President Donald Trump’s “war on the media” has journalists wailing that freedom of the press is under attack. The hand-wringing is happening on both sides of the aisle, as politicians and pundits alike claim that Trump’s partisan war on the press and dissemination of misinformation and propaganda is “unprecedented” and the “absolute worst” in American history.
Trump has made no bones about his approach to the press. He’s said, “As you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on the earth.”
His press secretary, Sean Spicer, received a lot of heat this weekend for countering media reports with his own version of facts regarding the inauguration. “There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable,” he said. “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”
How to Handle Our Hyperventilating Press
The press is hyperventilating. After the CNN/Buzzfeed dossier affair, Jim Rutenberg wrote for The New York Times that we need a “new strategy” to cover this belligerent president—as if no journalist has ever faced a lying, manipulative, hostile president in American history. We’d “better figure things out, fast,” he wrote, “because … our still-functioning (fingers crossed) democracy needs it to stay on the right side of the drop.”
I’m not going to say Trump’s manipulation of facts is a good thing. It’s not. Public servants should always tell the truth. But most aren’t George Washington: they haven’t been since, well, George Washington. Trump’s war isn’t all that unusual and is rather indicative of a democracy that is filled with biased, fallen, sinful, prejudiced and sometimes honest, noble people.
My thesis is simple. Trump is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first president to wage war on the press. Yet the Republic has survived. In saying this, I am not justifying, defending, or approving of Trump’s propagandizing, shutting out the press, or lying. But barring actual sedition laws that legally silence the press, or the instatement of a monolithic government-run media that shuts out private voices, the greatest threat to freedom of the press is not a lying president spreading propaganda. It’s the subjectivity and moral relativism of the media itself.
Trump’s Behavior Is Nothing New
Still, you might say, Trump’s behavior is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Let me address this by framing his actions in a historical context. Trump’s brash style might be unprecedented. His use of social media and Twitter, in particular, is new. But there have been presidents in the past who lied with a smile, who silenced the press with a finger to the lips or a cup to the ear, who used modern technology to their advantage (Roosevelt with the radio and John F. Kennedy with television are just two examples).
You might find it interesting to know, given the dismay reporters are showing over Trump’s consideration of canceling or reducing televised news conferences, that Kennedy was the first to broadcast news conferences. And you know what? Journalists hated it. They called it anarchy. They longed for the days of FDR’s cozy press conferences, and they railed against the dog-and-pony show of the televised press conferences.
Additionally, news conferences are really a modern phenomena, and our Republic survived without them. Until Theodore Roosevelt, reporters had to submit their questions in writing to the president. Sometimes he answered, and sometimes he didn’t. I’m sure that irritated many a journalist wanting to “speak truth to power.”
Trump Is Nothing to Adams’ 1798 Sedition Act
As for hostilities between presidents and the press, this has been an ongoing battle since the very first days of our nation. The press was partisan, and newspapers represented one candidate or another. Some presidents got along with the press better than others, but it has always been filled with tension.
Our second president didn’t have a great record with the press. In fact, it was downright un-American. John Adams was so concerned about foreign influence (the French) on our press, he signed into law the 1798 Sedition Act, which made publishing anything critical of the government illegal. Thomas Jefferson, of course, put an end to that nonsense when he became president in 1800.
But the point is, if you’re going to say Trump tweeting out misinformation and yelling at the press makes him the greatest threat to American freedom of any president, well, it doesn’t quite measure up to Adams—who actually made a law to lock away writers who spoke out against the government.
If We’re Going To Say ‘Unprecedented,’ We Should Mean It
Again, I’m not saying two wrongs make a right. That’s not my point. I’m trying to take the histrionics out of the media narrative by putting this president in historical perspective. If we’re going to say “unprecedented,” we’d better make sure that’s actually true.
Of course times have changed, you’ll say. The Alien and Sedition Acts were so long ago. Ancient history. Okay. Let’s move into more modern times. Consider Theodore Roosevelt. He despised the press and called them a bunch of muckrakers for their sensationalism and false reporting. “The liar,” Roosevelt said of the media, “is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity take the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves.” A lot more eloquent than Trump, to say the least, but the gist is the same. Roosevelt even tried to sue newspapers for their coverage of the purchase of the Panama Canal rights. The courts put a stop to that, but surely Trump hasn’t done anything so brash (yet!).
