“The president has declared war on the press.”
The above is a fairly accurate summation of the last month’s major news story, and every paper in the country has reported on it. Pundits have denounced the president, endlessly repeating that a strong and vigorous fourth estate is necessary to the well-being of a democracy. Which is true.
The papers go on to say that this is unprecedented in the country’s history—which is false.
Obviously, democracies need a free and unrestrained press, which is guaranteed to us by the First Amendment. However, also guaranteed is the right of the president to criticize the press. Those in the media frequently forget that while they have a right to speak or print, but do not have any right to be uncritically respected.
There has never been a golden age of accord between the press and the American presidency. Every president—without exception—has believed the press to be unfair, partisan, and in need of correction (if not outright restraint).
George Washington was an ardent fan of newspapers, subscribing to over thirty different papers. Between his announcing his candidacy and his inauguration, he had cancelled his subscriptions with all of them. As president, his administration was soundly criticized by the press. When his Secretary of State, John Jay, negotiated a peace treaty with England, the Jay Treaty was denounced by newspapers in terms that are too harsh even for today’s media. One paper wrote, “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!”
Jay later remarked you could travel by horseback across the nation, your route illuminated by the fires of his body burning in effigy. Washington, however, ignored the press & rewarded Jay by naming him to the Supreme Court.
It was only after Washington left office that he changed his mind and began reading the papers again. On even the last day of his life, he read a newspaper.
John Adams, Washington’s successor, was so thoroughly convinced that American newspapers were controlled by the French Press, that he pushed the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, allowed the president to deport “dangerous immigrants, and prohibited the press from making statements against the federal government. Editors who were critical of President Adams were fined and sentenced to jail terms—the severest was 18 months and $480 for calling President Adams (among other epithets) a "tyrant".
Jefferson successfully ran for the presidency—in part—on doing away with these oppressive acts. The Acts were allowed to expire or were abolished, with the exception of the Alien Enemies Act which is still part of the Federal Statutes. (This was the law that allowed FDR to imprison Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants during World War II.)
While Jefferson supported free speech for the press, he nonetheless hated the way the “polluted vehicles of falsehood and error" reported on his presidency. "Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds.”
Even President James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, hated the newspapers. He endured them, eventually saying, "To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Andrew Jackson despised the press, believing that the articles accusing his wife of bigamy (technically correct) contributed to her death shortly after his election (but before his inauguration). As General Jackson had already killed a journalist in a duel, insulting the president was a dangerous undertaking. There are a lot of stories about how tough Jackson was, the extraordinary number of pairs of dueling pistols he kept ready, the would-be assassin whose gun failed to fire—twice (the assassin-wannabe was then beaten into submission by the President)….But my favorite Jackson story is about his parrot, Poll, who was supposed to have a place of honor at Jackson’s funeral. Unfortunately, the bird had to be removed because it wouldn’t stop cursing.
While every president has disliked the press, it has been during war that presidential ire has risen to its highest points. During the Mexican-American War, President Polk mused about trying various newspaper editors for treason. But no president actively pursued and punished the press like Abraham Lincoln.
Nothing that Lincoln could do made American newspapers happy. Even when Lincoln was successful, the Northern press still attacked the president. After delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863, the Chicago Times wrote: ”We did not conceive it possible that even Mr Lincoln would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself.”
Another newspaper cataloged Lincoln’s character traits: “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate.”
Lincoln closed newspapers in both the North and the South, jailed or banished editors, and prohibited the publication of some forms of protests. When the Supreme Court overruled Lincoln’s suspension of the Bill of Rights, he just ignored the court in large part. This is surprising since—though it is not widely known—Lincoln owned a small newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, when he was elected. While he sold the paper shortly after being elected to the presidency, he was an avid paper reader while in the White House, and newspaper clippings were found in his wallet the night he was assassinated.
Grover Cleveland actively hated the press, and wouldn’t even allow reporters space within the White House to work. His secretary, who was nominally in charge of working with the journalists, forced them to wait outside in all sorts of weather. When the journalists begged the president to hire a secretary who would be kind to them, he answered that he preferred one who was kind to the president.
After Cleveland, things did not improve much under President McKinley. While he allowed the press a small office within what was then called the Executive Mansion, he still complained that newspapermen were “the inventors of news.”
All of this changed dramatically with President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the real inventor of "presidential spin. Teddy loved to use the press, and invented many of the presidential press traditions still in place today. He improved the offices the press used, he was the first president to have a press secretary, and he was the first to meet regularly with the press. On most days, he informally met off the record with reporters while he shaved. And Teddy was the first to take full advantage of photographers during these meetings. He kept close track of where the photographers were, and when they were about to take his picture. It is almost impossible to find a "candid" photo of this president who made a point of having his presidency recorded on film.
Teddy Roosevelt was also the first president to stage press events to shape public opinion to fit his political needs. When he wanted congressional approval of naval submarines, he took the press with him to document his descent to the bottom of Long Island Sound. Roosevelt, via his use of the press, created the modern presidency. Up until this point, the peace-time president was the chief administrator of the nation, but policy and most legislation were created by Congress. Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, used the power of the press to change that, the president, the sole branch of government that could speak with one voice, became the shaper of national policy.
As the media changed, so did the relationship between the president and the press. In 1920, there were only two radio stations in the country, within two years, there were over five hundred. For the first time, print journalism was not the only form of news media, and while the public quickly adopted to the new form of media, the presidency was a little slower. Invest a few minutes with Google, and you can still hear the tinny voice of Herbert Hoover, yelling loudly into a microphone that he obviously doesn’t really believe works.
Hoover was nearly the complete opposite of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who understood not only the medium, but how the people listened to it. His relaxed and conversational tone connected with the American people, much to the horror of print journalists. In time, FDR, too, complained about the unfairness of the press and about biased reporting. While regular press conferences were still being held, FDR insisted that the questions be submitted in advance and that the president could not be quoted directly without permission.
President Eisenhower was the first to use film to record his press conferences and he was obviously dubious about the value of adding movie cameras to a formal press conference. At the first, on January 19, 1955, Ike said, "Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence.”
From there, it was only a small step to January 1961, when President Kennedy held the first of sixty-five live, televised press conferences (and the questions did not have to be submitted in advance in writing. The press not only resisted this change, but hated it. The Dallas Morning News attacked Kennedy for controlling the media 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 paper 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.”
Nixon controlled the press conferences…by having almost none at all! In six years, he held fewer press meetings than Ford did in two years. Where FDR had held roughly seven press conferences a month, from Nixon through Reagan, the average dropped to one—or fewer—a month. Even "Silent Calvin" Coolidge used to average about six a month.
Bush (41), Clinton, and Bush (43) averaged a little over two a month, and each complained bitterly about unfair reporting in the press. Or, as Bill Clinton called them, the “purveyors of hatred and division”.
President Trump has a horrible relationship with the press...And we should be grateful, as evidently, this is an indication that all is well. It is when the press likes a president, and cooperates with him that we ought to be worried.
From the sound of things these days, I’d say we are safe for at least the next four years.