President Donald Trump can be called many things, but “friend of the media” isn’t one of them. The president frequently complains about the “fake news” media and even singles out individual reporters for harsh criticism. Many consider Trump’s behavior unpresidential, but the fact is, presidents have often had an uneasy relationship with the press, dating to the beginning of the republic. This is not to condone Trump’s behavior, some of which is extremely mean-spirited, but here are a few remarks from past presidents who sparred with the press.
5. “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”
— Thomas Jefferson. While a great supporter of freedom of speech, Jefferson sometimes resented reporters. Another Jefferson gem: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
4. “I want more good news. Don’t go with these controversial things that are designed to divide.”
— George H.W. Bush during his vice presidency, talking about the change in his stance on abortion, according to the New York Times. Bush accused the media of “trying to go against the will of the people.”
3. “Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but there is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt. This would all depend on the definition of “lies,” and whether that would merely constitute someone questioning an administration’s actions.
2. “Must I shoot a simple soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”
— Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and his administration struggled to control media criticism during the Civil War. After Lincoln appointed Gen. Ambrose Burnside the Union commander overseeing Ohio, the general noted, “newspapers were full of treasonous expression.”
1. “The press is your enemy. Enemies. Understand that? … Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”’
— Richard Nixon, in a taped conversation to his Joint Chiefs of Staff, as recounted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post. Nixon likely had the most contentious relationship with the media of any president before Trump. And that sour relationship began years before he assumed the presidency; after losing the 1962 gubernatorial election in California, Nixon held a press conference and famously declared, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” And lest not forget Nixon’s first VP, Spiro Agnew, once labeled reporters, “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
“Whenever the press quits abusing me I know I’m in the wrong pew. I don’t mind it because when they throw bricks at me — I’m a pretty good shot myself and I usually throw ’em back at ’em.”
— Former president Harry S. Truman, at a 1958 dinner in his honor.