Presidents vs. the press: What came before Trump’s ‘running war’ with the media

From threats of lawsuits to an administration starting its own wire service.

LANGLEY, VA - JANUARY 21: US President Donald Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters on January 21, 2017 in Langley, Virginia .  Trump spoke with about 300 people in his first official visit with a government agaency.  (Photo by Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters on January 21. –Olivier Doulier / Getty Images, Pool

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During his first full day in office, President Donald Trump announced he had a “running war” with the media, called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and falsely accused reporters of creating a rift between himself and national intelligence agencies.

Trump’s battle with the press is epic in its ferocity, but presidents have fought with the press from time immemorial, according to Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School.

George Washington thought he was treated unfairly in print. Even Thomas Jefferson, who praised newspapers as the greatest tool for protecting liberty, changed course with some of his statements about the press once in office, Patterson said.

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“It’s almost routine for presidents to feel ‘my message isn’t quite getting out there the way I’d like it, I’m doing more than the press is saying, they’re criticizing me for small things,’” he said. “That’s kind of business as usual in the presidency.”

In some ways, Trump is taking after previous administrations with his efforts to bypass mainstream media by establishing “Skype” seats for the daily press briefings at the White House.

But unlike the former commanders in chief, Patterson said Trump is “obviously” turning his attacks on the press into a “crusade.”

Most recently, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer barred major news outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, and Politico, from a White House media gaggle Friday.

Patterson said part of the reason Trump is able to attack the press so openly, dates back to the ‘60s, when the right began to accuse the press of a liberal bias.

“If you do that for 40 years, it has some effect,” Patterson said, pointing to audience cheers during the Republican presidential debates for attacks on the press as an indicator for why Trump thinks he continue to assail the media.

Since the ’60s, Patterson said journalists “have been more aggressive,” pointing to the loss of the boundary between what was public and private for public figures in the late ‘80s as creating more friction between the press and politicians, too.

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“I think there’s all sorts of reasons why the well has been poisoned in the relationship between the press and the politicians, some on the press side some on the politicians side,” he said. “But I do think we’re in a different era where the two sides are inherently mistrustful of the other.”

Here are four presidents who felt attacked by the press and sought to bypass the media.

At a White House news conference in 1973, President Richard Nixon said he would not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court. —Charles Tasnadi/AP

President Richard Nixon: ‘The press is your enemy’ and the threat of lawsuits

Nixon’s unhappiness with the media predated his election, according to Patterson. It started during the politician’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1960, followed by a failed run for California governor in 1962.

“It looked like his career was over,” Patterson said. “He kind of boiled over with his anger at the press.”

Early in his presidency, Nixon’s administration attacked the television networks and used public policy to “get at” the press, Patterson said.

“It was done most publically by his Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called the networks the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism,’” he said. “And the Nixon administration threatened, basically, to strip the networks of their licenses.”

A headline in the Boston Herald on September 12, 1970. —Screenshot

Tapes transcribed for the first time in the 1990s revealed Nixon pushed for keeping the threat of an antitrust suit over the networks to apply pressure for positive coverage, according to The Washington Post.

“If the threat of screwing them is going to help us more with their programming than doing it, then keep the threat,” Nixon told a White House aide, the Post reported.

Another tape revealed Nixon said in a meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “The press is your enemy.”

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While there are parallels being drawn between Trump and Nixon, Patterson said the two leaders had very different strategies.

“What’s different about Trump is just how frontal and how vocal he is about the press,” he said. “Nixon certainly saw the press as one of the enemies, but he didn’t say it in those terms, and he certainly didn’t declare war on the press. He took subtler kinds of actions than that, but substantial in their own way.”

Patterson said the advent of television during this period also had a role in deepening the divide between politicians and the press.

“Television journalists do a lot of that [newspaper model reporting], but they also do a lot of interpretation because they’re telling a story,” Patterson said. “And the way that they added their voice to it was usually by being a critic. And then that accelerated after Watergate and Vietnam when the relationship between the press and the politicians really went south.”

Portrait of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. —Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

President Ronald Reagan: Bypassing major outlets with a White House News Service

While the White House press office had long been established, it was under the Reagan administration that the communications office really came into play, Patterson said. The press office focused on the daily responsibilities, while the communications took a longer view, he said.

The communications office also launched a “news service” for the White House to distribute presidential speeches and announcements to outlets without correspondents on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Associated Press reported in 1985 that the “White House News Service” was available to anyone with a computer and modem to tie into a phone line, offering the “official, unedited version of what the President and his office have to say.”

“The idea behind it was to feed news outlets and essentially to go past the gate-keeping function of the networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the like, which to some degree kind of serve as bulletin boards for other news outlets at the local level,” Patterson said.

“They basically started to feed them directly as their way of trying to deal with what they saw as a hostile press.”

President Bill Clinton denies allegations of a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky during a White House event unveiling new child care proposals in January 1998. —Win Mcnamee / Reuters

President Bill Clinton: Ratcheting up message control in the face of scandals

While Clinton didn’t do anything drastic, he had a “very rocky relationship” with the media and his administration “ramped up” message control, according to Patterson.

“[He] felt that they really mistreated him, misunderstood him, didn’t pay attention to policy accomplishments and got hung up on a dozen different kinds of scandals and whiffs of scandals and wouldn’t let go of those,” he said.

Those controversies included the Whitewater investigations and Monica Lewinsky scandal.

With the start of his second term in January 1997, The Boston Globe reported that the president and his senior strategists were undertaking a rehabilitation of Clinton’s relationship with the press, which had become so strained that reporters joked they could cover the president “for weeks at a time without ever coming within range of actually catching his eye.”

The Globe reported at the time that some analysts described the president’s relationship with the news media as being at a level of deterioration “not seen in the White House in more than 20 years” and compared Clinton’s distrust as being on par with Nixon’s.

President George W. Bush holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on January 12, 2009. —Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President George W. Bush: Canned video stories from the administration, ready for broadcast on local affiliates

Bush’s administration also sought to bypass the national press and reach local media, which Patterson said they found less hostile to their agenda.

“They were sending out not only releases directly to the local papers, but they were sending canned video stories,” he said. “And some local affiliates were carrying those things until others in the press really kind of blew the whistle on that.”

According to The New York Times, about 20 federal agencies produced and distributed hundreds of television news segments, many of which were broadcast without identifying the government’s role in the production process, “describing a vigilant and compassionate administration.”

At the time, the newspaper reported that the government under the Bush administration was aggressively using the prepackaged television segments, an already well-established tool in public relations.

According to the Times, the reports, designed to fit smoothly into a typical local newscast, were broadcast in some of the country’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas.