Many in the news media would have you believe that President Trump’s verbal assaults on the press are the first-ever and worst-ever. Far be it from me to do defend this White House but calling relations with this president the poorest because he calls us “the enemy of the people” ignores more than 200 years of testy relationships between the president and the press.
Most of the editors and reporters at American newspapers will never have to deal with the White House, but we all deal with local officials who want to take on the local media. With that in mind, here are some famous President and Press Prizefights, how they translate to the local level, and how we can hold our own in the fight.
When the politician uses the law fight like crazy. John Adams, our second president, pushed the 1798 Sedition Act that made it a crime to criticize the government. Prisons would be crowded with journalists had not the next president, Thomas Jefferson, done away with it.
Most local newspapers have suffered from some legislative act or administrative decision to punish the press. In today’s world of reduced profits, First Amendments and freedom of information battles are declining as newspapers won’t spend on legal fees. Yet nearly every state has a press association or a major university with a communications center willing to battle those politicians who would use a law to silence critics. Use them. And use your own news pages to relentlessly battle for open government.
They all whine. Let them. Most are familiar with William Safire’s press description written for Vice President Spiro Agnew—“the nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew tried to swat the press back on its heels and it worked as part of President Nixon’s strategy of appealing to “the silent majority.”
But it was nothing more than a tactic designed to get the press to ease up. Local politicians try this as well. They may talk about how your coverage is tearing apart the community, about how we all need to work together for “the good of the community.” Nonsense. Your job is to cover the community, not become a seamstress who sews it together.
They take the battle to the people. Some in the press act as if Trump is the first president to take his act to the people because he uses Twitter as his own version of the Associated Press. President Woodrow Wilson was so determined to bypass the press, he created the Committee on Public Information, which produced copy that some newspapers ran, and newsreels that carried his propaganda. Each president has used the media tools of his day to bypass the “biased” media and go directly to the people. This only works with the president’s most loyal and brain-numb base.
Your local elected officials try mailers and social media to go to the people. I would assign a reporter to examine those tales told directly. Report the facts and point out the puffery.
They use national security or public safety as an excuse. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush pushed—and Congress acquiesced—the Patriot Act that removed an astonishing amount of individual liberties. We have never recovered some of these, all done in the name of national security.
On a local level, this might take the form of a local police force asking the media to keep information hidden because it would endanger an undercover operation. Set limits on these requests and agree to them only with the greatest caution and a timeline before publishing. Law enforcement does need to carry out some operations in secret, but they ought to get a judge to approve wiretaps and other investigative methods. If the press could dig out the information, chances are it ought to be public.
They curry favor with the bosses. They play favorites. John F. Kennedy publicly defended the newspapers that reported information that eventually doomed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Some hail him as a hero for these words. But JFK was also notorious for favoring some reporters and freezing out others.
On a local level, my teeth still get on edge when I recall an investigative piece I wrote as a young reporter that was killed when the subject of the article whined about it during a tennis match with his every-week partner—my editor. When sources are playing favorites with the media, be aware. There is a reason they are using you to get information to the public and not your competitors.
Presidents will come and go, but the attacks on the news media by those in power never will. We should always fight back.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.