Trump Isn’t the First President to Go to War With the Press

March 6, 2017 9:51 am Last Updated: March 6, 2017 12:42 pm

It’s no secret that President Donald Trump’s adversarial relationship with the news media has them up in arms, especially after the omission of several outlets from an informal press gaggle last week. Both right- and left-leaning pundits have condemned Trump, with some going as far as saying that he’s headed on a path to a dictatorship.

Trump, for his part, has said that the “fake news media … is the enemy of the American people.” The press corps, for their part, have collectively hyperventilated. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has followed the president’s lead, and actively admonishes reporters during daily briefings.

The Washington Post’s new masthead, in a likely nod to Trump, claims that “Democracy dies in darkness,” while New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, wrote an opinion piece after Spicer barred CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the Times from an informal press conference (although the White House denied it). “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,”Baquet wrote.

Throughout history, U.S. presidents and politicians have often had contentious relationships with the press—so it shouldn’t be a surprise to them if Trump, in his typical bombastic fashion, does the same. The media should take a more realistic approach. When Trump nudges the so-called window of appropriate discourse—the range of ideas the public can accept—with tweets and press conference comments, outlets have basically followed his lead with a “the-end-is-nigh” headline.

Trump Isn’t ‘Unprecedented’

But Trump isn’t the first president in this country’s history to go to war with the media.

Portrait of George Washington (1732–99) (public domain)
Portrait of George Washington (1732–99) (public domain)

George Washington, the first president, noted that he thought he was treated unfairly in newspaper articles of the time, describing early reporters as “infamous scribblers” and commented once that he was “tired to the marrow” of being “buffeted in the public prints by a set” of reporters who criticized him.

Reporters of the age even claimed Washington, who was heading a brand-new experiment in governance after the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War, had dictatorial aspirations.

And newspapers, like the American polity itself, have always favored one politician over another. While Trump’s methods—including tweeting out 140-character blurbs to tens of millions of people—are new, the grievances aren’t.

A painting of President John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand (1767-1845). (public domain)
A painting of President John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand (1767-1845). (public domain)

John Adams was quite concerned about a partisan press—but the second president went too far with the 1798 Sedition Act. It made publishing criticism of the government against the law. Those who “write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the U.S. government could be jailed or fined. With Adams in mind, Trump’s verbal assaults on the press are hardly “unprecedented,” as is frequently foisted onto the public by members of the media today. Trump hasn’t violated individual protections under the first amendment of the constitution by making criticism of his administration an illegal act.

Like Adams, Washington abhorred the press.

By his second term, Washington frequently criticized the press of “the grossest, most insidious mis-representations.” According to a letter he wrote to Jefferson, the press made “such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.”

Two centuries later, Trump told top CIA brass that journalists are “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” while tweeting on a weekly basis that the New York Times, CNN, and others push out “fake news” about him and his administration. 

While Washington might be far more eloquent than Trump, the contempt is the same.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson. (public domain)
Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson. (public domain)

Jefferson was no saint himself and viewed newspapers as a tool to be used in meeting his political goals. Along with James Madison, the third president started one of nation’s first partisan newspapers, the National Gazette in 1791, which was used to attack Alexander Hamilton and the Washington administration.

“For god’s sake, my dear sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public,” Jefferson said to Madison, telling him to attack Hamilton under a false pen name in the newspaper (“fake news,” anyone?).

The paper ran a story with the headline, “The Funeral of George Washington,” speaking of the potential of Washington being executed for exercising too much authority. When Washington gazed on the front page, he was incensed, and Washington, according to Jefferson, “got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself.” But Washington never expressed his anger in public, according to historical accounts.

“He is also extremely affected by the attacks made and kept up on him in the public papers. I think he feels those things more than any person I ever yet met with,” Jefferson wrote Madison of Washington.

More than any other person until perhaps President Trump two centuries later, who tweeted: “The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning … [they] “got me wrong right from the beginning and still have not changed course, and never will. DISHONEST.”