How Castro Drove JFK's Anti-Media Bias and Press Censorship

With the death of Fidel Castro, we will be flooded with reflections on his long reign, including a good deal on Cuban Missile Crisis, when a nuclear war nearly broke out. My new book The Tunnels has a surprising, revealing and up-close view of the crisis, based on JFK's secret White House tapes and recently declassified documents. For one thing, we learn that the crisis had almost as much to do with Berlin as it did Castro, Cuba and the Soviets.

But Cuba played another role in the book in that President Kennedy's botched CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 fed his anti-press feelings that in turn surely influenced his controversial decision the following year to try to suppress CBS and NBC coverage of escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall--the focus of my book. Here's how it all began.

Kennedy, despite his glossy image in the press, had a low opinion of many reporters and resented critical media coverage and commentary. Privately, he called the press "the most privileged group" who regard any restrictions on national security coverage as "a limitation on their civil rights. And they are not very used to it." To his friend Ben Bradlee, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, he complained, "When we don't have to go through you bastards we can really get our story to the American people."

While his televised press conferences promoted his popularity, Kennedy's honeymoon with much of the press had not survived his first spring in office. First he fenced with the media in April 1961 after asking them to keep secret the (misguided) plans for the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, which turned into a fiasco. Just one outlet, The New York Times, published a vague report, but that was enough to get JFK's blood boiling.

Two weeks later, he delivered a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association that one can easily imagine Trump offering in the future, substituting terrorism for Communism. He boldly asked "every publisher, every editor, and every newsman" to "reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country's peril." The U.S. was threatened around the globe by the Communist menace and "in time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort, largely based on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy." At such a time, "the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public's need for national security."

The Communist threat required an unprecedented change in outlook and "missions" not just by the government but by every newspaper. Each democracy, he said, recognizes the necessary restraints of national security--and the question in the U.S. was "whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed." He railed against leaks published by the press that might tip off enemy powers. These leaks might have passed the test for journalism but not for national security, and Kennedy wondered aloud whether additional tests "should not now be adopted." He urged his audience to give it "thoughtful consideration" and reexamine their "responsibilities."

When details of the speech were published, media commentators--with or without thoughtful consideration--rejected what many considered thinly veiled threats to impose new controls if the call for "self-restraint" was not heeded. Time magazine, under a headline announcing "The Press: No Self Censorship," called the speech "ill conceived." Even many Kennedy aides, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., felt he had gone too far.

The President backed off, but his views on press irresponsibility festered. This informed his decision to try to kill those CBS and NBC specials--to order the FBI to tap the phone of a famed New York Times reporter--and lie to the press (perhaps with good cause, although many claimed he went overboard) during the thirteen days of the missile crisis in October 1962.