Thomas Jefferson railed against newspapers as “polluted vehicles” of falsehood and error. Richard Nixon tangled with reporters in the toxic atmosphere of Watergate, considering them the “enemy.” Bill Clinton publicly condemned “purveyors of hatred and division” on the public air waves.
Historians can point to plenty of past presidents who have sparred with the press. But they’re hard-pressed to find anything that approaches the all-out attack on the media that President Donald Trump seems intent on escalating at every turn.
“There has never been a kind of holistic jihad against the news media like Trump is executing,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “Trump is determined to beat and bloody the press whenever he finds himself in a hole, and that’s unique.”
Trump, who has long had an adversarial relationship with the media, opened a 77-minute East Room news conference Thursday by saying he hoped to “get along a little bit better” with the press going forward – “if that’s possible.”
“Maybe it’s not, and that’s OK, too,” he added.
Clearly, he’s fine with that.
The president proceeded to circle back to the press time and again during the news conference to complain about “fake news” purveyed by “dishonest” reporters. He called out individual news organizations, reporters and stories, labeling them “disgraceful, ”discredited” and “a joke.” He lamented “the bias and the hatred” directed at him.
“It’s all fake news, it’s all fake news,” he said of reports that members of his team were in regular contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
Trump said he was determined to “take my message straight to the people” because “the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
The performance was part of a calculated strategy by Trump to discredit those who are reporting on the chaos and stumbles of the administration’s opening weeks and to boost enthusiasm among the president’s core supporters.
But Princeton historian Julian Zelizer warned that while Trump may shift attention away from his problems with the drama of such a press conference, “there are some signs that Republicans are getting tired of this.”
Zelizer said all presidents have had their moments of tension with the press, but “the scale and scope of this is unlike anything that we’ve seen in the past.”
Nixon’s increasingly difficult relations with the press during the unfolding of the Watergate scandal may be the closest parallel, Zelizer said, with the embattled president famously telling reporters at a 1973 news conference that “I am not a crook.”
But at least publicly, Nixon was more circumspect about going after individual reporters and news organizations, even while privately musing about how to discredit CBS’s Walter Cronkite and other correspondents, says Brinkley, author of a book on the Nixon tapes. Nixon’s men wiretapped the phones of reporters who were considered hostile or whose conversations might reveal the sources of damaging leaks.
“The press is your enemy,” Nixon told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a taped conversation written about by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a retrospective of the scandal they exposed in The Washington Post. “Enemies. Understand that? … Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”
More recent presidents have more episodic difficulties with the press.
George W. Bush, during his 2000 presidential campaign, was overheard using an epithet to describe a New York Times reporter.
After the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, Clinton condemned “loud and angry voices” on the airwaves that inflame the public debate. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh complained of irresponsible insinuations and accused the president and liberals of trying to foment “national hysteria.”
The bad blood between presidents and the press stretches back to the nation’s early years.
Jefferson is often remembered for his stirring defence of the press, when he wrote in 1787 that, “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.”
But two decades later, as president, Jefferson had a different take on the press that sounds something like an early version of Trump’s complaints against “fake news.”
Jefferson wrote to a newspaper editor in 1807: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
Brinkley said Trump’s tactics reflect a broad cultural shift away from news to entertainment, as the former reality TV star tries to keep his supporters engaged.
“He’s trying to show that he’s King Kong and the press are little gnats,” says Brinkley. “That has box office appeal to a certain segment of the population.”