The President and the Press

Keri Phillips: On Rear Vision, the highs and lows of the president and the press.

Donald Trump [archival]: We're going to take on the big media, big business and big donors that are bleeding our country dry.

Our great movement, powered by everyday citizens, will overcome the sickness that is plaguing our politics and our media. And I'll tell you what, our media is indeed sick, and it's making our country sick, and we're going to stop it.

Keri Phillips: Although Donald Trump enjoys a singularly combative relationship with the media, he is not the first US president to view the fourth estate with hostility. As Rear Vision identifies some former presidential highs and lows, we'll see that changes in media as well as changes in president drive this symbiotic relationship.

Justin Buchler: Well, in the 19th century the only media we had were newspapers.

Keri Phillips: Justin Buchler is Associate Professor of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University.

Justin Buchler: Newspapers really were either owned directly by or owned by people affiliated with political parties because we didn't have really the opportunity to do mass marketing in the way that we have today. The people who were involved in newspapers really were people who were closely affiliated with political parties. So if you look even at the names of newspapers in the 19th century, newspapers even had the words 'Democrat' or 'Republican' in them. So they were very clear about what they were doing, they were very clearly partisan in their objectives. And it was a very different environment. They were openly partisan and nobody had any delusions about what they were doing. So it was just a fundamentally different notion about what journalism was. It wasn't really until the 20th century that people even thought that non-partisan journalism was something worth exploring.

One of the things that happened is we saw a series of movements in the early 20th century, both what we call the progressive movement and the populist movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and in particular the progressive movement which was aimed largely at uncovering corruption. And a lot of the journalism that we saw coming out of that era, what we call muckraking journalism, was about uncovering corruption. So we saw a change in the model of journalism. And some of the early journalists in the muckraking tradition took a different approach. And there were some partisan associations between some muckraking journalists, but it was the prelude to what we now think of as investigative journalism. And that model of investigative journalism that came out of the muckraking era of the early 20th century was what led to a different set of professional norms for journalists. And journalists who thought back on the muckraking era came to think of themselves as playing a sort of a watchdog role in politics. And instead of having partisan biases, took on what they thought of as an oppositional bias. No matter who was in power, they should take on an oppositional role. So what we now think of as non-partisan objective journalism is really a phenomenon that developed in the early mid 20th century as an outgrowth of muckrakers.

Mark Feldstein: You know, Theodore Roosevelt was really the first media president, a little over 100 years ago. He was the first president who truly captured the imagination of the media and deliberately cultivated the media as a key part of his governance.

Keri Phillips: Mark Feldstein is a former reporter and now journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

Mark Feldstein: And it began even before he was president, the press was instrumental in his rise. He held the first regular daily news conferences in the White House as he got his daily shave. The news men (and they were all men) would gather around him and he would tell them stuff, some off the record, some on the record, and they would then go with that. And they were pretty happy to be spoon-fed by him and they were pretty submissive to him. He made great copy, and he was young and he was charismatic and he had young children, and all those things were new and exciting and happening at a time when newspapers were really taking off as a profit making mass media.

So after Roosevelt were not quite adept at using the media until Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin, who had a lot of problems with newspaper publishers who were conservative Republicans who opposed his liberal democratic reforms. But the reporters themselves adored Roosevelt and so did the photographers, to the point that the photographers really covered up Roosevelt's paralysis from polio, did not take photos of him, and even exposed the film when the occasional oppositional photographer would try to take pictures of FDR in his wheelchair. So FDR had Fireside Chats, as there were called, these radio broadcasts that went over the heads of the publishers and newspaper publishers who opposed him, straight to the American people. And that would be the beginning of using alternative news sources to get around that gatekeeping function and reach voters directly.

Franklin Roosevelt [archival]: [Fireside Chat] To all newspapers and radio stations—all those who reach the eyes and ears of the American people—I say this: You have a most grave responsibility to the nation, now and for the duration of this war.

