Blaming the Messenger: A Continuum of Press Condemnation
As election day draws closer, complaints about a liberal bias in the press have intensified. On Oct. 6, a crowd at a Sarah Palin rally shouted abuse at reporters after the vice presidential nominee blamed CBS anchor Katie Couric for what Palin called a “less-than-successful interview with the kinda mainstream media.” Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz has offered concrete examples of reporting that favored Obama. And probably the most strident moment came from McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt who in September told reporters that The New York Times “is today not by any standard a journalistic organization.”
Where do the current criticisms fit in with the history of national political leaders’ relations with the press? Criticism of the press by political figures is hardly new. As far back as 1796, George Washington explained his decision not to seek a third term noting, among other reasons, he was “disinclined to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.”1
The criticism has not always come from the political right. During the Vietnam War, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon alike condemned the press for what they saw as undermining of their war efforts. Bill Clinton’s relationship with the press, never good, soured further during the scandal over Monica Lewinsky, and variously included complaints about both liberalism and a right-wing media machine.
The more overtly partisan and ideological nature of the criticism — that the press is liberal — is relatively new. The modern critique by conservatives that the press is liberal first notably flowered in public in 1964 when former President Dwight Eisenhower raised the complaint at the Republican convention, to wild reaction. The criticism has become noticeably bolder since the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, representing the second generation of movement conservatism, took power in the House. Yet it may have never been more pointed or personal than this year.
What follows is a timeline of key examples of political leaders attacking the press that offers something of a guide to how the rhetoric has evolved.
Thomas Jefferson, often regarded as a champion of press freedoms, is famously remembered for saying he would prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers. Yet that was in 1787, before he ran for president. After a heated presidential campaign in 1800, during which newspapers published rumors about his personal life, he offered a number of utterances in the other direction, including:
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”2
President Woodrow Wilson made extraordinary efforts at using the press to influence public opinion in favor of his policies. His administration held the first sustained regularly-scheduled presidential press conferences between 1913 and 1915. Upset by press coverage resulting from a stream of leaks from his Cabinet, he lamented in a letter to a senator:
“I am so accustomed to having everything reported erroneously that I have almost come to the point of believing nothing that I see in the newspapers.”3
Upon losing the 1962 race for Governor of California, Richard Nixon famously lashed out at the press, though his critique was more personal than ideological:
“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference … I hope that the press … recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they’re against a candidate, give him the shaft, but also recognize if they give him the shaft, put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.”4
Former President Dwight Eisenhower inspired wild cheers with an unexpected lashing out at columnists and commentators in a speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco:
“Let us particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators, because I assure you that these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.”5
Though at times Lyndon Johnson privately admitted the Vietnam War was unwinnable, he also privately complained about coverage of the conflict in the press, particularly The New York Times, which he said was undermining public confidence in the administration. He said the people in charge of the newspaper were:
“…a bunch of commies…they want to get out of Vietnam and yield it to them, and I don’t think I can quite do that.”6
The critique against the press took on new velocity on November 13, 1969, when Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a speech written by William Safire and Pat Buchanan, condemned the phenomenon of “instant analysis” on television, after a critical reaction to a nationally televised speech by Richard Nixon. While the speech was considered striking at the time, the tone seems reserved compared with what one might find today.
“When the president completed his address…his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism…by a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say. It was obvious that their minds were made up in advance. Now I want to make myself perfectly clear. I’m not asking for government censorship or any other kind of censorship. I am asking whether a form of censorship already exists when the news that forty million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers and is filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases.”7
Starting in 1971, the office of President Nixon’s White House Counsel Chuck Colson compiled an “enemies list” that originally included 20 people, but in time grew to more. The original list included three news people, although it eventually swelled to more than 50 journalists and media outlets.
The three journalists on the original list were Ed Guthman, Los Angeles Times, Daniel Schorr, CBS, and Mary McGrory, Washington Post columnist.8
In the fall of 1992, as he trailed in the polls in the presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush produced an anti-media slogan, which the president would mention from the stump:
“Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.”
After his election, President Bill Clinton also complained about the media, which he sometimes argued was attacking from the left, as he did in this interview with Rolling Stone magazine published in the Dec. 9, 1993 issue:
“I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in twenty years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in your damn article.”
