The Never-Ending War Between the White House and the PressHistorians in the News
tags: media, presidential history, journalism, book review
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
The next time President Trump chafes your free-speech sensibilities by yanking the White House credentials of a reporter who questioned him hard, insulting journalists at a news conference, tweeting about “fake news” being the enemy of the people or threatening to retaliate against one of the media outlets whose reporting has offended him, calm yourself by opening Harold Holzer’s “The Presidents vs. the Press” to almost any page. For all of Trump’s transgressions against the press — and they are many — Holzer’s book offers evidence that he’s not the greatest enemy of the First Amendment to have occupied the White House. He might not even rank in the top five.
Trump would definitely have to bow to both President John Adams, who signed into law sedition statutes used to prosecute journalists, and President Abraham Lincoln, who imprisoned scores of editors during the Civil War, purged news stories from the telegraph, banned some newspapers from the mails and even confiscated presses. “Altogether, nearly 200 papers would face federally initiated subjugation during the Civil War,” Holzer writes. President Theodore Roosevelt, who actually enjoyed reporters, punished the press with a lighter touch. He established the “Ananias Club” — a symbolic place of exile — for reporters who displeased him, and he filed a libel suit against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. President Woodrow Wilson reprised some of Lincoln’s worst tendencies during World War I, imposing censorship of the press and pushing propaganda. And when it comes to President Richard Nixon, a man who once told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, “The press is the enemy,” the question isn’t where to start but where to end. Of the Nixon presidency Holzer writes, “Adversarial wariness gave way to open combat, inquiry to inquisition.”
Holzer’s fat volume gives us a panoramic survey of the most contentious president-on-press brawls from the past two and a quarter centuries, providing both the scholar and the general reader with valuable perspective on the current bout between Trump and reporters. The historic antagonism between presidents and the press is easily understood. Presidents regard information as power, and either hide it from their foes or reveal it on their schedule. They almost universally believe that reporters deliberately misread them. Journalists, the greatest of all Nosy Parkers, consider themselves the guardians of truth and oversight, and distrust what the powerful say.
Holzer focuses on 18 of the 45 presidents and avoids taking sides, although I must say I’ve rarely seen President Bill Clinton so sympathetically portrayed. There will never be peace between the two institutions, Holzer implies, only varying levels of hostility. Students of the presidency and the press may be startled by the stink and temperature of the battle. (Disclosure: I’m cited twice by Holzer, both times neutrally.)
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