But what about the flagrant hostility and lying that we see from Trump, you might ask. Isn’t that new? No, not at all. I could point you to Barack Obama’s lies, propaganda, and attacks on conservative news outlets, but let me take you back further in history—to John F. Kennedy.
JFK Fostered Secrecy and Deception
Like many presidents who had their favorite media, Kennedy was friendly to some members of the press, but hostile to others. While his presidency began as a love affair with the press (or rather the press with him), that degenerated over time. This was especially true during the crisis with Cuba in 1961 and 1962. To the dismay of journalists, even friendly ones, Kennedy shut off access to foreign policy information. This wasn’t anything new to the press, since their relationship with Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower was turbulent. He restricted media access and caused many to believe the country was facing a crisis of liberty. Government secrecy seemed to be growing, but many thought this would improve with Kennedy. It didn’t.
Kennedy justified his secrecy during a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York before the American Newspaper Publishers Association. He said he didn’t want a war with the press, but the “deadly challenge” facing America “imposes upon our society two requirements of direct concern both to the press and to the President—two requirements that may seem almost contradictory in tone, but which must be reconciled and fulfilled if we are to meet this national peril.”
I refer, first, to the need for far greater public information; and, second, to the need for far greater official secrecy.
Every newspaper now asks itself, with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?’ All I suggest is that you add the question: ‘Is it in the interest of the national security?’ And I hope that every group in America—unions and businessmen and public officials at every level—will ask the same question of their endeavors, and subject their actions to this same exacting test.
When ‘National Security’ Is an Excuse For Deception
The media howled, accusing the president of imposing voluntary censorship. Kennedy was playing tyrant and cutting off access of information that the American people had a right to know, they said. Kennedy remained indignant, constantly expressing his frustration with the press and its intrusion. He even went so far as to have his Secretary of State forbid officials and department heads, who were meeting every week, from telling the press anything about their conversations with the president regarding foreign entanglements.
During the Bay of Pigs, not only were journalists angry because they were prevented from writing about Cuba, but they caught Kennedy’s administration spreading lies. In April 1961, the president said, “there will not be under any conditions, an intervention in Cuba by the United States Armed Forces.” His White House counselor warned him to be cautious: “When lies must be told,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “they should be told by subordinate officials.”
The clamp-down on the press continued with the Defense Department issuing rules on how to handle the press: “The substance of each interview and telephone conversation with a media representative will be reported to the appropriate public information office before the close of business that day. A report need not be made if a representative of the public information office is present at the interview.” The reason given was: “in the current world situation to avoid disclosure of information affecting the national security.”
How the Press Responded to JFK
The press didn’t think highly of the new policy. Mark Watson of the Baltimore Sun wrote in “New Censor Rules Recall Goebbels,” that Kennedy “has thrown overboard the wartime principles and practices which two world wars have justified.”
Tuesday’s official dictum that “government-generated news” is a “weapon” officially regarded as a desirable substitute for normal news . . . suggests the policy and the performance of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief, Paul Joseph Goebbels, who prescribed what Germans should be allowed to read and think.
The Dallas Morning News accused the administration of censoring information about its policies because “it does not want the public to know about the errors it might make. Further, it wants to give the people propaganda about its own merits through the news it ‘manages.’” This, the columnist wrote, “can become a part of the path to dictatorship. … The people cannot rule unless they have the facts upon which to base their judgments.”
Will We See This Kind of Censorship From Trump?
So far, we have not seen this kind of “unprecedented” censorship from President Trump. Time will tell, however, and the press should demand freedom of information as fervently as it has in the past. But the point remains: such “wars” with the press have happened before, even by our most beloved presidents.
And even those not so beloved. Lyndon Johnson was despised by the press and accused of lying and lacking credibility. Brigitte Lebens Nacos writes in “The Press, Presidents, and Crises,” that “by 1967, many members of the White House press corps and of the media in general were turned off by Johnson’s never-tiring efforts to manipulate, seduce, and punish them. Moreover, the press had begun to write about the ‘credibility gap’ between what Johnson said and what he did.”
