A few words between friends: A comparison of how two elites, Lyndon Johnson and
the Washington Post, framed the status of civil rights legislation in December
A few words between friends: A comparison of how two elites, Lyndon Johnson and
the Washington Post, framed the issue of civil rights legislation in December
Laura Elizabeth Bond
The University of Texas at Austin
2200 Panther Trail #709
Austin, Texas 78704
(512) 475-9062 (o)
(512) 707-9046 (h)
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A few words between friends: A comparison of how two elites, Lyndon Johnson and
the Washington Post, framed the issue of civil rights legislation in December
From the front page to the editorial page, the contents of a daily newspaper
set the public agenda, providing its community information, leads, and insight
into public and social affairs. But who sets the media agenda, and what happens
beyond the newsroom that can affect news content? The following paper addresses
this broad question with a microcosmic example of Presidential power and
influence, drawn from a recorded conversation between President Lyndon Johnson
and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in December 1963. Only 10 days
earlier the United States experienced the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy, a traumatic event unparalleled in the twentieth century. As Vice
President Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency, he faced a skeptical, grieving
public and an extremely attentive, critical national press. In what historians
have recorded as a deft, skillful display of leadership, Johnson reassured the
nation by emphasizing continuity of Kennedy's legislative agenda (Kearns, 1977).
Two issues on that agenda had garnered much public attention that year: civil
rights legislation for Black Americans and other minority groups and tax reform
(Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1963). Johnson's careful attention to the
former in those weeks following Kennedy's assassination earned him praise from
both civil rights leaders and the public.
In Black Civil Rights During the Johnson Administration, Harvey (1973) reviews
the weeks following Kennedy's assassination as Johnson set the tone for his
presidency by urging passage of civil rights legislation. He concludes that
Johnson's support of a discharge petition in Congress led to Howard Smith's
announcement to hold House hearings in January 1964 in order to avoid personal
embarrassment (p. 9). This conclusion is valid, but this paper provides a
glimpse at how the President and the Post impacted Smith's change.
As Vice President, Johnson was discouraged from speaking publicly about his
position on civil rights legislation (Beschloss, 1997, p. 28). As President,
Johnson quickly recognized the need to earn the public support of civil rights
leaders including Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Records of his telephone conversations within the first few days of his
presidency indicate his urgency to earn their support (see Beschloss, 1997, for
published transcripts). From the beginning of his presidency Johnson was acutely
sensitive to, even obsessive about, his portrayal in the media and sought to
control news stories (Roberts, 1986).
Drawing on agenda setting theory and the concept of message frames, I propose
that Johnson effectively garnered news media coverage that reported and framed
the issues according to his lead, particularly with regards to civil rights
legislation. Evidence of Johnson's attempts to manipulate the news emerges in a
conversation between Johnson and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham
recorded on Dec. 2, 1963. Available at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential
Library in Austin, Texas, it is one of hundreds of conversations taped during
his presidency. The 11-minute conversation is friendly and somewhat informal at
first, but Johnson easily directs it to the legislative status of Kennedy's
civil rights bill, HR 7152, at that time under the control of the House Rules
Committee chairman Howard K. Smith. As Johnson describes the problems saddling
the bill's route to a vote on the House floor, he asks her to "take these broad
outlines [his concerns] and give them to your broad people" (Johnson, 1963).
Whether the Post responded and why is the subject of this textual analysis of
the conversation and subsequent Post news stories and editorials.
Mass communication theories of framing, agenda-setting, and news content
provide the theoretical context. Each theory and its related concepts contribute
a framework for understanding which persons, events and ideas make news stories
and for discussing how news reporting and editorial writing can impact the
political process. Studying the conversation between a president and a publisher
reveals one way that news frames are delivered from sources to editors and
reveals part of the subjective nature of "objective" journalism.
In his Dec. 2 conversation with Katharine Graham, did President Lyndon Johnson
influence the news agenda of the Washington Post? If so, to what degree? Is this
"setting the agenda?" Are the implications relevant and why? The questions
require the consideration of many interrelated conditions, including Johnson's
personality and goals following Kennedy's assassination; the political and
social climate in November and December 1963; and the professional and personal
relationship between the Johnsons and Grahams. Illuminated by primary sources
such as the conversation and records of Johnson's first few weeks in office
combined with secondary sources such as news stories and editorials in the Post,
Congressional reports, and scholarly and popular publications about Johnson and
the Post, a few answers emerge while raising other questions in the process.
What is news?
An overarching question in this research asks "Where do news stories come
from?" or "What makes news?" Obviously scholars address this question
continually in articles, books and textbooks; it is the basis of teaching
journalism (for example, see Reese and Shoemaker, 1994; Anderson et al., 1994 ).
In attempting to answer this question and define the practice and purpose of
journalism, researchers attribute the narrative imperative of news content and
editors' preferences for conflict with influencing what and how public issues
are reported (for example, see Schudson, 1978; Patterson, 1994).