If you feel that your government is not disclosing enough of the truth, you have every right to say so. But in the absence of all the facts, as revealed by official sources, you have no right in the ethics of patriotism to deal out unconfirmed reports in such a way as to make people believe that they are gospel truth.

Keri Phillips: FDR talking about press responsibility in a fireside chat two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December, 1941.

After the end of the Second World War, a flood of commercial television licences swept the new medium into American homes and this kind of journalism became the norm for TV news. Providing news—seen as a public benefit—became a requirement for broadcast license-holders, and presidents entered the television age.

Jon Marshall, Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University:

Jon Marshall: Presidents first really began using television with President Eisenhower, with his administration starting in 1953. But President Kennedy, when he was elected in 1960, was the first president to really master the use of television as a way of getting his points across and as a way of campaigning effectively, and he is someone who looked good on television and sounded good on television.

Richard Nixon in the famous debate with President Kennedy in 1960 sounded much better if you listened to him on the radio, but when you saw him on TV he looked pale and sweaty where Kennedy looked very calm and in command of the situation.

John F Kennedy [archival]: There isn't any doubt that we couldn't do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press. Now, on the other hand, the press has a responsibility not to distort things for political purposes, not to just take some news in order to prove a political point. It seems to me their obligation is to be as tough as they can on the administration, but do it in a way which is directed towards getting as close to the truth as they can get and not merely because of some political motivation.

Keri Phillips: John F Kennedy talking about the media in a TV interview recorded in 1963. He was assassinated later that year and followed as president by his vice president Lyndon Johnson, who won a term in his own right before Richard Nixon, a Republican, became president in 1969.

Jon Marshall: Nixon was actually the first to set up a White House communications office that would stage events especially for television, with hand-picked audiences of people who would be favourable to what he was saying, and placing the events in settings that would make him look good. Nixon learning his lessons from the 1960 campaign, when he ran for president in 1968 against Hubert Humphry, he hired as his campaign manager HR Haldeman who had previously worked as an advertising executive. He also hired a young man named Roger Ailes who had been a producer for a TV talk show to help coach him on how to appear on television. And as you may know, Roger Ailes then later became the founder of Fox News, the Rupert Murdoch owned station in the United States.

Keri Phillips: What kind of relationship did he have with the media at that point?

Jon Marshall: Early in his career Nixon actually enjoyed favourable press. When he first ran for Congress in suburban Los Angeles, he won strong backing from the Los Angeles Times, which was the dominant newspaper in the area. And then again when he ran for Senator from California, the Los Angeles Times backed him heavily. And once Nixon was in Washington he generally got favourable coverage from Time magazine, which was the dominant news magazine in the United States.

But following the campaign against Kennedy in 1960, Nixon increasingly felt that the media was against him, especially distrustful of the large east coast newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the three main network television stations. And he did carry a grievance against journalists and became increasingly bitter about the way he was being portrayed.

Mark Feldstein: Nixon despised the press in ways that were almost unprecedented. All presidents had had their battles with the press, going back to George Washington, all of them felt the sting of criticism. But Nixon was a hypersensitive, paranoid, brooding figure who felt that he had been cheated out of the election when he lost to John Kennedy eight years earlier. And so when he finally did get the White House he was determined to exact revenge on his enemies, the top of which was the press.

So he had a very top-down structure to try to control the press, and he went after the news media in deliberate and vindictive ways that would not be repeated until Donald Trump. He put reporters individually on an enemies list, had their tax returns audited. His otherwise pro-business administration went for anti-trust action against the news networks. He dispatched his vice president to denounce the news media as an institution. Even at one point his staff plotted to assassinate his most vexing investigative reporter and critic. That was called off. But that's how bad it got.

And he moved to censor the news media with attempted suppression of the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam and only the Supreme Court's intervention stopped him from doing that. So in all of these ways Nixon went after individual reporters and the news media as an institution, trying to delegitimise it.

Richard Nixon [archival]: I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life. I'm not blaming anybody for that. Perhaps what happened is that what we did brought it about, and therefore the media decided that they would have to take that particular line. But when people are pounded night after night with that kind of frantic, hysterical reporting, it naturally shakes their confidence. Don't get the impression that you arouse my anger. One can only be angry with those he respects.