John Tebbel and Sarah Miles Watts, in “The Press and the Presidency” and quoted by Nacos, say that Johnson’s “relationship with the press combined all the worst elements of what had gone before, leaving scarcely one redeeming feature to permit a charitable conclusion.”
And Then There Was Nixon
Another president who also had his entanglements with the press is, of course, Richard Nixon, who called the press “the elites” and threatened to fire his press secretary if he didn’t keep media out of the White House. “I want it clearly understood from now on, ever no reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House. Is that clear?” Nixon said.
As you can see, Trump has plenty of company when it comes to a president’s war with the press. And these are only a few examples out of all of history.
But what of a good example? Probably one of the best is President Ronald Reagan, though he too tangled with the press from time to time—most famously his combative relationship with journalist Sam Donaldson. But on the whole, it was a positive relationship.
What Made President Reagan Different?
Why was this? What made Reagan different? Why was there an almost fuzzy relationship between him and the press? This was a question posed to ABC News Executive Vice President David Burke, recorded in Mark Hertsgaard’s 1988 book, “On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency.”
“I don’t know how to explain why he hasn’t been as vulnerable to the onslaught of the American press as some previous Presidents; it is a hard subject for me,” he said. “I wonder why. It isn’t because he intimidates us. It isn’t that he blows us away with logic. So what the hell is it?”
Upon reflection, Burke said it had to do with his amiable personality, his positive outlook. “You just can’t get the stomach to go after the guy,” explained Burke. “It’s not a popularity thing, it’s not that we’re afraid of getting the public mad at us. I think it is a perception that the press has in general of Reagan, that he is a decent man. He is not driven by insecurities, by venality, by conspiracies and back-room tactics.”
Reagan Wasn’t Perfect, But He Was Positive
Tom Brokaw said Reagan had “a more positive press than he deserves,” attributing much of his success to his White House staff, who were able to use television imagery and press manipulation to promote a positive image of him. Still, Brokaw recognized that his success also was rooted in his positive outlook, not only about the country, but about himself. “In part it goes back to who he is,” Brokaw said, “and his strong belief in who he is. He’s not trying to reinvent himself every day as Jimmy Carter was.”
It is doubtful if Trump will be able to emulate Reagan in his relationship with the press. But he is equipped with the same positive belief in America and her people. Our hope is he will evolve to better reflect the decency of Reagan than others in American history who chose a darker path. That’s not likely to happen, especially if the goal of the press is to spread its own propaganda and lies instead of seeking truth—to which Trump will react. And it’s likely Trump’s penchant for spin and propaganda will remain with us.
Either way, Spicer’s comment that accountability goes both ways is certainly true. The president should be held to account by the press, and the press should be held to account—not only by an executive who sees himself as “righting the record,” but by the others within the press. The best check on a reporter is not just the American people or an American politician, but other reporters.
The Media Doesn’t Need Solidarity, It Needs Accountability
Rutenberg of The New York Times said journalists should adopt a strategy of media solidarity. It’s a frightening notion if you really think about it. He urged fellow reporters to stand united against Trump. In fact, he lamented the fact that when the President-elect disparaged CNN, other reporters didn’t rally around their comrade in arms, Jim Acosta, and defy Trump. They didn’t follow the example of Ben Smith of Buzzfeed, who refused to get into a fight with CNN when the network pointed out that their report of the Trump dossier was better than Buzzfeed’s.
Instead of attacking CNN, Smith said he wasn’t “going to participate in an attempt to divide the media against each other.” But the rest of journalists didn’t follow suit, Rutenberg complained. Instead, “other reporters in the room readily took Mr. Acosta’s place, happy to have to decide how much they want to abide by Mr. Trump’s decision to selectively quarantine colleagues whose coverage he does not like.”
The best accountability for journalists does not arise out of solidarity (unless the issue really is one of truth and a fight for free speech), but out of competition in the quest for truth, and a willingness to call one another out when a journalist is failing to report what is true. It would be ideal for the president to tell the truth all the time. But historically, and given human nature (especially when a person has immense power), that’s simply not the case. Presidents are going to wage war against the press. Instead of whining about it, labeling it “unprecedented,” or calling for media solidarity, journalists should do their jobs—not in the name of social justice or personal pride, but in the name of truth on behalf of the American people.