The secret to a healthy relationship with the press

Updated 6:09 PM ET, Tue May 22, 2018

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)It has become an article of faith among Donald Trump supporters that the President and his team are facing the most hostile press corps since the darkest days of the Richard Nixon administration.

They have a point. Tom Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, has been tracking the press coverage of presidents stretching back decades. His studies have found that not only did Trump receive significant negative coverage during last fall's general election campaign, but also that coverage of the first months of his presidency has been brutal. (It should be noted that Hillary Clinton received almost as much negative coverage in the campaign.)
Overall, says Patterson, some 80% of coverage of Trump's first 100 days in office was negative. Going back to the time of Bill Clinton, no other chief executive has had such terrible scores.
In other words, we are witness to a war between Trump and the press, playing out every day in newspapers and television. Each morning brings a new revelation; each evening touches off a shouting match. It is difficult to remember any press secretary since Nixon's Ron Ziegler who has faced so much suspicion from the Fourth Estate.
Yet what is equally surprising is how oblivious this White House is to what has gone wrong and how to fix it. His team is as disdainful of history as it is of time-honored traditions about press-government relations. Either they suffer from massive incompetence or extraordinary arrogance.
History has been quite clear: The presidents who have built the best relationships with the press are those who respect its place in American life, have enjoyed a give and take with reporters and care about the truth. From Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy to Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, press coverage has been much more favorable because those leaders in the Oval Office were not only good copy but men of character in their public lives.
Reagan provides the most relevant example for Republicans today. From the Washington establishment to the broadcast executives in New York, Reagan was held in minimally high regard when he first came to the Capital. Clark Clifford, a White House adviser, famously called him "an amiable dunce" at a Georgetown dinner party. Meanwhile, a liberal press corps prepared for serious face-offs against the most conservative president in modern times.
But the Reagans artfully defused the tensions when they accepted an invitation to dinner from Katherine Graham, then-publisher of The Washington Post. The Reagans proclaimed to Graham and her guests that they intended to become good neighbors, and they did. Graham and Nancy Reagan hit it off so well they became lifelong friends.
At the White House, with Reagan's blessing, chief of staff Jim Baker created an environment that was mostly -- not always -- solicitous of reporters. Jim Brady, the press secretary in the early days, became a press favorite and, after he was shot in an attempted assassination attempt against Reagan, his successor Larry Speakes did his best to keep reporters reliably informed.
Baker himself was a master with the press. Lou Cannon and Ann Devroy of The Washington Post, along with other key reporters from print and broadcast, had quick access to Baker on big stories. At Baker's insistence, several of us on staff would meet every week with reporters from the weekly news magazines.
More to the point, there was a culture of truth telling. We definitely slipped up on some stories, putting out false information (for example, on a Grenada invasion), but a high premium was placed on getting it right. When a sensitive national security story was breaking and Baker was briefing me in advance on what we might disclose to the press, his motto was: "I may not be able to tell you everything, but I will never lie to you." That was what we then tried to do in talking with reporters.
Like most politicians, Reagan could exaggerate to make a point, but he hated to be caught telling a falsehood. For example, he had said there were 151 taxes on a loaf of bread and that trees emit gases that kill more people than auto emissions.
One day in the White House, when the press went after him for "tall tales," he asked me to double check the accuracy of these stories. Unfortunately, I found that his assertions about bread and trees didn't quite add up. Defending the President at the press podium, I felt I had no choice but to remind everyone of the power of parables -- a lame argument, to be sure, but the episode underscored for me the importance of truth telling in that White House.
It was not just the right thing to do, it was also the most effective for governance. Inside the White House, we weren't expecting every story about Reagan to be favorable; we were going to make mistakes and knew that Cannon or Devroy would call us on them. Just as they should.
What we were looking for instead was fair coverage. It flummoxed a good many on the left: Mark Hertsgaard wrote a scathing book, "On Bended Knee," accusing the press corps of being too obsequious to Reagan. I didn't agree with his premise (he didn't fully remember what a hammering Reagan took over the Iran-Contra scandal). But Reagan did get fair coverage. And, frankly, a president should ask for no more.
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Looking back, Peggy Noonan captured an essential point about Reagan's leadership in her book "When Character Was King." She persuasively argued that his character as a public leader was at the foundation of his success. He tried to be trustworthy, had old-fashioned values and possessed a good heart. Historian David McCullough put it well in his biography of Harry Truman: Character is the most important asset of a president.
The Washington Post has reported that in his first 298 days in the White House, Trump has said or tweeted out no less than 1,628 untruths or misleading statements, an average of 5.5 claims a day. And the average is increasing, up to nine claims per day in the past 35 days.
Instead of raging on about "fake news," the President would do well to read Peggy Noonan on Reagan and focus on building his character.