The Ancient War Between the Press and the President

The ancient war between the press and the president

Tribune Content Agency — August 8, 2018

By Victor Davis Hanson, Tribune Content Agency

The media are furious that President Trump serially decries “fake news.” He often rants that journalists who traffic in it are “enemies of the people.”

Reporters have compared Trump to mass murderers such as Stalin and Hitler because of his dislike of the press.

Trump may be crude to reporters, but journalists are also not so innocent. They have brought much of the present calumny upon themselves in a variety of ways.

The media seem to have little concern that their coverage is biased even though polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe the media intentionally reports fake news.

Indeed, fake news is not a Trump exaggeration. Despite coverage to the contrary, Trump did not remove a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. Testimony by former FBI Director James Comey revealed that senior Trump campaign officials did not consult “senior Russian intelligence officials,” as the New York Times reported. Putin denied having compromising information on Trump during an NBC interview after an earlier NBC report said Putin did not deny having such information.

Despite hysterical reports that in testimony before Congress, Comey would refute Trump’s claim that Comey had assured him he was not under investigation, Comey instead confirmed Trump’s story.

The list of such false news reports is long. The common theme is that even recklessly derogatory news is seen by many as serving the higher purpose of delegitimizing the Trump presidency.

Auditing coverage of the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that of the news reports with a clear tone, 80 percent of the stories about Trump were negative, 20 percent positive.

Journalists ranging from Christiane Amanpour to Jorge Ramos to Jim Rutenberg have argued that the rules of neutral reportage should no longer necessarily apply when it comes to Trump.

The WikiLeaks email trove of correspondence between Hillary Clinton and her campaign adviser, John Podesta, revealed that marquee journalists were colluding with Clinton aides to ensure the right spin was put on stories before publication. CNN analyst Donna Brazile leaked debate questions to Clinton in advance.

Too often, reporters smear the president in the crudest possible ways.

Politico’s Julia Ioffe suggested that Trump might have engaged in incest with his daughter.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was forced to apologize after he crudely trashed a pro-Trump panelist, saying, “If he took a dump on his desk, you would defend it!”

This year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner turned into a Trump hatefest, as host Michelle Wolf savagely trashed the president. Wolf even mocked the looks of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

The late CNN host Anthony Bourdain once joked about poisoning Trump. Religious scholar Reza Aslan referred to Trump as “this piece of s–t.”

Sometimes journalists disparage and stereotype Trump supporters. Recently, Politico reporter Marc Caputo tweeted of the crowd he saw at a Trump rally: “If you put everyone’s mouths together in this video, you’d get a full set of teeth.” Then he doubled down by calling them “garbage people.”

The New York Times knew when it newly hired tech writer Sarah Jeong as an editorial board member that she had a history of crude, racist tweets, some directed at Trump.

Is this war between Trump and the media unprecedented?

Not quite.

So far, Trump’s attacks are verbal, and subject to public debate. Unlike his predecessors, he has not yet secretly weaponized the government to spy on and harass journalists he doesn’t like.

Reporters loved Barack Obama. But his Justice Department improperly and secretly surveilled Associated Press reporters and monitored the phone calls and emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen.

President John Adams in 1798 pushed through Sedition Act, barring journalistic criticism of the government.

Woodrow Wilson systematically had reports censored that he felt were critical of his wartime administration. His state-run propaganda machine, the “Committee on Public Information,” had a creepy French Revolutionary ring to it.

Liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt makes Trump’s bluster about the media look relatively amateurish. FDR used the Federal Communications Commission to stifle critical news. Roosevelt’s congressional allies tried to push through a “libel bill” to criminalize hostile reporting. At a press conference in the middle of World War II, Roosevelt once handed a reporter a Nazi Iron Cross and told him that another journalist whom FDR hated had earned it.

John F. Kennedy had the CIA wiretap two Washington reporters.

There is no doubt that Trump should ease off his blanket condemnations of the journalists and their profession. But for their part, reporters have to stop creating news where there is none. And they should refrain from personal attacks on the president and his family, and from stereotyping Trump supporters as garbage.

In the meantime, we should remember that the real danger to a free press is not loud public bluster from a perceived hostile president. More often, First Amendment threats come from the quiet weaponization of the government against journalists — which, ironically, is sometimes orchestrated by presidents who are beloved press idols.

(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the soon-to-be released “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing authorvdh@gmail.com.)


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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.