Researchers also asks "What is the effect of these practices?" Patterson
(1994) condemns contemporary newsgathering practices for ineffectively reporting
on one of the most important public processes in the United States, electing a
president. Researchers such as McManus (1994) presents evidence that the visual
imperative for television news greatly influences how people think about
particular issues and events of the day. Under the large umbrella of media
sociology, researchers are presenting new information about how newsgathering
practices influence content, presentation and ultimately public understanding of
and interest in local and national political and social issues (for example,
Gans, 1979; Kaniss, 1991; Patterson, 1994).
Gitlin (1978) argues that the dominant paradigm in media sociology, that of
"received knowledge," fails to address "the power of the media to define normal
and abnormal social and political activity, to say what is politically real and
legitimate and what is not" (p. 205). Studying the intersection between Johnson,
Graham, and the Post, we observe how sources and newsmakers define "what is
politically real" and newsworthy. It is also a unique view of political
maneuvering and prowess, skills that earned Johnson a fierce reputation while he
was a Senator. Not only does this paper occupy a small part of the shade under
the media sociology umbrella, it is also eavesdropping on an informal but
influential President/press relationship.
Elite Powers: The President and the Post
Johnson may be one of the most widely studied contemporary presidents whose
biographies span decades (for example, see Goodwin, 1977; Bernstein, 1996).
Scholars study his phone habits (Best, 1988), his voting patterns (King and
Riddlesperger, 1993), as well as his personality, leadership style and
legislative experiences (for example, see Stern, 1991; Baughman, 1988). Clearly,
Johnson remains a compelling figure to scholars who continue to reappraise his
controversial presidency marked by triumphs and failures (Bornet, 1990).
Scholars such as Cox (1991) have studied his rhetoric and attitude toward civil
rights legislation at every level of public office that he held.
Johnson's relationship with the news media has been a source of discussion
among many writers and scholars (for example, see Roberts, 1986). As he assumed
the presidency, Johnson was acutely insecure about his image among reporters and
editors. One of two journalists on Air Force One during Johnson's swearing-in,
Newsweek reporter Charles Roberts (1986) described this as Johnson's "press
paranoia," his fear that the press was pro-Kennedy and anti-Johnson and that the
structures in place would dictate his coverage and that he was both powerless
and empowered to do something about it. Paradoxically, Johnson consistently
expressed his view of reporters as "puppets." As he told Doris Kearns (Thompson,
They [reporters] simply respond to the pull of the
most powerful strings. Every reporter has a constituency in
mind when he writes his stories. Every story is always
slanted to win the favor of someone who sits higher up. There
is always a private story behind the public story and if you
don't control the strings to that private story you'll never
get good coverage no matter how much you do for the masses of
the people.(p. 109)
Johnson's relationship with the press that covered him regularly changed
greatly for the worse during his presidency, due in part to his dogmatic view of
the presidential/press relationship (Kearns, 1977; Bernstein, 1996). Although
most examples of his poor press relationships are in his second term, the Graham
conversation illustrates his core belief that the president's role was to
provide stories to the media and to manage the press (Touster and Payne, 1976;
Redford and McCulley, 1986). His view of the presidential/press relationship is
particularly relevant and illustrated in his conversation with Graham. The
controversial nature of civil rights legislation at this time makes their
exchange interesting to scholars in many disciplines including Presidential
history and journalism.
In his "Plea for Journalism History" (1988), Nord asserts that communication
history makes a mistake when it turns from studying institutional structures to
the study of communication/information processes (p. 9). He argues that
historical power lies in structures, not processes (ibid.). Studying processes
and "effects" diverts attention from the most important question: Who shapes the
content? (p.9) This paper provides an example that is arguably an important part
of cultural history, revealing the kind of ritual between news sources and
newsmakers that the public rarely sees. Yet it is not, as Nord recommends, an
institutional history but an illumination of the forces acting on the
institution of the press.
Its rags-to-riches history and current position as one of the most influential
news organizations in the world make the Washington Post a suitable subject for
scholarly examination. Scholars and its former writers and editors have
published institutional histories (for example, Bray, 1980; Kelly, 1983; Howard,
1989) as well as several biographies of its chief executive, Katharine Graham
(for example, Felsenthal, 1989). Collectively, they signify the paper's unique
and influential role in U.S. political communications. As Streitmatter (1997)
discusses in Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American
History, the most influential news organizations are not afraid to set the
agenda. They do not just report the news; they lead the news. Graham summarized
the Post's influence in Bray (1980): "The power is to set the agenda. What we
print and what we don't print matter a lot. What leads the paper or the magazine
impacts on events and people's awareness" (p. 2). "The Post is worth study by
more than journalists," writes Bray, "it has been an important part of the
history of our time and continues to be a powerful influence in the life of its
community and the nation."
