The presidents and the press

By Christopher Harper

President Trump probably wouldn’t rank in the top five opponents of the media among U.S. presidents.

That’s the verdict of The New York Times in a review of a recent book, “The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media — From the Founding Fathers to Fake News” by Harold Holzer. 

Yes, that assessment appeared in DaTimes, albeit from Jack Shafer, the media analyst of Politico.

The book’s author is no fan of President Trump. Holzer worked for U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. 

John Adams signed sedition acts into law and used them against his critics in the media. George Washington even supported Adams’ anti-media tendencies. In his post-presidential years, Adams lamented that people read only Federalist or Republican newspapers—not both—leaving them with a one-sided view of the government in power. Sounds like a prelude to Fox and MSNBC.

Abraham Lincoln, arguably the best president in the nation’s history, imprisoned editors during the Civil War, banned newspapers from using the mail, and even confiscated printing presses. “Altogether, nearly 200 papers would face federally initiated subjugation during the Civil War,” Holzer writes. 

The Roosevelts enjoyed some of the best press among the presidents. But even they took aim at recalcitrant reporters. Theodore Roosevelt rebuked investigative journalists as “muckrakers,” or those who could only look down into the muck. He also filed a libel suit against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which finally was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered massive censorship of news organizations, including a government Office of the Censor. His administration also penalized any news organization that reported about his paralysis or his ill health in his final years.

President Woodrow Wilson imposed censorship during World War I in a heavy-handed manner, and his Espionage Act still stands as a repressive law against whistleblowers. 

The battle between President Richard Nixon and his press critics is well documented here—as it has been elsewhere. 

Although Holzer batters Trump for his attacks on the press, the author doesn’t hold back on Barack Obama. Holzer recalls the analysis of former Washington Post managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. that Obama’s “war on leaks and other efforts to control information” were the worst Washington had seen since Nixon.

All told, the book analyzes the 18 of the 45 presidents, with many nuggets about the various administrations.

For example, one journalist confides that the press was as much responsible for the New Deal as was FDR because of the glowing media coverage. That sounds about right!

Moreover, the press ignored JFK’s extra-marital affairs because journalists didn’t think the private doings affected public business. That, of course, ignored at least one affair that straddled a mistress and the Mob. One reporter referred to the president as the “swashbuckler in chief.”

Despite JFK’s tryst with the media, he targeted some enemies, including Henry Luce of Time and David Halberstam of DaTimes.

Although I’ve never been a fan of Lyndon Johnson, the saddest tales come from his administration. LBJ had a massive mandate from the voters in 1964–more than 61 percent–and an excellent rapport with the press. He managed to lose both public and the media’s support by misleading them about the war in Vietnam in what became known as the government’s credibility gap.

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