Keri Phillips: Richard Nixon at a press conference in October 1973, just months before he would become the first and only US president to resign, forced to do so by the revelation of the secret and often illegal activities undertaken by his administration, commonly known as Watergate. He was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford, who was succeeded by a one-term Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who in turn gave way to a president known as The Great Communicator:

Ronald Reagan [archival]: Today marks on my first State of the Union Address to you, a constitutional duty as old as our republic itself. President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the nation that the destiny of self-government and the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty is finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. For our friends in the press who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say I did not actually hear George Washington say that.

Jon Marshall: Ronald Reagan took the template that Nixon tried to use to deal with the media and used it in a much more masterful way than Nixon was able to. Nixon was awkward and did not appear well on camera, whereas Reagan was brilliant on camera and was a wonderful communicator. So when Reagan's White House communications office, which grew even larger than what Nixon had created, when that communications office created events to make Reagan look good, Reagan actually looked very good. And when they set up opportunities for reporters beyond the White House press corps to interview Reagan, he came off well, whereas Nixon came off awkwardly.

One of Nixon's strategies was to avoid the Washington reporters who were more likely to ask tough questions, and instead try to talk to reporters in smaller markets around the country who had less experience and were less knowledgeable about Washington. Reagan used that same strategy and did it much more effectively.

Nixon tried to hide information from reporters, but because of his penchant for doing things in a devious way and his willingness to do illegal activities, he got caught. Reagan's administration was much more effective at trying to hide information from reporters and from the American public.

Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision on RN and I'm Keri Phillips. You can hear us any time you like on the ABC radio app or online at the Rear Vision website. Subscribe to a podcast and you'll never miss a program.

Another polished media performer moved into the White House in 1993—Bill Clinton—but before the year was out, he was mired in questions about former business dealings and his sexual liaisons. Clinton would ultimately be impeached, although he had the numbers to avoid being removed from office.

Jon Marshall: The relationship between Clinton and the press was rocky from the very beginning. The press corps in its post-Watergate mode was being very aggressive in investigating what they could, and the Clintons throughout their time in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor had made lots of deals, cut some corners, and did things that weren't proven in court to be illegal but certainly seemed suspicious, and the Washington press corps was more than happy to investigate them. And the Clintons were very defensive about it and themselves had a penchant for secrecy, and the more they tried to hide things, the more aggressive the press became. And once Republicans took control of Congress two years after Clinton was elected, aggressive investigations by the media turned into aggressive investigations by the Republican Congress which led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment hearings against President Clinton.

Bill Clinton [archival]: But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.

Jon Marshall: The key difference between the Clintons and Nixon was that Nixon clearly did illegal activities to try to seek vengeance against the press and also to stop leaks to reporters, while there is no evidence that the Clintons did anything illegal in their relationship with the media.

The secrecy that Nixon used against the press was something that each future president engaged in more and more, and by the time of the Bush White House, the second Bush, George W, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks, they kept increasing amounts of information secret from the public. More and more documents were marked top secret and kept away from the media. Freedom of Information Act requests, which is a law that requires government agencies to release information to reporters and the public—requests made under the Freedom of Information Act under Bush were dragged out for months and months and sometimes even years. Bush himself avoided White House reporters and said that they did not speak for the public and he did not always see a reason to answer their questions.

When Obama took office he promised much more transparency, but his record in terms of dealing openly with the media was just as secretive as George W Bush and some of the presidents before that. And Obama's White House was very aggressive in going after reporters who published information that had been leaked from different government agencies.

Keri Phillips: By the time Obama left the White House, the media universe included Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but another really significant change had occurred decades earlier with the arrival of cable television. To operate a service, you didn't need a broadcast license with all its expensive requirements. In 1980, the 24-hour news network CNN became the first to take advantage of cable, followed in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel and MSNBC, a joint venture by Microsoft and the NBC TV network.