Origins of the News Agenda
Agenda-setting theory, which proposes correlations between the salience of
issues on public and media agendas (McCombs and Shaw, 1993; McCombs, 1992), is
ripe for elaboration beyond this original hypothesis. In reviewing the scope of
agenda-setting and related research conducted the last four decades, McCombs and
Shaw (1993) stress that the communication process can represent any set of
objects, ideas and issues competing for attention. In this competition model of
public information, certain objects are more likely to receive attention from
news editors and producers than others. Explaining why leads us to the study of
the newsmaking process, information transactions such as interviews or news
conferences, and the study of what Schudson (1991) calls the "social practices"
and "cultural forms" of news media (p. 186). Traditionally, agenda-setting
helped explain the sources of the public agenda and affirmed the news media's
unique and important role in highlighting the issues of the day, which led to
another question: Who sets the news agenda? (McCombs, 1992). Describing this
foray of research as the second level of agenda-setting, McCombs and Shaw (1993)
again conceptualize agendas (public and media) as a set of objects. These
objects are comprised of attributes, also frequently referred to as frames. How
news frames and attributes impact the public agenda is the emerging second
dimension of agenda-setting theory.
Studying news gathering and news writing practices are helping to explicate
the agenda-setting process. For example, McCartney (1987) identifies main
conflicts in newspaper stories that are similar to those found in classic
literature, thus highlighting reporters and editors predilection for certain
types of conflict. Additional research provides insight into how news flows from
one media to others, thus transferring a news object and even its attributes to
a wider audience. Observing this flow of news is significant because it raises
questions about which news sources influence the agenda of media leaders such as
the Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (Reese and Danielian,
Graber (1990) describes the consequences of framing:
When journalists choose content and frame it, they
are constructing reality for their audiences, particularly
when the story concerns unfamiliar matters and there is no
easy way to test its accuracy. This raises questions about
the relations of images created by news to reality or
"truth." Was Walter Lippmann right when he argued long ago
that the newsmaking process makes it impossible for news to
be truth because too much background and contextual
information has to be omitted? (p. 147) [italics mine]
Graber doesn't define a frame but she does implicate the act of framing as the
act which constructs reality in news. If news gives us the pictures in our
heads, as Lippmann suggested, then framing puts some elements in the foreground,
some in the back and leaves others out completely. I borrow the framing concept
in order to use its tools as described by Entman (1993), thus identifying parts
of a news story that are changeable or open to multiple presentations.
Entman (1993) describes framing as selecting aspects of a reality to make them
more salient "in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition,
causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the
item described." The concept of frames provides a tool for evaluating the
effectiveness of Johnson's conversation with Graham on December 2, 1963.
Suggesting an impact or effect on the public agenda is beyond the scope of this
paper, for the degrees of separation are too great and other influences too
numerous. Yet the structuralist orientation of agenda-setting and its cousin
framing do provide a useful vocabulary for understanding what happened and
making it relevant. Historical methodology affords a cultural approach while
requiring primary sources to make sense of the transaction between Johnson and
Graham. As Johnson defined the problem for Graham and discussed its
implications, he attempted to frame news stories for the Washington Post by
defining and interpreting the problem and its consequences and making moral
Framing is a natural part of deciding what's news and how it is written or
presented. "The generic name for these journalistic perspectives is
newsworthiness. But newsworthy objects are framed in a wide variety of ways"
(McCombs and Shaw, 1993). This paper addresses the development of a news frame
for a particular issue at a particular time. It is a snapshot in the interaction
between two people, Johnson and Graham, simultaneously constructing political
agendas and media agendas. Studies have shown the U.S. President's ability to
set news agendas with public addresses such as State of the Union (Wanta et al.,
1989). Here we see the ability to set the agenda out of the public eye.
Textual analysis is an important tool for examining these oral and written
texts because it "yields a rich and deep sense of media messages and an
understanding of the context in which they are produced" (Shah, 1994, p. 7).
Framing theory and textual analysis work together to identify how particular
people, events or behaviors are emphasized or de-emphasized in a text. They also
help explain how frames serve as implied outcomes that affect how we think about
the object in the text.
I acquired an audio cassette of the Johnson/Graham conversation and prepared a
transcript, comparing it with three others. One transcript was obtained from the
LBJ Library in Austin, another from a colleague who first brought the tape to my
attention, and a third from a 1997 book by historian Michael Beschloss. After
listening to the conversation, reviewing the transcripts and preparing my own, I
identified the frames Johnson used to describe the status of civil rights in the
House and the outcomes he proposed. To determine whether his frames also
appeared in the Post, I examined eight Washington Post news stories and
editorials relating to civil rights legislation published within a week after
the conversation including the day immediately following the conversation,
December 3, 1963. Each story was examined for its headline and sub-headline,
lead paragraph, placement, and byline. The unit of analysis was the news item
and each item was also examined to determine its frames: how it defined the
problem or conflict, whether it proposed a particular treatment and outcome, and
whether it offered a moral evaluation of the problem. After completing the
textual and qualitative content analysis of the Post news items, I compared the
newspaper's frames with those identified in Johnson's language. I also compared
that week's coverage with 18 articles and columns published in November in order
to determine what issues were already reported.
