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No love lost between US presidents and press

Michael Knigge
May 3, 2017

Occupants of the White House have never been particularly fond of journalists. What is new, however, is President Donald Trump's very public campaign to de-legitimize the press. Michael Knigge reports.

US Präsident Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

There never has been much love lost between American presidents and journalists.

George Washington, the first president of the United States in 1796 told his vice president John Adams who would later become his successor, that one of the reasons he was not inclined to run for a third term was that he was "disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers."

Thomas Jefferson, the third president, who is generally hailed as a patron of a free press, in 1807 wrote to a politician intending to start a newspaper: "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle." 

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More than 150 years later, in 1972, President Richard Nixon told his national security adviser Henry Kissinger to "never forget. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

Read: The truth will out: the Pulitzer Prize in the Trump era

Rocky relationships

While Nixon, the only president to resign from office, may be an extreme case, the relationship between White House occupants and the press historically was often rocky and acrimonious, even for presidents widely viewed as gifted communicators such as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

Donald Trump's most noteworthy attacks against the media include labeling the press as the enemy of the people, singling out individual reporters present at campaign events for personal criticism and routinely railing against media organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post on Twitter and calling their stories "fake news".   



But against the historical backdrop, couldn't it be said that President Trump's repeated criticism of journalists and the media fit the historical mould even if his tone and style is admittedly more aggressive than that of his predecessors?

Read: Trump slams media as 'enemy of the people'

That the president and the press don't get along is indeed not unusual, but rather the norm, said Thomas Bradley, professor of government and the press at Harvard University. "But what we have never seen before is that a president attacks individual journalists and the media in such a public way as Donald Trump does."

To be sure, previous presidents were perhaps equally frustrated with what they considered unfair treatment by the press as the current office holder, but as the anecdotes about Washington, Jefferson and Nixon show they often vented their anger privately.

And while more recent presidents took to expressing some of their frustrations with the media publicly as well, the frequency, the aggressiveness and the personal nature of the President Trump's animus towards journalists sets him apart.                

Different magnitude

"Without a doubt it is one of the most contentious relationships between a presidency and a White House press corps that I have ever seen and I have been studying this over three decades now," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, who has written several books about the media and presidents.

"It's of an entirely different magnitude, the kinds of attacks that he and his administration make on the media as compared to other modern American administrations," Rozell told DW.

For Martha Kumar, a presidential scholar who wrote "Managing the President's Message: The White House Communications Operations," the most alarming aspect of Donald Trump's bashing of the media is that his larger goal is to de-legitimize the work of news organizations.

"That is something that is new," said Kumar. "Presidents have accepted the role of the press and the right of people to know what is going on and President Trump is accepting it less."

"It is a common theme indeed that many presidents feel that they did not get a fair shake from the press," said Rozell. "But over time they always acknowledge the importance and the legitimacy of the media as an institution in American public life. The big difference is Mr. Trump attacks their very legitimacy as an institution in American public life."

"It is worrisome because the press is crucial in a democratic government," said Kumar.

Read: White House Correspondents' Dinner stresses press freedoms in Trump era

Blame for journalists

While all scholars criticize Trump's attacks on the press, they also all point out that journalists and media organizations have partly themselves to blame as they helped him get elected by providing him with an unprecedented amount of free, and often uncritical, media coverage not available to any other Republican or Democratic candidate.

What's more, they say, the media, particularly, American cable networks, are too eager to report everything Trump-related, even if has little substance, because it generates ratings and therefore revenues.       

"I find that many in the media are too interested in the entertainment aspect of political coverage," said Rozell. "Mr. Trump understands that relationship perfectly well from a business side and he exploits it. It dis-serves the public tremendously and it hugely empowers the president."

And the president plays a double-game when it comes to the media. While he constantly and very publicly lashes out against journalistic institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post, he personally called reporters from the very same newspapers to offer his take on particular events like the failed effort to repeal President Obama's health care reform.   

USA | Sean Spicer
Presenting "alternative facts" or labeling the press as biased has become a feature at White House press conferencesImage: AP

 Feeding polarization

Still, since large swaths of Americans hold journalists as much in contempt as they do politicians, President Trump's public campaign against the press falls on fertile ground with many voters and not just with his most loyal supporters.     

All of it taken together "just feeds the already existing polarization in the country," said Harvard professor Patterson.

While the scholars expressed little hope that President Trump would change his attitude or public stance toward the media, their advice for journalists on how to cover his presidency is simple.

Don't sweat the small stuff. Try to not get sidetracked by the latest and often inconsequential presidential antics and instead focus your energy on the issues that matter - even if they don't feature in the president's Twitter timeline.