During Clinton’s second term, Congress appointed Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate allegations pertaining to President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. By early 1998, news headlines began to focus on the tactics behind the investigation. First Lady Hillary Clinton appeared on the “Today Show” on January 27, 1998 and urged more critical coverage of those she believed were conspiring against President Clinton:
“The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
The leader of a new generation of conservatives in Congress, Newt Gingrich became increasingly vocal in condemning the press as liberal after becoming speaker of the House in the mid 1990s. This point was driven home during remarks to an American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention on April 16, 1996:
“I unequivocally believe as a Republican activist that the core of the news media is biased, that the bias is amazing.”9
President George W. Bush took the media critique further, by suggesting that it was possible to ignore the media. He told Fox News Washington bureau chief Brit Hume in a September 22, 2003 interview that he doesn’t pay much attention to the press:
“I glance at the headlines just to get a kind of a flavor for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories … The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”10
After the 2004 presidential election, Howard Dean, a former frontrunner who lost the Democratic primary battle, complained about corporate ownership of the news media, the increased focus on entertainment, and the decline of investigative reporting:
“The media is a failing institution in this country. They are not maintaining their responsibility to maintain democracy.”11
Former President Bill Clinton also condemned the press during the primary season for sensationalism in suggesting that he had engaged in racial politics against Barack Obama, during an angry exchange on Jan. 23, 2008 with CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin:
“The people of South Carolina are coming to these meetings and asking questions about what they care about. And what they care about is not going to be in the news coverage tonight because you don’t care about it. What you care about is this, [whether Bill Clinton is playing the race card against Barack Obama]. And the Obama people know that. So they just spin you up on this and you happily go along.
In the primary season of the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton complained about press coverage being unfairly biased toward Barack Obama, most notably on February 26, 2008 during a debate in Cleveland:
“Well, can I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don’t mind. I — you know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious, and if anybody saw “Saturday Night Live,” you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.”
After John McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, the McCain campaign excoriated the media for focusing on her personal life and for treating her disrespectfully. Palin herself addressed the issue by portraying herself as a woman aligned with “the people” instead of Washington journalists in her Sept. 3, 2008 speech to the Republican National Convention.
“But here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion – I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.”
On September 22, 2008, during a conference call with reporters, McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt condemned the New York Times for a story saying McCain campaign manager Rick Davis had been paid about $2 million to help Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stave off tighter regulation:
“Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. This is an organization that is completely, totally, 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate, which is their prerogative to be. Everything that is read in The New York Times that attacks this campaign should be evaluated by the American people from that perspective.”12
1 George Washington was speaking to his VP John Adams in 1796, explaining his disinterest in a third term. Quotation is taken from Brian J. Buchanan, “Sex and politics as news is hardly new,” First Amendment Center Online, Oct. 20, 2006.
2 Craig Crawford, Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media, (New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2006), p.3.
3 Woodrow Wilson wrote those words in a March 1914 letter to Sen. W. J. Stone of Missouri. Quotation taken from Stephen Ponder, Managing the Press: Origins of the Media Presidency, 1897-1933, (New York: Macmillan, 2000), p. 84.
4 President Richard Nixon, November 6, 1962. Quotation taken from David Wise, The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).
5 J. Patrick Coolican, “Republicans attack liberal media again…and again,” Las Vegas Sun, Sept. 5, 2008.
6 Kelley Shannon, “Tapes Reveal LBJ’s Vietnam Conversations,” Associated Press, November, 18, 2006.
7 Richard Heffner, A Documentary History of the United States, (New York: Signet Classic, 2002), p. 453.
8 Facts on File, Watergate and the White House, vol. 1, pages 96-97.
9 Federal News Service, April 17, 1996.
10 The Hotline, September 23, 2003.
11 Dean made remarks at a November 16, 2004 Yale University Forum titled “The Media and the Election: A Postmortem.” Quotation taken from Yotam Barakai, “Dean ’71 Criticizes News Media,” Yale Daily News, November 17, 2004.
12 McCain Camp Takes Issue With Times Coverage, The New York Times, September 22, 2008.