I also researched the relationship between the Johnsons and the Grahams. In
1963 it was both professional and personal, as Johnson was a close friend of
Graham's late husband, Phil. Primary sources such as correspondence found at the
Johnson Presidential Library corroborates the friendship between the two men and
their families. Biographies, institutional histories of the Post, personal
statements about Johnson and Congressional records also informed this paper.
White House records at the LBJ Library indicate that Johnson phoned Graham
(Johnson, 1963), although Graham makes the first request of Johnson. Her request
indicates that she is calling him. This is significant because it engages him
in an exchange of favors which she initiated. After discussing Johnson's speech
a few days earlier, Johnson raises his concerns about the public perception of
Now the speech that came in was a great tribute to
a great man but the Congress expected a little sump'n
[something] else. They wanted to know how I was going to
stand on these things, and I had to say so and I had to say
"action now" because - I've got to talk to you about it, and
no better time than right this minute, although I am thirty
minutes behind in my appointments and I've got the Cabinet
waiting out here. But I've got to ask you this.
(Johnson, 12/2/63, White House Tapes, LBJ Library).
Johnson explains that Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith has refused to hold
hearings on the civil rights bill and tells her the House leaders' plans to get
a hearing by filing a discharge petition. Graham participates minimally in
this exchange, providing understanding feedback such as "right," "yeah" and "I
know." Johnson's talk begins to frame the situation by offering his moral
Now every person that doesn't sign that petition
has got to be fairly regarded as being anti-civil rights
because he is even against a hearing. I don't care if he
votes against the bill after he gets a chance to vote on it.
If he says it goes too far, if he says that public
accommodations ought to do this or do that, we got the votes
to pass it. But I don't think any American can say that he
won't let 'em have a hearing either in the committee or on
the floor. That is worse than Hitler did. (ibid.) [emphasis
Here Johnson defines the conflict which is no longer about passing civil rights
legislation but about the right of Congressional representatives to discuss it.
His frames both define the problem and offer his judgment, and he makes his
requests to her unequivocally and characteristically:
So we've got to get ready for that and we've got to
get ready every day. Front page. In and out. Individuals. Why
- are - you - against - a - hearing? And point 'em out and
have their pictures and have editorials and have everything
else that is in a dignified way for a hearing on the floor.
This matter has been there since May.
He continues by explaining that a hearing by the Rules Committee is not
particularly relevant to the bill's path to the House floor.
Now if the committee won't - Judiciary's already
given it hearing and supposedly they are the greatest lawyers
in the House so they ought to know it - but Rules Committee,
which is a pure procedural thing, and they don't have any
hearings on procedure at all in the Senate, but they've
usurped their power through the years (GRAHAM: Hm, hmm) and
because George [name unclear] set 'em up to protect 'em from
an arrogant Speaker. They have set themselves up and they
have protected their own selfish interests from a popular
vote. So they won't let it be voted. They won't give a
hearing. So our position has got to be [that] we're entitled
to a hearing. Not the merits of the bill, but we're entitled
to a hearing. (ibid.).
His treatment recommendation frame is part of an uninterrupted stream of
sentences in which he continues to provide a moral evaluation frame for the
issue of hearings:
And whoever is against a hearing and against a vote
in the House of Representatives is not a man that believes in
giving humanity a fair shake. Vote against it if he wants to.
Let him do it. But don't let him refuse to sign that
Interestingly, Johnson makes his plea in part by presenting himself as a man
without popular support, the underdog. He tells Graham: "But you want to bear in
mind that Mr. Kennedy was able and he was popular and he was rich and he had
young giants helping him -- and he had the newspapers helping him and he had
everything else" (ibid.). He mentions that despite popular support, even Kennedy
was not successful earlier that year, and restates his main argument.
So you can tell your editorial board that this
Rules Committee has quietly said they're not going to do
anything. And somebody ought to be asking these leaders. I
can't do it (ibid.).
Johnson again offers his conflict frame here, placing the Rules Committee and
Howard Smith at the center of the conflict. The conversation continues for a few
more minutes, as Johnson grows increasingly talkative about the need to report
on the inaction of the Rules Committee. He also explained how he had to call
around the country to talk to representatives about forming what became the
Warren Commission, which he uses as an example that the Representatives are
not working and not behaving responsibly on behalf of their constituents.
He [Dick Russell] advocates going home at
four-thirty and Mansfield's wife says he can't meet after
five o'clock. And you can't ever beat this crowd doing that.
You can't run your business doing that.
And he then gives Graham another mandate.
