Two weeks into his presidency, The New York Times ran an article detailing how President Donald J. Trump was wandering the halls of the White House in his bathrobe, looking for the light switches. The paper, “in its efforts to cover a presidency that it openly saw as aberrant, had added to its White House beat something of a new form of coverage,” author Michael Wolff notes in Fire and Fury. So does this, as President Trump complains, make him the most unjustly treated President in history?
Each American President has had their own unique relationship to the media. Some used it to their advantage, others spent their terms butting heads. A respect for the highest office in the land has traditionally encouraged restraint in reporting gossip or paparazzi-style intrusion. But from the very earliest days of America’s founding, that line has often been crossed.
America’s third president was decidedly pro-press, unless the press was covering him. During his tenure as the U.S. minister to France he wrote, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It’s writings like these that have enshrined Jefferson as a champion of the free press. However, this assessment isn’t the whole story.
During his presidency he became critical of what he saw as the partisan nature of the press and began airing his grievances in personal letters stating, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” For some context, newspapers of the early 19th century in the U.S. frequently printed pieces with overt bias and plagued politicians with personal attacks.
During Jefferson’s campaign against John Adams, both men used the press to levy insults at each other. Jefferson-allied papers accused President Adams of being a hermaphrodite and a hypocrite, while Adams’ camp attacked Jefferson’s racial heritage, accusing him of being “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father” as well as an atheist and libertine. But though Jefferson’s relationship with the press was complicated, he was still a staunch advocate for press freedom, stating “the only security of all is in a free press.”
Political spin is a part of modern day life, and we have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for it. Roosevelt understood he could use the power of the press to communicate and engage with the American people in a way that Presidents before him hadn’t. He organized publicity stunts, once going to the bottom of the Long Island Sound in a submarine to show his support for the warships. He toured the country promoting legislation, upgraded the White House’s pressroom and used it for informal news conferences, and hired government press officers.
One of Roosevelt’s most notable press campaigns focused on reforming the meat industry after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Realizing the publicity surrounding the book could help his plans to push the Pure Food and Drug Bill through Congress, he dispatched inspectors to confirm Sinclair’s accounts of horrid, unsanitary conditions in the meat industry.
Woodrow Wilson is perhaps best known for helming the U.S. through the Great War and being an integral part of the peace process, earning him a Nobel Prize for his efforts. What may be less known is that during the U.S.’s involvement in World War I, Wilson curtailed freedom of the press. He did this through a dual strategy of censorship and propaganda.
Wilson wanted “authority to exercise censorship over the Press to the extent that that censorship…is absolutely necessary to the public safety.” However, the Senate and House of Representatives didn’t share that opinion. Thanks to the efforts of three Republican senators, the censorship provisions Wilson wanted were never enacted.
After Congress had declared war in 1917, Wilson quickly issued an executive order creating the Committee on Public Information. The agency would create propaganda for newspapers and newsreels that was aimed at draftees and the public, and intended to explain the country’s involvement in the war and sway neutrality advocates. The agency later established its own pro-war newspaper. One of the most iconic images the CPI created was that of Uncle Sam.
Harry S. Truman
President Truman’s most famous press moment happened in the moments after he was elected to office, when newspapers were emblazoned with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In a moment eerily similar to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 50 political experts polled by Newsweek before the election had unanimously concluded: “ Dewey couldn’t lose.”
The headline encapsulated Truman’s strained relationship with the media, which had published unflattering photographs and false allegations about his political backing during the campaign. Perhaps this is why, though Truman publicly supported journalism, he wasn’t too fond of newspaper publishers. In a 1955 letter, Truman famously wrote: “Presidents and the members of their Cabinets and their staff members have been slandered and misrepresented since George Washington…when the press is friendly to an administration the opposition has been lied about and treated to the excrescence [sic] of paid prostitutes of the mind.”
Richard Nixon’s experience with the press during his campaign against JFK, mainly his perceived loss in their televised 1960 debate, made him acutely aware of the media’s power. As a result, he entered office determined to control his media coverage. He created the White House Office of Communications, and hired a strategist to help him improve his television appearances. That strategist? Future Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. However, not all of this work helped assuage Nixon’s fears that the press was against him.
Driven by paranoia—and the embarrassing revelations of his role in the Watergate scandal—Nixon compiled a list of press “enemies” and had them audited. His surrogates even mounted a campaign to yank the license of a television station owned by the Washington Post, which broke the Watergate scandal and published parts of the Pentagon Papers (the paper’s tense relationship with Nixon White House was most recently chronicled in the 2016 film, The Post). The Watergate scandal led Nixon to be the first president to resign in the U.S.’s history.
Throughout Clinton’s campaign and subsequent presidency, the media doggedly reported stories about his former business dealings and alleged sexual transgressions. But when news broke that not only was the President having a relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but that he was being investigated by the independent counsel for it, a media storm ensued. Clinton strenuously denied the accusations for months before finally confessing in August of 1998. Following that, perjury charges were filed and a special prosecutor appointed, in a series of events that came to define the Clinton presidency.
Clinton’s conduct came under renewed scrutiny due to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, when her opponent Donald Trump brought it up to push back on similar allegations about his own treatment of women. However, when asked to compare his treatment by the press during his campaign and in 2016, Bill Clinton stated he thought the press was ”fairer” in 1992.
Donald Trump has struck back repeatedly on what he deems “fake news”—generally stories that portray his presidency in an unfavorable light or that discuss the ongoing investigation into whether Russia influenced the 2016 election—both in speeches and on his preferred method of communication, Twitter. Like Nixon, he has threatened the television licenses of stations that run stories he does not like: When NBC reported on Trump’s desire to increase the U.S.’s nuclear-weapons stockpile, he reacted by saying the network should have its license revoked.
In addition, Trump has threatened to enact much stricter libel laws in response to critical coverage, which many worry would curtail the First Amendment. His relationship with the media plays out in a contentious but mutually beneficial way, with both sides using the other for publicity and reach. As much as he claims to despise the mainstream media, Trump uses it often to further his agenda, while newspapers like the The New York Times have gained subscribers after being repeatedly attacked by President Trump.