Presidents VS Press
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Sound familiar? How about this, “I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed...the vulgarity...of those who write for them.” No, it’s not one of our worst presidents. It’s one of our best: Thomas Jefferson.
All presidents have issues with the press. These statements came when Jefferson was president and years after he left office. He was attacked by supporters of John Adams during the 1800 election for president. He was criticized for favoring France, for being an atheist, for fathering children with one of his slaves, which turned out to be true. Jefferson supporters called Adams a fool, a hypocrite, and a criminal. All of this played out in newspapers which supported each candidate. Despite Jefferson’s criticism of the press, historians believe he was a strong supporter of a free press.
The adversarial relationship between the president and the press has continued throughout our history. Teddy Roosevelt was a master at using the press to get public support behind his progressive agenda. He called investigative journalists of his day “muckrakers”. But he used their work to get things done. He used the Upton Sinclair’s much criticized novel “The Jungle”, that claimed there were awful conditions in the unregulated meat packing industry, to get The Pure Food and Drug Bill passed into law.
Woodrow Wilson wanted to use censorship and propaganda during World War I. Shortly after declaring war, Wilson signed an executive order creating a new federal agency that would allow the government to influence press coverage. It was called the Committee on Public Information. It sounds like something from the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. It got free advertising in newspapers to campaign for war bonds and recruit new soldiers. The government also tried to restrict reporters from getting real information from the military and manufacturers involved in the war effort.
Harry Truman had a contentious relationship with the news media in the era of McCarthyism. He expressed his fundamental view in a 1952 letter to The Citizen-Advertiser, an Auburn, New York newspaper, that had won an award as “Most Valuable Citizen to the Community”. Truman wrote, “When our forefathers established special guarantees for the freedom of the press, they did so not for the personal aggrandizement of the publisher, but to serve the public. The award that has come to you is a gratifying demonstration of the true role of a newspaper in a democratic society.” Three years after leaving the White House, Truman also made clear what he thought was unfair criticism by the press. In 1955 he wrote, “Presidents and the members of their cabinets and staff members have been slandered and misrepresented since George Washington.”
Richard Nixon had a basic mistrust of the news media. He kept the famous “Enemies List” which included reporters he didn’t like. He allowed FBI wiretapping of American citizens. He banned the Washington Post from the White House because of its reporting. In the end, it was the power of a free press that got to the truth of what was really happening in the Nixon White House and brought down one of the most corrupt presidents in our history.
There has always been tension between the press and presidents. The public is more aware of the relationship in the digital age of social media. There is more information available now than ever before, some of it unreliable. Basic facts and truth are often twisted. We are now in the dangerous age of “fake news” and the press has been deemed “the enemy of the people”. We have a president who has proven to be a compulsive liar, someone who has trouble accepting truth and reality. Thomas Jefferson said something else about a free press. “Man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.” This is a warning that rings truer today than ever.