Now take these broad outlines and give them to your
broad people and say 'I don't care what you cover in the sex
route, but let's cover some of these folks' vacations.' Not
in a mean way, but just point up that these things haven't
been done and we've paid them to do them. And if your
reporter didn't show up all this time -- and of course, a
part of their job's at home [the politicians], and in an
election year they'll be at home, but they oughtn't to go
home until they do something to go home to talk about (ibid.).
Throughout this one-sided conversation, Johnson's language frames the situation
by defining the conflict, making moral evaluations of the persons involved and
offering his treatment recommendation, a discharge petition. His conflict frame
reiterates the role of Howard Smith and the Rules Committee as obstacles to
hearings and makes an issue of the right to hearings, and not an issue of bill
content nor of the limited amount of time available on the calendar. Johnson's
moral evaluation frame implies that if Congressmen do not do something about
civil rights before the holidays, they do not deserve to go home.
Interestingly and importantly, Johnson's conversation with Graham did not give
her any new information to give to her reporters. Throughout November the Post
had published several news stories about civil rights, including the status of
the legislation (Washington Post, 11/13/63), the country's perception of Johnson
and his capabilities regarding the bill (11/27/63), the value of the bill to
Johnson's reputation at home and abroad (11/27/63, 12/1/63), and the possibility
of a discharge petition to retrieve the bill from the Rules Committee
(11/28/63). An article on November 29th, 1963, named Howard Smith has the most
likely blockade to rights and gauged the likelihood of passage by Christmas as
slim. President Johnson, the civil rights bill and its obstacles were already on
the Post agenda with no fewer than 20 news articles and editorials published
between November 12 and December 1, 1963. Three were on the front page; four
were editorials. The remainder were columns and articles inside the front
Analysis of the Post in the days immediately following their conversation
suggests that Johnson successfully framed its initial reporting and several
editorials on civil rights legislation that week. Though discussion of other
newspaper coverage is beyond the scope of this paper, an initial examination of
other major newspaper coverage including the New York Times and Los Angeles
Times finds similar outcome frames. However, the Post's treatment of the issue
most closely resembles Johnson's own agenda as given in their conversation.
Johnson's conversation with Graham preceded a flurry of news stories and
editorials about the need to pass civil rights legislation before the Christmas
holidays. On December 3, the Post headline read: Smith Bars Rights Bill
Speed-Up, followed by two sub heads, Rules Out Committee Action Now, and Attempt
to Bypass House Group Has Leadership Backing. Reported by Richard L. Lyons,
the story names Smith as the obstacle between a civil rights bill and a House
vote and says House leaders of both parties are pessimistic about the bill
reaching the House floor that year. Lyons notes that even a successful discharge
petition would not bring the bill to the House floor until December 23. However
the Post editorial is unequivocal about the need for hearings in 1963. It
It is time for a showdown on civil rights. The
issue has plagued and divided the country far too long.
Congress simply cannot, in good faith to the American people,
go home for the holidays without at least bringing the civil
rights bill to a vote in the House .... (Post, 12/3/63)
The editorial emphasizes Smith's role as a blockade and supports measures to
take the bill out of his jurisdiction, reiterating Johnson's point that Rules is
only a procedural committee whose power is being abused by Smith:
The Rules Committee's function is simply to fix the
conditions for debate on the House floor. It can fulfill this
function before the House meets tomorrow if Chairman Howard
Smith will stand aside, or if a majority of his committee
will take the measure away from his obstructive control
Finally, the editorial concludes: "And if congressmen, forced to stay here for
the holidays, want to know who killed Santa Claus for them, they can look to the
man who compelled recourse to the discharge petition: Howard Smith" (ibid.).
This final sentences reflects Johnson's conflict frame, which places Smith at
center of the issue and time as the secondary consideration. The Post also
directly advances another outcome frame here, asserting that if Congressmen must
forgo their holidays, then they can blame Smith. This assertion matches
Johnson's moral evaluation frame, that Congressmen don't deserve their holidays
if they leave this work unfinished.
Coverage on Weds., Dec. 4 complemented Johnson's problem definition frame.
Post reporter Richard L. Lyons interviewed members of Smith's Rules Committee to
find out how they would vote for the bill if it came to the House floor at the
earliest possible time as demanded by Johnson. An editorial on this day,
headlined "Congress Must Act," contains Johnson's moral evaluation and problem
definition frames, writing that:
Whatever the defects of the rules, they [the
Representatives] can still act if Senators and
Representatives are sufficiently determined to act. The time
has come to end what amounts to a congressional sit-down
strike (Post, 12/4/63).
By Thurs., Dec. 5, the Post's news reporting appears more pragmatic than the
editorials. Lyons notes that "support of at least 60 Republicans is needed to
take the bill away from Rules Chairman Howard W. Smith (D.-Va.)" (Post,
12/5/63). Lyons also reports that Republicans are irritated by the threats,
claiming that the calendar rules out chances of a House vote on the bill that
year. However, in a lead editorial titled "The Last Alternative," the Post
editorial board dramatizes the situation further, complementing and augmenting
Johnson's conflict definition frame by suggesting that a bill will not be passed
at all by this Congress if the impasse continues. The editorial also shifts
focus and "blame" from Smith to the Democratic party, implying that voter
frustration may lead to the election of a Republican majority in 1964.
