These Are the Presidents Who Hated the Media (and How Donald Trump Compares)
If you watch closely, you can identify plenty of patterns in Donald Trump’s combative style of talking about himself and his agenda. One that you might assume is new is the commander in chief’s contempt for the media. But historians say that many presidents have fought with the press. In fact, quite a few other presidents have hated the media, too.
Below, find out which past presidents hated journalists. And on page 15, find out how Donald Trump’s war with the media compares.
15. John Adams made it illegal to publish anything negative about the government
- 2nd president of the United States
The Federalist reports that presidents’ attacks on the press began with the second commander in chief: John Adams. Adams became “so concerned about foreign influence (the French) on our press, he signed into law the 1798 Sedition Act, which made publishing anything critical of the government illegal.”
The publication notes that while it’s less than ideal for Trump to tweet out misinformation or yell at the press, that doesn’t necessarily make him “the greatest threat to American freedom of any president.” The Federalist notes that on that front, Trump doesn’t “quite measure up to Adams — who actually made a law to lock away writers who spoke out against the government.”
Next: This president approved of the media until it began covering him.
14. Thomas Jefferson defended and criticized the media
- 3rd president of the United States
History reports that America’s third president was decidedly pro-press — unless the press was covering him. He wrote in 1787, when serving as the U.S. minister to France, “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, once he had become president, Jefferson changed his tune. He criticized what he perceived as the partisan nature of the media (a fair criticism at a time when newspapers printed stories with overt bias and published personal attacks on politicians). 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.” The Associated Press reports that Jefferson also “railed against newspapers as ‘polluted vehicles’ of falsehood and error.”
Next: This president took issue with the way the media portrayed him.
13. Ulysses S. Grant disliked the press coverage he got
- 18th president of the United States
Politico reports that Ulysses S. Grant had the press in mind when he concluded his second inaugural address. Grant said, “Throughout the war, and from my candidacy for my present office in 1868 to the close of the last presidential campaign, I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.”
According to the publication, “There is no more consistent political tradition in America than presidents delegitimizing the press.” Referring to the Trump administration, Politico even adds, “No White House has ever loved the press corps, and its current resident isn’t about to change that.”
Next: This president hated the media and did everything he could to control it.
12. Theodore Roosevelt manipulated — and hated — the media
- 26th president of the United States
History reports that “Political spin is a part of modern day life, and we have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for it.” Roosevelt knew that he could use the media to communicate with and engage the American public. So he organized publicity stunts, toured the country to promote legislation, began using the White Hosue pressroom for informal press conferences, and hired government press officers.
Yet, according to The Federalist, Theodore Roosevelt despised the media. He took journalists to task for sensationalism and false reporting. And he once said of the press, “The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity take the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves.” The publication notes that Roosevelt’s criticisms may have been more eloquent than Trump’s, “but the gist is the same.”
Next: This president turned to censorship and propaganda to control the media.
11. Woodrow Wilson used censorship and propaganda
- 28th president of the United States
History reports that most Americans recognize Woodrow Wilson “for helming the U.S. through the Great War and begin an integral part of the peace process.” But what few people remember is that during World War I, Wilson curtailed the freedom of the press “through a dual strategy of censorship and propaganda.” According to History, Wilson wanted “authority to exercise censorship over the Press to the extent that that censorship. . . is absolutely necessary to the public safety.”
After Congress declared war in 1917, Wilson issued an executive order to create the Committee on Public Information. The agency would create propaganda for newspapers. And it would also produce newsreels aimed for draftees and the public, explaining U.S involvement in the war and attempting to change the minds of neutrality advocates. The agency even established a pro-war newspaper. And as History notes, it created iconic images such as that of Uncle Sam.
Next: Journalists cooperated with this president. But it was never enough to get them on his good side.
10. Franklin D. Roosevelt fought with journalists despite their cooperation
- 32nd president of the United States
The Washington Examiner reports that Franklin Roosevelt got journalists of the 1930s and 1940s to willingly hide the extent of his physical disability. Americans knew that his battle with polio had paralyzed him. But the media never mentioned the fact that he used a wheelchair at all times. Nonetheless, as the publication reports, Roosevelt “had repeated knockdown, drag-out brawls with the same reporters who sheltered his secret.”
Roosevelt complained about “poisonous propaganda” coming from the press. He thought that any journalist who didn’t take a strong stand with him was against him. As the Examiner notes, “Asking tough questions about his New Deal programs amounted to treason. Roosevelt took those questions as personal attacks and nurtured bitter grudges.” He even used the newly-formed FCC to keep negative messages about his administration off the radio waves.
Next: This president hated the media but mostly kept those sentiments to himself.
9. Harry S. Truman hated the press, at least in private
- 33rd president of the United States
History reports that Harry S. Truman publicly supported journalism. But in private, he wasn’t fond of newspaper publishers. One of his most famous press moments happened right after he was elected president. Newspapers ran the erroneous headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Political experts polled by Newsweek had unanimously concluded that “Dewey couldn’t lose.”
According to History, “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.” In a 1955 letter, Truman 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.”
Next: This president prioritized government secrecy over media access.