Justin Buchler: There are people who will watch Fox and MSNBC, and Fox is essentially the communications wing of the Republican Party, and MSNBC might as well be the communications wing of the Democratic Party. But there are also serious newspapers that attempt to do real journalism. For all of the accusations against the New York Times and the Washington Post, they do real journalism.

One of the easiest things for politicians to do, any time they are accused of dishonesty or being unreasonable in any sense, is to say that the journalists making the accusation is just a shill for the other party. And the problem presented for news consumers or voters is that if they don't necessarily know enough about politics to form an opinion on their own and they don't necessarily know all of the biases of all the journalists, then they can form one of two opinions; either the accusation of bias is correct and the politician is on the level, or the politician really is lying and the journalist is just doing objective journalism.

And the problem is that the more voters are led to believe that the parties are mirror images of each other, and the more complex the media environment is, the more reasonable it is for a voter to conclude that the journalist is just kind of a partisan hack, even if the politician is lying. And that makes it very difficult for watchdog journalism to function in the current media environment. If a news consumer hears Donald Trump say that the press are enemies of the people and the most dishonest human beings ever, and hears the press say that Donald Trump is a liar…well, what are they to conclude?

Now, I as a political science professor know how to look up facts on my own and I know enough to conclude that Donald Trump is a liar, but that's because I have enough external knowledge. On the other hand, if somebody is only a casual observer of politics, it's much harder to reach a conclusion in a complex media environment, and the problem is not just that Donald Trump lies, which he does, and it's not just that he is constantly calling the press 'enemies of the people', which he is, it's that the complexity of the media environment makes it easier for him to get away with lying.

Mark Feldstein: Well, Trump is like Nixon on steroids. I mean, Nixon went after the press but he didn't do it day one of his administration, it took months and years really to develop, whereas Trump went after the news media hammer and tongs right from the start. And while both Trump and Nixon used the news media as a foil during their campaigns to rile up their conservative base, Nixon tried to have a bit more subtlety about it than Trump did. And with Trump it has just been venomous open warfare from the get go, and in that sense really unprecedented in American history. There has never been anything like it in terms of a president truly waging war from day one on the entire news media as an institution.

Keri Phillips: Obviously this is being reported widely in papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post and so on, but I imagine they are not necessarily the papers that are being read by Trump's supporters. Do you think any of this feud with the press is playing badly for Trump among the people who voted for him?

Mark Feldstein: I think probably the answer is no. I think Trump's conservative base has already been conditioned for the past generation to distrust the so-called liberal news media. That really started with Richard Nixon. And even though Nixon was driven from office in part by the news media, his acolytes would continue that war on the media in subsequent administrations. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Roger Ailes, all these people who would show up in later Republican administrations kept this war going. And so among conservative voters the news media has long been perceived to be an enemy that cannot be trusted. And with the growth of thriving right-wing media and Fox News and other alt-right websites now, it actually helps strengthen Trump with his core base to attack the media this way.

Keri Phillips: So how do you think it's going to unfold from this point? Do you think there's another four years and possibly more of this kind of relationship between Trump and the press?

Jon Marshall: I can see a few possible scenarios develop in the next four years. One is that we’ll continue much as we have over the first two months or so of the Trump administration where there is an ongoing hostile relationship between Trump and the media, and it will remain contentious and we will find out what happens when Trump runs for re-election four years from now.

I think it's also possible that the battle between Trump and the media will become even stronger and get to the point where it really begins to affect what Congress does. And the media as it investigates Trump further, if it comes up with new information that casts doubts on the legality of Trump's actions or the wisdom of what he's doing in government, the Congress will become much more oppositional to him and there will be a much deeper stalemate during the Trump administration.

It's also I think important not to underestimate Trump and his ability to survive and even thrive in a situation where there is a lot of conflict.

Keri Phillips: Jon Marshall, from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The other people you heard were: Justin Buchler, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University; and Mark Feldstein from the University of Maryland.

Judy Rapley is the sound engineer for Rear Vision. Bye from Keri Phillips.

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