Smith announced his intentions to hold hearings in January on December 5,
altering the coverage of the conflict. Smith's announcement eliminated Johnson's
problem definition frame; the issue was no longer whether to hold hearings but
rather when to hold them. Under the headline January Rights Action Pledged,
reporter Robert C. Albright credits Johnson with receiving a pledge from Smith.
A Post editorial on December 6 continued to attack Smith, presenting him as the
blockade and characterizing him as a tyrant:
In its Committee on Rules, the House of
Representatives has created a tyranny; the tyrant who heads
that Committee, Howard Smith of Virginia, has held up an
imperious hand forbidding the House to act on civil rights
legislation which, if it came to the floor would certainly be
endorsed by a majority of its members (Post, 12/6/63).
Smith as tyrant emerges as the most salient feature in the editorials and
complements Johnson's problem definition frame: the problem was Howard Smith.
The Post's news reporting on the status of the civil rights bill between
December 3 and December 6 was more thorough than Johnson suggested to Graham and
the story angles do not seem derived from Johnson's treatment recommendation
frames. For example, the Post interviewed members of the Rules Committee, as
suggested indirectly by Johnson, but they did not report on their leisure
activities as Johnson suggested. An argument could be made that Johnson's
demands to Graham were not literal; he did not really expect the Post to report
on the Congressmen's holidays. However, Johnson did seek a certain outcome: to
make members of the Committee look like they were not performing their elected
duties. However, the Post's reporting balances both sides of the hearing issue,
though, quoting one Committee member as saying: "It is wholly unfair to blame
the Rules Committee or Judge Smith for delaying civil rights. The Judiciary
Committee had the bill until Nov. 21 ..." (Post, 12/4/63).
Regarding Johnson's conflict frames, the Post reported December 3 that the
Rules Committee was holding up the vote on the civil rights bill and that no
action would be taken in 1963 because of Smith. The Post's reporting of the
conflict mirrors Johnson's conflict definition frame. However, there is a
weakness in assuming any correlation because the Post had already reported in
late November that Smith did not intend to hold hearings in 1963. Evidence of
this earlier knowledge makes it difficult to claim with any certainty that
Johnson's frustration with Howard Smith led the Post to demonize the Smith's
Johnson's moral judgment frames are not apparent in the Post's news articles.
Each day between December 3 and 5 the Post published some type of rebuttal to or
closer examination of the issue, by interviewing committee members with opposing
views (see above) or by estimating the potential success of the discharge
petition in bringing the bill to the full House. However, in a news story on
December 4, the Post adopts Johnson's causal interpretation of the situation by
suggesting that the bill could be voted on by Christmas if the Committee brought
it directly to the House floor. It does not report on the estimated amount of
time needed by the Committee or the time needed for discussion on the House
floor. Both the House Leadership and Johnson knew that a vote before Christmas
was unlikely but Johnson still emphasized the possibility for the action in
his conversation with Graham.
Post editorial frames more closely matched those in Johnson's conversation
with Graham than the news stories. While the news stories acknowledged multiple
opinions and possibilities, the editorials purvey only one message and it
closely resembles Johnson's. Johnson's conflict definition frames placing Smith
as the obstacle between civil rights legislation and a House vote are found in
editorials on December 3, 5, and 6, and his treatment recommendation frame --
the discharge petition -- appears on December 3. Also significantly, Johnson's
implausible causal interpretation frame -- that a discharge petition is a
necessary last resort that would save civil rights -- is also present in Post
editorials, particularly on December 3. Finally, his moral judgment frame
appears in that same editorial, which notes that "[t]hose who sign the petition
will be recorded and known as supporting civil rights; those who fail to sign
will be identified as opposed" ( Post, 12/3/63, p. A16).
In his conversation with Katharine Graham on December 2, 1963, Johnson drew
attention to the matter of civil rights legislation and promoted certain
definitions and recommendations of the situation in the House. While the frames
in Johnson's language did not appear in the Post's reporting of the matter, his
frames closely resemble those frames used by the Post editorial board to make
its point about Howard Smith, the discharge petition and the immediate need for
civil rights legislation. Johnson and the Washington Post are responsible for
Smith's portrayal as the most salient obstacle (and antagonist) to civil rights
legislation. Thus, though Johnson did not deliver his first Presidential press
conference until December 7, 1963, he impacted the news agenda in specific,
purposeful ways before that date (for another discussion, see Estrada, 1996). He
reaped the benefits of his careful press management well into November 1964 when
he was elected to office for the first time.
