Is Trump’s Attack on the Press Unique?

The media “… is the enemy of the American People!” tweets President Trump. He is not the first American president to find fault with the press. But wait — is it no different this time?

In this last week, we’ve been reminded by many to consider John Adams, the first president to truly do battle with the press. But this comparison is a stretch and out of historical context. In 1798, during an undeclared naval war with France, the Federalist president signed the Sedition Act which led to the prosecution of Democratic-Republican editors and other opponents. Few today condone this clearly unconstitutional statute, which was certainly used as a partisan weapon. But Adams viewed it as a necessary part of the war effort and the survival of the vulnerable new republic: prevention of chaos or even secession and armed conflict, and consequent to this, battling the pro-French Jeffersonian opposition. Although Adams criticized the press generally for misleading the public, he saved his harshest comments about certain members of the press until after his retirement. In any case, the Sedition Act — roundly condemned by historians, political scientists, and legal authorities today — is hardly something we want to repeat.

Although the Democratic-Republicans overturned the act and Jefferson pardoned those jailed, it is true that Jefferson also criticized the press many times, as we are reminded. So did Madison, and then Monroe. However, before he was president, Jefferson also famously said that he would not hesitate to choose “newspapers without government” over “a government without newspapers,” and argued passionately that the only safeguard to liberty was a population that read the newspapers. It is important to note that compared to most executives in other countries (monarchs and despots), during their times, all American presidents were highly respectful of an independent press.

As the legitimacy of a free media became more respected, later presidents complained about what they considered unfair reporting — some more than others. But most presidential press-bashings were criticisms of certain reporters or unfair stories rather than of the press generally.

This is hardly surprising. Nobody believes the media should be a lapdog of the president. Pluralistic debate in the marketplace of ideas is not an afterthought of civil liberties, but a purposeful design to arrive at the best solutions and consensus. Yes, it is messy and more difficult than authoritarianism, but it’s also easier to open a package of potato chips than to cook a healthy meal.

Recent presidents such at Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon (with Vice President Agnew) and Bill Clinton believed the media was unfairly undermining their presidencies. But LBJ did not believe the media was responsible for the failure of his Vietnam policy. Clinton did not claim the media caused his impeachment proceedings, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” notwithstanding. Even Nixon, who privately called the press his enemy, did not dare to openly war with the press. These presidents also didn’t try to blacklist certain news organizations as the Trump campaign did last year.

In previous cases, the argument raised by presidents was that the press was sometimes or often unfair. The question was one of interpretation and spin — not whether they were “the Lying Press,” or reporting “Fake News.” Fake news (or hoax news), as it is commonly defined, refers to purposefully invented “clickbait” stories, often originating in foreign countries, for the purposes of generating advertising. Alternatively, it is invented disinformation, designed to confuse or manipulate its audience for political purposes. There is a fundamental difference between alleged bias and outright fiction. Trump is purposely blurring the line between the two and his Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka says he will continue to do so as long as the president is “attacked.”

Further — the fact that previous presidents also complained about and sometimes assailed the press is hardly a reason to dismiss the attacks President Trump is making now. Was it right for them to do it then? Are John Adams’ and Richard Nixon’s relationships with the press models of what we want?

Trump can be forgiven for not approving of his coverage, which has indeed become quite adversarial, but not for his attacks on the institution itself — nor for his refusal to accept any responsibility for making false and reckless comments that are then reported. When even Trump’s stated favorite “Fox & Friends” show (and Fox’s Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith), not to mention Karl Rove, John McCain, and others, make similar arguments, and his only loyal support is from unprofessional media sources, it is not credible to continually claim bias.

His February 17 tweet “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” is a reinvention of the term “fake news.” It’s also bewildering, because he says “the leaks are real,” but the news coverage of them is fake — something akin to saying the smoke detector is working but there is no smoke.

Let’s not forget also that as a candidate Trump attacked libel and slander law, arguing that we should “open up” libel laws. Observers interpreted this to mean that the Supreme Court should lower the current standard of requiring proof of “malice” (knowingly repeating falsehoods or with reckless disregard) — in addition to merely damaging someone with falsehoods as is required in the case of non-public figures. Obviously this would have a chilling effect on the willingness of the press to investigate members of government and hold them accountable.

The worst thing about Trump’s attack on the media is the message it sends to the world. Many countries are still ruled by authoritarians that censor and control the media, or even imprison or assassinate journalists. Modern American presidents have believed that countries with a free media are less likely to be our enemies. Thus, the promotion of an independent and critical media is not only a strength of our policy-making process and safeguard of the republic, but an important element of national security. Our belief in freedom of the press is an example to others and an aid to people struggling to be free. In fact, this is why in 1942 we created the Voice of America and later many other similar news organizations. It’s why we have aided independent media sources around the world and pressured foreign governments to release journalists from jail.

So when Trump shouts to the world that our free press is “fake” and journalists are “dishonest,” “liars,” “sick,” “disgusting,” “illegitimate,” “disgraceful,” “horrible,” “terrible,” and even “scum,” he is not only undermining the American press, but respect for independent journalism around the world.

Speaking of the Voice of America (VOA), Congress is trying to eliminate its Broadcasting Board of Governors, leaving only a presidential appointment as its executive. Congress has already changed its rules to allow the VOA to now broadcast to American audiences. Trump has installed two former political operatives from his campaign to head the VOA, raising concerns about how independent the VOA and other such publicly-owned media will operate.

The Sedition Act is not unique. The United States has a long history of attempts to curtail freedom of the press and speech during times of crisis, including the Civil War, WWI, the Depression, WWII, the 1950s’ Red Scare, the Vietnam War, and regarding the conflict in the Middle East. In each case, we have ultimately determined these reactions were not only improper, but counterproductive to good policy-making. Neither is it wise to undermine the free press now.