big hitter in Michigan journalistic coverage.”

But a month later, terHorst, who also was from Grand Rapids, quit in protest of the Nixon pardon. 

Ford then hired Detroiter Jack Hushen, also from the Detroit News, as deputy press secretary. 

Ford’s approach to press relations contrasts vividly with Trump’s.

As Marshall wrote in the new book, “Through his presidency, Trump encouraged hostility toward journalists. He called them ‘dishonest,’ ‘disgusting’ and an ‘enemy of the people.’’

“He referred to negative but accurate stories about him as ‘fake news,’” Marshall wrote.

Relations between reporters and other presidents have been ragged as well, to say the least.

John Adams, for example, sent editors to jail, Abraham Lincoln let critical newspapers be closed and Woodrow Wilson used “misleading propaganda” to advocate going to war. 

Nixon directed his first vice president – the convicted felon-to-be Spiro Agnew – to skewer the press as a “treacherous enemy.” 

Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids is the only president from Michigan.

Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids is the only president from Michigan.

Bill Clinton’s clashes centered on his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinski and Whitewater, the scandal involving his investments and financial dealings. 

Marshall also detailed crisis-linked conflicts between the press and presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

What does it all mean?

Marshall wrote, “Since the founding of the United States, the relationship between presidents and the press has been inspiring and troubling, fragile and durable, pivotal and dysfunctional, often all at the same time.”

In Marshall’s view, “Although sometimes sloppy, partisan and sensationalistic, journalists have often courageously served the public while covering presidents despite formidable forces trying to stop them.”

And he warned of trouble signals for future Oval Office accountability to the citizenry.

“The truth about presidents may now be harder to know,” according to Marshall. “The declining economic health of the news business has weakened its ability to hold presidents accountable.” 

Eric Freedman is the director of Capital News Service and a journalism professor at Michigan State University.

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