Outcomes including how we think and feel about a particular person or issue
may be linked to news story frames (Price et al., 1997). The frames themselves
often reflect broader cultural themes and narratives -- conflict, human
interest, consequence (p. 482, 484) -- and it is compelling to study how, why
and where they originate. People prefer personal attributions over systemic
attributions, and it can be argued that so do editors (Price et al., 1997). In
the case of Johnson's concerns over the stalled civil rights bill, it became
natural to name an antagonist and promote that view of the conflict. The
narrative imperative of journalism made Johnson's conflict frames easy to adopt
(Schudson, 1982; McCartney, 1987).
Graham acknowledges that she shared the conversation with the Post
editors, but did not request that they report on the Congressmen's vacations as
Johnson requested (Beschloss, 1997; Benedetto, 1996). With this in mind it is
accurate to note that the Post did not respond to a President's demands.
However, in his conversation, the President made certain elements of the civil
rights bill's route through the House more salient to Graham and the editors,
and the news coverage and editorials reflect the more salient points that
Johnson made. That demonstrates a framing effect and the roundabout path of a
news object from the public sphere to the Executive Office to the Fourth Estate,
a path that continues to engage scholars of journalism, communication, history,
and politics and surely demands closer attention.
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Lyndon Johnson and the press" Diplomatic History 12, Winter 1988,
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Bernstein, Irving (1996) Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon
Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Lyndon B. Johnson" Political Science Quarterly, 103 (3), 531-545.
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Entman, Robert M. (1993) "Framing: toward clarification of a fractured
paradigm." Journal of Communication 43 (2), Spring 1993, 51-58.
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Fought for Civil Rights Through the Press" unpublished paper.
Felsenthal, Carol (1989) Power, Privilege and the Post/The Katharine
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Graham, Katharine A. (1997) Personal History New York: Knopf.
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House Central File, Box 9, LBJ Library.
Graham, Katharine A. (1963) Conversation with Lyndon Johnson, 12/2/63.
Archived in the Presidential Tape Recordings of Lyndon Baines Johnson,
LBJ Presidential Library: Austin, Texas.
Graham, Katharine A. (1974) Transcript, Katharine Graham Oral History
Interview, recorded October 1, 1974. Tape 1, p. 25. LBJ Library:
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New York : New American Library.
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(Daily Diary), Box 1, 11/22/63 - 6/30/64, LBJ Library: Austin, Texas.
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Journal of Communication 43 (2), Spring 1993, 58-67.
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Washington Post (1963) various authors
- "Rights Bill Scored as Socialistic" 11/12/63, p.A1
- "Pot is Simmering: Civil Rights Law Delays May Prove Explosive"
- "Tax Cut Gets Priority Over Rights" 11/16/63, p.A1
- "Big Government: Taking Shape as Major '64 Issue" 11/16/63, p.A11
- "Q&A with JFK" 11/18/63, p.A18
- Inside Report "President Johnson" 11/25/63, p. A15
- "Johnson Puts Tax, Rights Bills Ahead" 11/26/63, p.A1-A10.
- Inside Report "Shakedown Cruise" 11/27/63, p.A13.
- "Lyndon Johnson's Rare Opportunity" 11/27/63, p.A12
- "Hill Awaits President's Talk Today" 11/27/63, p.A1
- "Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress" 12/1/63, p.E1
- "Congress Waiting for Clue" 11/27/63, p.A11
- "Strong Civil Rights Law Urged as Honor to Memory of Kennedy"
- "Decisive Action: The President Takes the Lead" 11/28/63, p.A1
- "House Starts Time Clock on Rights Drive" 11/29/63, Section A
- "Johnson Asks End to Teaching of Hate, Urges Early Rights, Tax
Bill Passage" 11/28/63, p.A20
- "Petition Seeks Floor Action on Rights Measure" 11/28/63, p.A20
- "Rights Leaders Impressed by Johnson Stand" 11/28/63, p.A20
- "A Time for Action" 11/28/63, p.A20
- "Smith Bars Rights Bill Speed-Up" 12/3/63, p.A1
- "Touchstone" 12/3/63, p.A16
- "Divided on Rights Action/Group Unlikely to Override Smith"
- "Congress Must Act" 12/4/63, p.A20
- "GOP Wary of Joining Rights Push" 12/5/63, p.A1
- "Slow Pace on Tax Bill Decried" 12/5/63, p.A1
- "The Last Alternative" 12/5/63, p.A22
- "January Rights Action Pledged" 12/6/63, p.A1
- "Tyrant in the House" 12/6/63, p.A16
- "Rights Bill S
White, Theodore H. (1965) The Making of the President, 1964 New York:
New American Library.
 A Gallup Poll reported for December 22, 1963 cited that 79% of respondents
approved of the way Lyndon Johnson was handling his job as President (Gallup, p.
 Young served as executive director of the National Urban League.
