The president was frustrated with the media coverage of him and his policies, swearing that 85 percent of all newspapers were against him.
“Our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public,” the president griped. Then, almost derisively, he said: “Freedom of the press. How many bogies are conjured up by invoking that greatly overworked phrase?”
So, he opted to bypass the traditional media he was convinced was unfair and speak directly to America.
And President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio, beginning in 1933, proved to be a successful political move.
The verdict is still out on President Donald Trump’s tweets, though.
Trump regularly tweets about “fake news.” He has doubled down on the view that overly critical news outlets are the “enemy of the American people.”
He talked about more stringent libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations, threatened the broadcast license of certain networks, and the Trump White House pulled the press pass for CNN personality Jim Acosta after a confrontation at a press conference.
But so far he hasn’t taken government action, as Roosevelt and other past presidents have.
A Trump-appointed federal judge sided with CNN on the Acosta press pass. Congress is unlikely to enact new libel laws, as Supreme Court precedent sets a high standard for a public figure to sue a news outlet.
The Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to pull a license of a network (which aren’t licensed), having purview only over individual stations that operate on the public airwaves (which are licensed). Cable news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel also are not licensed and not subject to FCC regulation.
Past presidents have taken tangible actions to undermine a free press. Trump has so far taken only a more negative rhetorical tone toward the press, said David Beito, a history professor at the University of Alabama.
“Would he like to do something? He probably would, but a change of tone has been the biggest difference,” Beito told The Daily Signal, characterizing Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press as more aggressive than most of his predecessors.
Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were among the biggest presidential offenders during the 20th century, he added.
“Wilson was extremely hostile to any sort of criticism, but it was couched in terms of wartime and the red scare,” Beito said. “Everyone knew Wilson was doing this. FDR was very subtle. Roosevelt was effective working through third parties. It was hard tying him to anything.”
Here are seven examples of presidential administrations that went well beyond rhetoric in going after the press.
1. ‘Thank’ Obama
The Obama administration’s Justice Department launched more leak investigations under the World War I-era Espionage Act than any other administration in history, according to then-New York Times reporter James Risen, writing in a December 2016 op-ed.
The Obama administration targeted Risen with a subpoena to force him to reveal his sources.
In a separate case, the Obama Justice Department named then-Fox News Channel reporter James Rosen as an unindicted co-conspirator. The Justice Department also seized the phone records of Rosen’s parents.
The Obama administration also seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, seizing records for 20 separate phone lines, including cellular and home lines.
Risen, now with The Intercept, wrote in his op-ed in The New York Times:
If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama. …
Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the FBI have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases.
“With Obama, the press often gave him cover,” Beito told The Daily Signal. “Obama often did do things against reporters that were concerning.”
If the Trump administration imposes regulations on social media and internet giants, he added, it could set a precedent for future Democratic presidents who want to regulate more sectors.
A 2013 report from the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists compared Obama to former President Richard Nixon for his aggressive probes of leaks to reporters.
2. LBJ on ‘Challenge and Harass’
Talk radio was not a conservative phenomenon in the 1960s, as it became in the 1990s. But President Lyndon B. Johnson—and the Democratic National Committee—took action to suppress the format during his 1964 presidential race.
The Fairness Doctrine, an FCC rule, required broadcasters to air both sides of a controversial issue.
A former CBS News president, Fred Friendly, broke the story in his 1977 book, “The Good Guys, the Bad Guys and the First Amendment,” of how the Democratic National Committee used the rule to target unfriendly broadcasts.
Friendly wrote that “there is little doubt that this contrived scheme had White House approval.”
The DNC delivered a kit to activists explaining “how to demand time under the Fairness Doctrine.” It also mailed out thousands of copies of an article against conservative talk radio published in The Nation, a liberal magazine.
The Democrats also sent thousands of radio stations a letter from DNC counsel Dan Brightman warning that if Democrats are attacked on their programs, they would demand equal time.
Democrat operative Wayne Phillips was quoted in the Friendly book as saying, “the effectiveness of this operation was in inhibiting the political activity of these right-wing broadcasts.”
Bill Ruder, an assistant secretary of the Commerce Department in the Johnson administration, recalled: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenge would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”
3. Nixon and the Fairness Doctrine
Johnson’s successor as president, Richard Nixon, would use similar tactics, particularly in the heat of the Watergate investigation.
The Nixon administration’s FCC threatened the licenses of TV stations owned by The Washington Post Co. and CBS Inc. over aggressive coverage of the Watergate scandal that eventually led Nixon to resign.
Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, targeted individual stations with Fairness Doctrine complaints, according to the Poynter Institute, a journalism research group.
