The President and the Press: Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association
President John F. Kennedy, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City, April 27, 1961
Ladies and gentlemen, the very word secrecy is repugnant, in a free and open society, and we are as a people, inherently and historically, opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and secret proceedings.
We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweigh the dangers which are cited to justify it.
Even today there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating it’s arbitrary restrictions.
Even today there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation, if our traditions do not survive with it.
And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious who wish to expand it’s meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
That I do not intend to permit, to the extent that it is in my control.
And no official of my administration whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight, as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes, or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
For we are opposed, around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy, that relies primarily on covet means for expanding it’s fear of influence, on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation, instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night, instead of armies by day.
It is a system which has conscripted, vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific, and political operations.
Its preparations are concealed, not published. It’s mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned. No rumor is printed. No secret is revealed.
No president should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding. And from that understanding comes support or opposition, and both are necessary.
I am not asking your newspaper to support an administration. But I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and the dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.
I not only could not stifle controversy from your readers — I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, “an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it”.
We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors and we expect you to point them out when we miss them. Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed. And no republic can survive.
That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the first amendment, the only business in America specifically protected by the constitution, not primarily to amuse or entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply give the public what it wants, but to inform, to arouse, and to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, and educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
This means greater coverage and analysis of international news, for it is no longer far away and foreign, but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved attention to greater understanding of the news, as well as improved transmission, and it means finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation, to provide you with it’s possible information, outside the narrowest limits of national security.
And so it is to the printing press, to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news, that we look for strength, and his assistance, confident that with your help, Man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.