The Presidents vs. The Press by Harold Holzer

Review by Elizabeth Starkey

In The Presidents vs. The Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media from the Founding Fathers to the Fake News, Harold Holzer, an Abraham Lincoln expert, takes up the historian’s perennial task: convincing us we’ve been here before. 

Clearly written with the understanding that Donald Trump is never far from the reader’s thoughts, the Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon chapters in particular contain passages where you can feel Holzer’s wink as the reader exclaims to themselves, “Hey, that’s just like Trump!” Jackson was “either a friend of the common man or an aristocrat; a populist or a plantation master; a cunning politician or the quintessential outsider; a nationalist or a racist…” The tidbit that press darling Teddy Roosevelt forbade reporters from photographing him playing tennis was surely intended to conjure one modern image to mind. 

Obvious Trump parallels aside, Holzer’s broader message is that in our current panic, we’ve lost sight of the fact that, early casual collusion between the government and the press notwithstanding (favorite papers were awarded government printing contracts until the establishment of the US Government Publishing Office on March 4, 1861, the date of Lincoln’s inauguration, for example), this has rarely been an easy relationship. Even the vaunted First Amendment only prevents Congress from regulating the press–for states’ rights Virginians like Thomas Jefferson, the issue was federal interference with freedom of speech. John Adams may have notoriously prosecuted journalists under the Alien and Sedition Acts, but we forget court cases continued at the state level under Jefferson.

From the country’s founding, one of the greatest tensions between the government and the press has been the extent to which revealing information threatens national security. George Washington, as a General, worried about newspapers printing troop movements, but the actions his successors have taken to combat these threats–both real and imagined–have been extreme. Woodrow Wilson’s wartime censorship under the 1917 Espionage Act is well-known and faithfully detailed, but Lincoln’s arguably much worse behavior towards the press tends to get sidelined in history books. Holzer offers a succinct and compelling summary from his years of Lincoln research, reminding us that during the Civil War, Lincoln jailed editors, prevented the press from accessing the post office and federally controlled telegraph wires, had newspapers thrown from from trains, and seized printing presses–and most of this was done under the aegis of military tribunals which precluded civilian courts from intervening. The friendly press was surprisingly complicit with this; the New York Times during the Civil War editorialized, “‘whatever stands in the pathway of our triumph must be overthrown,’ including the ‘vague notion afloat that freedom of speech carries with it some special and peculiar sanctity.’”

Interestingly, the other President that Holzer sees as having most brutally wielded the state against the press is Barack Obama. When dealing with pursuing not only the permanent thorns in his side, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, but domestic journalists, Holzer says, “[t]o the Committee to Protect Journalists, Obama’s anti-press record ranked as unsurpassed.” Holzer points to a 2013 study by that organization detailing the prosecution of eight Americans–later nine–under the Espionage Act, “compared to a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations.”

Individual Presidents have, however, managed cordial relationships with the press, including both Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan. Teddy Roosevelt emerges here as the press’s first real friend in office, creating the first official White House press room and delaying official events until photographers could capture them–both of which, of course, he used to his personal advantage. A number of “gentlemen’s agreements” (and to be clear, this is a book almost entirely about men, despite a handful of Helen Thomas anecdotes) proliferate in the twentieth century, with Wilson’s stroke, FDR’s wheelchair, John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s Disease, and everyone’s affairs known to the press but not printed. There’s some uncomfortable soulsearching to do when considering how American Media Inc.’s catch-and-kill of Trump stories harkens back to old coverups. Holzer wonders if withholding this information affected the press’s credibility, but leaves it to “history” to make the call. 

As much as it seems like there’s something novel about Trump using Twitter to bypass the press, Holzer reminds us that direct appeals to the public date back to FDR’s radio broadcasts; besides his Fireside Chats, in 1936, he became the first President to broadcast the State of the Union live. Presidents from Kennedy onwards have effectively used television in their appeals to the public–in fact, Holzer identifies the first modern political commercial as an 8-minute film produced by the Wilson campaign. The potential issue of this direct-to-public approach, Holzer muses, is that it limits how political opponents can respond and rebut the President, a crucial part of a functioning democracy.

The relationship with television has gone both ways since the beginning. Johnson kept TVs all over the White House, started each day with the Today show and ended with the available late-night current-events shows, and Reagan was known to watch C-SPAN at certain times, so legislators that had a hard time meeting with him in person appealed to him on air. The modern equivalent is hard to miss.

Nixon went beyond bypassing the press and campaigned on its alleged bias against him–and here we see the outlines of the Trump era really begin to take shape. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who theoretically kept Nixon’s hands clean by delivering attacks for him, may not be a household name in the 21st century, but he was produced, as it were, by a young Roger Ailes. Even in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, Holzer quotes a reporter suggesting he “whipped up so much public opinion against the press that I would not have been surprised to have seen a reporter tarred and feathered by Nixon supporters.”

Presidents have fallen prey to new media just as easily as they’ve used it: Saturday Night Live has pilloried Presidents starting with Gerald Ford in its inaugural season, and the Monica Lewinsky story was broken by the Drudge Report. In the morass of the internet, we reach the present moment. Ubiquitous as politicians tweeting may now be, it’s easy to lose track of how pioneering the Obama administration’s use of its website and, eventually, Twitter seemed. Newspapers were reduced to reporting on what citizens could already read online themselves. 

Finally, we come to this book’s unspoken raison d’être: Donald Trump and the Twitter presidency. Trump, Holzer argues, often portrayed as “unpredictable,” is anything but: as he learned from his mentor Roy Cohn, when he’s attacked, he attacks back harder. A consummate showman who has been both courting and warring with the press for decades, Trump hews to the adage that all publicity is good publicity. No outlier, every President since Washington has considered themselves grossly mistreated by the press; the difference is rather than writing a diary or private letter, Trump is doing his complaining by Tweet.

However, the damage caused by Trump’s attacks can’t be minimalized. “The Trump era may usher in a permanent upheaval in which Americans never again agree on basic information or trust in traditional sources of news.” And Holzer reminds us, for all their problems with the press, other presidents didn’t try to incite their rally-goers to violence against its members. Trump may be following a long tradition of acrimonious Presidential/press relations, but he’s elevated it to a dangerous new level. 

Frustratingly, this book on the “first draft of history” suffered from some jarring drafting errors itself. We first meet John C. Calhoun “of Georgia,” although he is later correctly returned to South Carolina. Kellyanne Conway’s husband is named as Michael rather than George. Barack Obama announces his candidacy for “U.S. Senator” in February 2007. In the chapter on Obama, Obama is said to have held 11 press conferences in his first year to Bill Clinton’s dozen in the same period; in the chapter on Trump, these numbers inexplicably change to seven and eleven, respectively. 

The Presidents vs. the Press is designed to retread historical ground; whether it offers any new insights depends on how well-versed in Presidential history the reader is. Regardless, it serves as an important and timely reminder that indeed, at least in some form, we’ve been here before.