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower made the government more secret
- 34th president of the United States
The Federalist characterizes the relationship between the media and Dwight D. Eisenhower as “turbulent.” As the publication explains, “He restricted media access and caused many to believe the country was facing a crisis of liberty.”
Many people thought that the situation would improve once Eisenhower left office. But that’s not exactly how things turned out. As The Federalist reports, “Government secrecy seemed to be growing, but many thought this would improve with Kennedy. It didn’t.”
Next: This president cut off the media’s access to information that it — and the American people — wanted.
7. John F. Kennedy cut off access to information that the media wanted
- 35th president of the United States
According to The Federalist, John F. Kennedy was friendly to some members of the press and hostile to others. But “to the dismay of journalists, even friendly ones, Kennedy shut off access to foreign policy information.” Kennedy thought that the United States had two contradictory needs. “I refer, first, to the need for far greater public information; and, second, to the need for far greater official secrecy,” he explained.
The media accused Kennedy of cutting off access to information that the American people had a right to know. Meanwhile, “Kennedy remained indignant, constantly expressing his frustration with the press and its intrusion. He even went so far as to have his Secretary of State forbid officials and department heads, who were meeting every week, from telling the press anything about their conversations with the president regarding foreign entanglements.”
Next: This president tried to punish the press.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson did his best to manipulate the media
- 36th president of the United States
The Federalist notes that the press despised Lyndon B. Johnson. Members of the media accused Johnson of lying and of lacking credibility. Historians say that by 1967, many members of the White House press corps — and of the American media in general — had grown tired of Johnson’s efforts to manipulate and punish them.
Also by that point, the press had begun to write about the “credibility gap” between what Johnson said and what he did. (It doesn’t help that Johnson numbers among the presidents who broke campaign promises during their time in office.) Historians say that Johnson had a terrible relationship with the media overall.
Next: This president did his best to control his press coverage. But it didn’t work.
5. Richard Nixon tried to control the press
- 37th president of the United States
History reports that Richard Nixon 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.”
The Associated Press points out that Nixon “tangled with reporters in the toxic atmosphere of Watergate, considering them the ‘enemy.'” In private, Nixon tried to figure out how to discredit Walter Cronkite and other correspondents. He also had his staff wiretap the phones of reporters whom he considered hostile, or whose conversations might reveal the sources of damaging leaks. As many Americans remember, the embattled president told reporters at a 1973 news conference, “I am not a crook.”
Next: This president repeatedly fought with the press.
4. Bill Clinton battled the media throughout his presidency
- 42nd president of the United States
History reports that throughout Bill Clinton’s campaign and subsequent tenure as president, “the media doggedly reported stories about his former business dealings and alleged sexual transgressions.” Most famously, Clinton strenuously denied accusations of an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky before finally confessing in August 1998.
According to The Associated Press, Clinton “publicly condemned ‘purveyors of hatred and division’ on the public air waves,” and criticized “loud and angry voices” for inflaming the public debate after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Rush Limbaugh then complained of irresponsible insinuations. Limbaugh also accused the president — and liberals at large — of trying to incite “national hysteria.”
Next: This president managed to manipulate the press throughout his presidency.
3. George W. Bush manipulated the media
- 43rd president of the United States
The Associated Press that George W. Bush, like many other recent presidents, had “more episodic difficulties with the press.” AP noted, that Bush, “during his 2000 presidential campaign, was overheard using an epithet to describe a New York Times reporter.” But Bush brought on his own difficulties with the media by turning to manipulation and deceit to build the case for his agenda.
As The Intercept notes, Bush was less of a friend to the press than the press was to him. “Maybe he didn’t demonize it as much as Trump does — but he actively manipulated it and bullied it far worse and far more effectively than Trump has, much of it in the service of selling his marquee policy: the war in Iraq.”
Next: Barack Obama wasn’t particularly friendly to the media, either.
2. Barack Obama also attacked the press — just more subtly than Donald Trump
- 44th president of the United States
The Los Angeles Times reports that Bill Burton, who served as deputy press secretary in the Obama administration, said that the Obama White House never considered treating the media like the Trump administration does.”Sure, the president disagreed with coverage,” such as that of Fox News and then-host Glenn Beck. ” But according to Burton, Obama never matched Trump’s “overt, vocal discontent with a sacred institution vital to this democracy.”
Nonetheless, Politico reports that Obama made plenty of attacks on the press. “Under his administration, the U.S. government has set a new record for withholding Freedom of Information Act requests,” which give the press an essential view into the workings of the executive branch. He declared war on leaks even while paying lip service to the protection of whistleblowers. Plus, he held infrequent news conferences, much to the dismay of the media.
Next: Here’s how Donald Trump’s war on the media compares.
1. Donald Trump is in an all-out war with the media
- 45th president of the United States
The Associated Press reports that historians “can point to plenty of past presidents who have sparred with the press,” as you saw above. Nonetheless, most historians would be “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.”
The president has referred to reporters, news outlets, and stories as “disgraceful,” “discredited,” and “a joke.” He has complained about “the bias and the hatred” directed at him. Plus, he revealed that he thinks of any negative story about his administration as “fake news.” As History reports, Trump has also taken a page out of Richard Nixon’s book by threatening the television licenses of stations that run stories he doesn’t like. And he has threatened to enact stricter libel laws in response to critical coverage.
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