Presidents and the Press Have Long Been Adversarial. But Donald Trump Is Something New
It’s common for the president and the press to share an adversarial relationship—but historians, who see similarities between President-elect Donald Trump and former President Richard Nixon, say Trump has taken it to the next level.
Trump on Monday summoned broadcast journalists to an off-the-record meeting at Trump Tower, where he criticized their coverage of his campaign, according to reports by the New York Times and The New Yorker. On Tuesday, he took to Twitter to cancel and then reschedule a meeting with the Times when he believed the terms of their meeting had changed, criticizing the newspaper as “nasty” and “failing.” Hours later, he began the meeting by lamenting that he “been treated extremely unfairly” by the paper. At the end, he appeared to reverse course, calling the Times “a great, great American jewel—a world jewel.”
“I hope we can all get along,” he said. “We’re looking for the same thing, and I hope we can all get along well.”
Historians say it’s common for presidents and politicians to push back against unflattering news coverage. What’s more unusual is Trump’s consistent focus on the media coverage with which he disagrees.
“It’s not new for a president to complain that perhaps something is not—the coverage is not full, is not accurate,” said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant history professor at Purdue University who studies the American presidency. “But to have the anti-media narrative be so at the forefront, that takes me right back to Richard Nixon.”
Nixon harbored strong opposition to the media throughout his political career. He intimidated journalists and news organizations that were critical of him, wiretapped reporters’ phones and avoided run-ins with White House journalists. In 1962, at what he famously called his “last press conference,” Nixon criticized reporters for not fairly covering his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said.
“He believed that he couldn’t rely on [the mainstream media] to disseminate his message, so he looked to other ways to get his message out there,” Brownell said. “Trump has taken that to a new level in terms of using entertainment to connect directly to voters.”
Trump this week used a YouTube video to outline his policy agenda for the first 100 days of his presidency, speaking directly to the camera. He frequently uses Twitter to make announcements and share opinions, and he hasn’t held a press conference since July 27.
“That should be a warning sign,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University who studies politics, media and the presidency.
“Donald Trump has borrowed a lot from Richard Nixon: the silent majority, the law and order campaign, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s also borrowing from Nixon in his relationship with the press,” he added.
Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project who has studied the relationship between presidents and the press, said it’s difficult to compare Trump to past presidents before he takes office.
“His relationship with the press as an elected official is very, very brief, so other presidents—as they have come in—have had a long history as elected officials responding to reporters’ queries, so that’s something that he will develop,” she said.
“You can have a two-and-half minute video saying what your initial actions are going to be, but at some point you’re going to need to explain them,” she said.
But Trump stands out from his predecessors, Brownell said, because he has widened the scope of his attacks to include the “one-sided” performances of comedians on Saturday Night Live and actors in Hamilton—something for which there is less political precedent.
“I think that that’s really different,” Brownell said. She referenced a 1975 Saturday Night Live skit in which Chevy Chase impersonated a bumbling Gerald Ford, much to the then-president’s chagrin. “They recognized that it was a problem, but to go on the offensive and attack political satire shows—that is something really new,” she said.
Presidents have long sought to use the press to their advantage, Steinhorn said. John F. Kennedy held frequent news conferences and crafted a “charming picture of his White House,” allowing cameras into the Oval Office to photograph his children at play. Ronald Reagan cultivated a positive relationship with the press corps and became effective at spinning stories. Theodore Roosevelt has been credited with inventing spin in the first place.
“All presidents starting with George Washington have thought they’ve gotten a raw deal from the press, and that’s not going to change when he becomes president,” Kumar said.
But since Election Day, Trump has repeatedly criticized protests against him and news coverage about him, sparking concern about his willingness to respect the First Amendment as president.
“You do have to respect democracy enough to open up your thinking to questions,” Steinhorn said. “To exhibit such hostility to the press even before taking office suggests that Donald Trump is uncomfortable with one of the primary pillars of our democratic system, which is a free press.”
“I think you’ll be happy. I think you’ll be happy,” he said. “Actually, somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’ I said, ‘You know, I have to start thinking about that.’ So, I, I think you’ll be OK I think you’re going to be fine.”