Nixon also kept an “enemies list” that largely included journalists.
The Reagan administration’s FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and Reagan vetoed subsequent legislation to put the policy in law. This led to the flourishing of conservative talk radio.
4. FDR and ‘Overworked Phrase’
The Roosevelt administration frequently targeted major newspapers, publishers, and journalists for tax audits. The common factor was that these publications or individuals opposed FDR’s New Deal programs, Beito said.
The chief targets included Col. Robert McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and press barons Frank Gannett and William Randolph Hearst.
Beito wrote about Roosevelt’s tactics in a piece for Reason, a libertarian magazine.
Roosevelt, during his re-election campaign in 1936, complained that 85 percent of newspapers were against him and the New Deal. In 1938, the president vented:
Our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public, from the counting room. And I wish we could have a national symposium on that question, particularly in relation to the freedom of the press. How many bogies are conjured up by invoking that greatly overworked phrase?
Sen. Hugo Black, D-Ala., a staunch FDR ally whom the president later would name to the Supreme Court, was chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Lobbying.
The lobbying committee began investigating utility companies, banks, and businesses that opposed the New Deal. Its work eventually turned into a fishing expedition, issuing subpoenas to critics such as Hearst and unfriendly media outlets, Beito wrote in the Reason article.
A court decision in Hearst’s favor short-circuited the Black committee’s investigation into the telegrams of major businesses that opposed the New Deal, he wrote.
5. Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information
Not long after the country entered World War I, Wilson wrote the Democratic-controlled House, asking for “authority to exercise censorship over the press to the extent that that censorship is embodied in the recent action of the House of Representatives is absolutely necessary to the public safety.”
Congress turned down Wilson, so the president issued an executive order creating a Committee on Public Information.
The agency employed 75,000 in its speaking division alone, and had separate divisions overseeing foreign language newspapers and films, according to Smithsonian magazine.
This was part of Wilson’s larger effort to control news coverage, Christopher B. Daly wrote last year in the Smithsonian magazine article:
In its crusade to ‘make the world safe for democracy,’ the Wilson administration took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy—press freedom—by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history. … He waged a campaign of intimidation and outright suppression against those ethnic and socialist papers that continued to oppose the war. Taken together, these wartime measures added up to an unprecedented assault on press freedom.
The federal propaganda agency also established a government-run national newspaper called the Official Bulletin, Daly wrote: “In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily.”
6. Lincoln and the Civil War
The Civil War was an unparalleled test of the nation and civil liberties. Press freedom not surprisingly took a hit.
President Abraham Lincoln didn’t order the military to shut down pro-Confederate and anti-war newspapers, but turned a blind eye when the Union army did so, according to the magazine Civil War Times.
In the midst of war, pro-Union newspaper publishers generally didn’t speak up for their fellow newspapermen, who were sometimes jailed.
Chiefly, the Union army targeted newspapers in Kentucky, a border state with split loyalties; Virginia, a Confederate state; and Maryland and Missouri, both Union states.
According to the article in the Civil War Times:
At their most unobjectionable level, the safeguards were initially meant to keep secret military information off the telegraph wires and out of the press. But in other early cases censors also prevented the publication of pro-secession sentiments that might encourage border states out of the Union. …
Eventually the military and the government began punishing editorial opposition to the war itself. Authorities banned pro-peace newspapers from the U.S. mails, shut down newspaper offices and confiscated printing materials. They intimidated, and sometimes imprisoned, reporters, editors and publishers who sympathized with the South or objected to an armed struggle to restore the Union.
For the first year of the war, Lincoln left no trail of documents attesting to any personal conviction that dissenting newspapers ought to be muzzled. But neither did he say anything to control or contradict such efforts when they were undertaken, however haphazardly, by his Cabinet officers or military commanders.
7. Adams and the Sedition Act
President John Adams signed the Sedition Act of 1798 to ban “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president and to make it illegal to conspire “to oppose any measure or measures of the government.”
This could be the oldest, most well-known clash between a president and the press.
Adams and the Federalist Congress were not tyrants, but rather passed the series of four laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts out of fear of a pending war with France that never occurred.
Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who wrote letters to Democratic-Republican newspapers, was the first person tried under the law.
Acting as his own lawyer, Lyon argued that the law wasn’t constitutional. He was convicted nonetheless, and sentenced to four months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
One publisher of a Democratic-Republican newspaper, James Callender, was convicted and jailed for nine months for “false, scandalous, and malicious writing, against the said President of the United States.”
The law expired in early 1801. President Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, pardoned everyone convicted under the law.