One month into the Trump Administration, you’d think that the sour relationship between the President and the news media covering him is “unprecedented” in its ugliness and vitriol spewing from both sides.
Time out. Although the current standoff is ugly and increasingly shrill, it is by no means unusual. In fact, since John Adams, the relationship between Presidents and reporters has often been rocky and at times openly hostile. It was Adams who set the tone for this ongoing battle by accusing the press of actively working with foreign powers (France) to depose his administration. One result of this anger was the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, parts of which were aimed squarely at the fledgling free press protected by the First Amendment.
From there, relationships between Presidents and the press have more often than not been tense and plagued by mutual suspicion. Abraham Lincoln recognized the value of a free press, but that didn’t prevent him from attempting to suppress coverage of Union battle reversals during the Civil War. (Reporters returned the favor by, among other things, portraying Honest Abe as a monkey, a baboon — and worse). Teddy Roosevelt despised reporters as did Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and Richard Nixon. Others, notably FDR, were able to master press relations; only when he tried to pack the Supreme Court to insure judicial approval of his policies did Roosevelt run afoul of the Capitol press corps. Harry Truman was largely accepting of the press’ role in covering the White House, but erupted in a rage following an unfavorable review of his daughter’s singing talent. Truman’s relationship with the media soured when it became apparent, to him, that reporters preferred General Douglas MacArthur, who excelled at stroking friendly reporters.
Dwight Eisenhower controlled his anger with the media by writing scathing letters and diary entries that were never shared publicly. John F. Kennedy was the first President to hold an organized, televised press conference, which reporters initially hated because they preferred one-on-one interviews. Of LBJ’s and Nixon’s relationship with the news media, the less said the better. Suffice to say those relationships were dysfunctional in the extreme. More recently, Barack Obama displayed a disdain for the press and came down hard on government leaks to the media.
— President Donald Trump, 2/17/17
Like Wall Street, Trump believes that the traditional news media is on economic life support, weakened to the point of ineffectiveness by serious structural problems. Newspapers — the ones you hold in your hand — are fading rapidly as ad revenues have eroded and circulation declined. As publishers have moved online, newsrooms across the country have been decimated and long form journalists replaced with social media mavens who treat news as rapid fire sound bites intended to attract readers more interested in immediacy than accuracy. In such a weakened state, Trump and his advisors believe that the press’ best chance at survival is to get onboard with the Administration’s pro-business economic agenda.
Trump and his advisors were well ahead of the curve in recognizing this turmoil in the media business and understanding how to take advantage of it. Trump’s tweets are a central part of the strategy. In using Twitter like a press release, the White House is bypassing traditional news reporting and forcing editors to cover his every pronouncement, however brief and at times inchoate. The Administration also appears to be using the press conference — when there is one — as a platform to challenge and belittle individual reporters while also offering up little in the way of solid news. He has disparaged the New York Times as “failing” and lashed out at CNN, among others, for propogating “fake” news.
Two, and this is where Trump parts company with the vast majority of his predecessors in the Oval Office, he and his aides clearly do not respect the mainstream, traditional media. This is reflected in the way his Administration has forged close ties to what best can be described as peddlers of unverified, conspiracy-driven content via online websites — in other words, unprofessional journalism. Trump’s coziness with Breitbart News is, indeed, unheard of; it would be difficult to imagine any previous President bolstering a publication that specializes in strange, sometimes perverted stories while also attacking government institutions with often reckless venom. There is also Trump’s friendship with Alex Jones, an online rabble rouser who, among other outrageous claims, asserts that the Sandy Hook killings was a staged event using child actors. (Trump has since criticized Jones, but not disavowed him).
It is thus safe to say that although the current animosity between the President and the press is by no means unprecedented, there is an undercurrent of outright hostility to traditional journalism and its role as the guardian of democracy. While previous Presidents have had their share of battles with the press and some, like Richard Nixon, showed open and virulent contempt for reporters, in the end Presidents at least tacitly honored the role of a free and open press.
For that, we can thank our third President, Thomas Jefferson who supported a free and open press as a powerful check on government (even though at times, he was pilloried by newspapers as an anarchist, a bigot, and a francophile).
In light of current events, Jefferson is worth quoting at length:
“I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
It is by no means clear at this point whether Donald Trump believes at all in a free and open press. Among Presidents, that, indeed, would be unprecedented.