5 Presidents Who Fought the Media

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President Donald Trump’s already combative stance toward reporters added another chapter with his recent Tweet that the media “is the enemy of the American people.” Democrats and Republicans alike blasted the remark as being inappropriate and unpresidential. But from the very beginning of the republic, many presidents have had a rocky relationship with the media. The press has often been quick to pounce on the chief executive — and presidents have fought back. Previous presidential administrations have spied on reporters and even threatened them with prison if they published unfavorable stories. And one president’s aides even hatched a plot to assassinate a reporter. While some believe Trump’s media attacks are unprecedented, here are some other presidents who battled the media.

 

5. President Barack Obama

Photojournalists photograph President Obama as he signs a bill in 2013.

Conservatives widely believe the media treated President Obama with kid gloves, and that Obama reciprocated the love. But Obama had an edgy relationship with the media. First, the administration spied on Associated Press reporters, trying to find the source of leaks within the administration. On a similar note, it prosecuted nine cases involving government whistle-blowers — more than three times the amount of all previous presidential administrations. That could have set a troubling precedent for President Trump, who has vowed to go after leaks in his White House. It’s not the only nasty precedent Obama might have established; he made it clear he didn’t consider Fox News a legitimate news organization, a claim akin to Trump’s comments about CNN and the New York Times, among other outlets.

And the issue of media access to the president and government officials and information arose throughout Obama’s two terms. The media routinely criticized Obama for using social media instead of the traditional media to reach the public (sound familiar?). Also, news agencies complained that the White House unfairly denied them access to presidential events, and made it difficult for reporters to request documents through the Freedom of Information Act. One New York Times reporter complained that the White House’s restrictions on access were “just like Tass,” referring to the Soviet state news agency.

 

4. President Richard Nixon

Watergate dominated Richard Nixon's second term in the White House.

President Nixon’s aides tried to place him in favorable public appearances where he could avoid tough questions from reporters.

President Nixon invented the modern adversarial relationship between presidents and the media (in fact, Nixon became the first to use the term “media,” instead of press, to refer to those covering his presidency). The administration tried to intimidate reporters to prevent unfavorable news; reporters who got on Nixon’s bad side found themselves dealing with IRS inquiries. Nixon also created the White House Communications Office. The office’s unofficial duties included helping the president put a positive spin on news, and appear in favorable settings where he would be shielded from tough questions by reporters.

Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, once said, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club — the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, penned the infamous line, and it certainly had the blessing of the president, who included journalists on his infamous “enemies list.” And “enemies” doesn’t seem an exaggeration with Nixon; a couple of his top aides once concocted a plot to assassinate a journalist who had published leaks.

 

3. President John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease.

President Kennedy’s administration severely restricted access to foreign policy information, causing critics to claim censorship.

Although the media generally viewed JFK favorably, captivated by the youthful president and his family, there were some tough times. Reporters vehemently protested the Kennedy Administration’s restriction to access on foreign affairs information. At the height of the Cold War, and events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK actively worked to restrict information to the media, citing national security. Naturally, the media balked, claiming censorship.

 

2. President Abraham Lincoln

The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in the Confederacy.

President Lincoln’s administration kept a close eye on the press, rewarding friendly reporters and imprisoning others.

Imagine if President Trump suddenly issued an executive order titled, “Arrest and Imprisonment of Irresponsible Newspaper Reporters and Editors.” The media would howl, and there would be massive street protests. But Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order under that exact title on May 18, 1864. Some perspective: that same day, two New York newspapers published a forged presidential proclamation. Among other things, the proclamation called for 400,000 more Union troops for the Civil War, and ordered a draft if necessary. For a city that had already experienced a devastating draft riot protesting the unpopular war, the forgery really was a despicable act.

Beyond that outlier incident, Lincoln proved to be a deft manipulator of the media and his public image. On the one hand, he generously handed out government jobs and contracts to friendly reporters and editors. But he also abhorred negative reports, especially about the Union war effort. The Lincoln Administration clamped down on information during the war. Reporters who attempted to circumvent those restrictions were imprisoned. And long before the era of social media, Lincoln used a similar tactic to bypass the media: personal letters. Lincoln penned a number of letters to colleagues, then leaked them to newspapers. That way, he could get his message out directly to readers, without having to answer hard-hitting questions from editors.

 

1. President John Adams

Longtime friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died the same day, July 4, 1826.

John Adams (left) made it illegal for the press to criticize the federal government, a controversial law that helped Thomas Jefferson win the presidency in 1800.

As noted earlier, the adversarial relationship between the media and the presidency has been a reality since the earliest days of the republic. John Adams set a standard for acrimony that even President Trump will never meet. The second president oversaw the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798, which prohibited anyone from publishing “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the federal government. Opponents vigorously protested the act as a violation of the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. Obviously, there were concerns that the government and its critics would have their own views of the “truth.”

Despite the protests, the act stood, and many newspaper editors were convicted under the law. The controversial law is cited as one of the driving forces behind the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and the law mercifully expired that same year.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.