 Wilkins served as executive secretary for the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
 In a letter to Johnson following Kennedy's assassination, Katharine Graham
wrote: "But we all believe in you. And you, I know, believe in yourself as you
must. You will have all our support and help and prayers. Most of all of course
you had Phil's. To remind you of his feeling for you -- which were very
important to him--I would like to send you a copy of something he wrote about
you that I found recently among some writing he used to do in the middle of the
night mostly during 1958 and 1959. I meant to send it to you earlier. Maybe its
lucky that I didn't because I hope it will mean more to you now" (Graham, 1963).
 " Mr. President, I'm calling you really on behalf of the newspaper
publishers of which our publisher John Sweeterman is in the organization that
I'm referring to. Every year, as you probably remember the Thursday that closes
the publishers meeting in New York, they have a huge dinner _ at the Waldorf,
and they hope very much that this April 23rd, Thursday, that you might be
willing to speak to them. I'll give you a little of the background of Presidents
speaking to this group. President Kennedy spoke to them his first year in
office. And President Eisenhower spoke to them in 1954. Usually, on an election
year they duck the President or any political person and have a foreigner or
somebody non-political. But because this is your first year in office, they
hoped that you might consider speaking to them this year on that day." (Graham,
12/2/63, Presidential Tapes).
 "Howard Smith said to the Speaker of the House (name) that - I quietly and
judiciously asked to go talk to him about civil rights - that "you'll have to
come back and talk next year, January, and we'll all be late coming back in
January." They want to have their holidays. And we won't even give you a hearing
on a bill that's been up there since May. That they've had hearings on from May
till November. That's reported a several days ago that we don't need anymore
hearings on, but we'd be willing to spend all year on hearings if they'd give
'em, but he won't even give 'em a hearing, he won't even call a meeting. He just
said, "I'm out at my farm and I can't have any hearings." Now I don't want him
lectured on account of it I want to give him a factual situation. So we have no
alternative when you won't give a man a hearing -- we thought Oswald ought to
have a hearing. We are upset. That's why we've got a commission [Warren
Commission]. Because we thought even Oswald ought to have a hearing. In this
country that's not in keeping. So they are going to try to sign a petition that
will give 'em a hearing in the House (GRAHAM: Right --) so they can discharge
the Rules Committee and bring it out. (Johnson and Graham, 12/2/63, Presidential
 "I talked all day long and into the night on that, including talking to you
but they Justice Warren turned the Justice -- turned the Justice Department
down. Nick Katzenbach and them went to him and he wouldn't do it. I had to come
in here, plead with him and finally got him to do it. Everybody else wanted to
turn it down. Dick Russell - I had to talk to him four times. But we went
through with all that thing. Now, you know where I had to talk to 'em? Russell
was in Winder. Dirksen was in Illinois. Humphrey was on the beach. Mansfield was
on the beach in Miami in houses that people's become popular to lend them to
him.. Charlie Halleck was out hunting turkey. There wasn't a human here. And
they're not here now. And they are not working now. And they are not passing
anything. And they are not going to. Now somebody has got to -- instead of just
writing the stories about how the pages live or about Bobby Baker's girl.
Whether he had a girl or whether he didn't is not a matter that is going to
settle this country. But whether we have justice and equality is pretty damned
important. So I'd like for them [the Post writers] to be asking these fellows,
'Where'd you spend your Thanksgiving holidays? Tell me about it, was it warm and
nice?' And write a little story on it. Because if you don't, they are going to
start quitting here about the 18th of December and they'd come back about the
18th of January and then they'll have hearings in the Rules Committee 'til about
the middle of March and then they'll pass the bill and it will get over ..."
(Johnson and Graham, 12/2/63, Presidential Tapes).
 Johnson held his first Congressional leadership breakfast that morning,
December 3, at which John McCormack, D-Mass. and House Speaker said: "Last week
I talked with Smith about hearings and voting on the rule before Congress. He
told me he wouldn't do it. I offered not to bring the bill up until the early
part of January. Last Saturday I called. I told him I would take the full
responsibility. I am glad to see the newspapers this morning. I would say -- and
Albert [Carl Albert, House Majority Leader and D.-Okla.) and Boggs [Hale Boggs,
Assistant House Majority Leader D-La.)will confirm it -- that we cannot expect
any action by Rules until the middle of January. The only things we can do is to
press forward actively and energetically with the Discharge petition. A lot of
members don't like the Discharge Petition as a matter of policy." (Johnson,
Papers of LBJ, p.2)
 See above.
 In her oral history interview for the LBJ Library, Graham responds to a
question about whether Johnson ever called her personally on something she
didn't like. "He did in the beginning of his Administration. I think he called
every publisher in the country in the beginning of his Administration, either to
tell you he wished you would do something, to praise something you've done, or
to say -- I remember he said, I think on a civil rights vote in the beginning of
his Administration -- he complained that Congressmen weren't doing anything or
were out of town. You know -- why didn't we go see what they were doing! I mean,
he would try to use you to line up his votes. If we thought it was valid, we
would do it; and if we thought it was running his errands, we wouldn't" (Graham,
Oral History Transcript, p. 25).