Last week, President Trump once again took to Twitter to complain about news coverage of his administration. This time, his sight was set on NBC — in particular, a story that NBC ran on U.S. nuclear capabilities and reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a “moron.” Deriding the network as “fake news,” Trump issued a thinly veiled threat, wondering, “At what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?” The next day, Trump was more assertive, tweeting that “licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.”
Despite First Amendment protections, Trump persists in his attacks on both free speech and the free press, seemingly more interested in influencing public opinion than governing. But there’s good news: Although Trump is not the first president to wage war on the media, he will have far more difficulty changing the media environment than his predecessors did. In fact, while his political success has hinged on a media environment formed by Richard Nixon’s war on the media, Nixon’s success now limits the effectiveness of Trump’s own attacks.
Trump’s threat to revoke the broadcasting license of NBC-owned stations (the network itself does not need a license) echoes the Nixon administration’s attacks on the media. In his attempts to win support for the war effort in Vietnam and build a conservative majority, Nixon recognized the power of the media — and its general liberal tilt. With threats and attacks, Nixon sought to intimidate the press, make conservative voices heard and ease criticism of his administration.
He faced a distinctly uphill battle. Nixon had a famously hostile relationship with the media, dating to his days in Congress. Convinced that the media had contributed to his narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and having lost the 1962 gubernatorial election in California, Nixon opened a notorious news conference with self-pity. “Now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I’d like to make a statement of my own,” he said before launching into a rambling assault on the media.
After winning the White House with a razor-thin plurality in 1968, Nixon struggled to win public support — especially for his plans to end the war in Vietnam. He soon became convinced that the blame lay on the media for undermining him at every turn. Nixon was especially livid with the media coverage of a November 1969 prime-time speech on Vietnam, during which he introduced his plan for “Vietnamizing the search for peace” — that is, replacing U.S. troops with South Vietnamese ones.
Nixon, like Lyndon Johnson before him, realized the political value of prime-time speeches carried free by the networks. Faced with an increasing number of presidential addresses, the networks started to seek balance to this powerful White House platform by following them with commentary. So while the networks carried the speech, to Nixon’s great chagrin, they followed it with analysis and criticism. On CBS, the esteemed correspondent Eric Sevareid noted there was little new in the speech and questioned how this would appease critics on Capitol Hill and beyond. Especially galling, however, was ABC’s decision to invite the prominent Democrat W. Averell Harriman to join their correspondents for the commentary. Harriman had been Johnson’s chief negotiator in the Paris peace talks, and he — predictably — offered up some harsh words about Nixon’s strategy.
Nixon would not stand for this. Within two weeks, the administration dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to deliver a withering assault on the networks in front of a Republican audience in Des Moines. The networks dutifully carried the speech live after the White House instructed them that it was in their best interest to do so.
In a speech written by the pugnacious Pat Buchanan, Agnew lambasted the networks as biased, calling the executives and reporters in charge of the editorial decisions a “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one.” The vice president pleaded with the public to register their dismay with the Federal Communications Commission and the networks.
That same fall, the administration circulated memorandums outlining ways to attack the networks by using the FCC, the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department for political ends, including challenging licenses of individual stations.
Yet even though these threats and tactics are reminiscent of Trump’s, the two administrations operated in distinctly different media environments. The Nixon administration, and especially movement conservatives within it like Pat Buchanan, sought to highlight a bias in the press — which at the time most Americans regarded as objective and trustworthy — and to create room for conservative voices in the media.
At the same time, the White House attempted to win specific concessions. And it worked. CBS ended up dropping the “instant analysis” of presidential speeches for a while following the attacks, and none of the networks covered a major antiwar protest two days after Agnew’s speech.
The Nixon administration also got local broadcasters on its side. Management at local affiliate stations skewed to the right. By directing all attacks toward the network, not local broadcasters, the affiliates and their local news departments were saved from criticism in their community, making them potential allies in the fight: If the affiliates demanded changes, the network would have to listen.
Trump faces a much different media landscape, one far harder to control or change — something he used to his advantage on the campaign trail. The rise of cable news, coupled with increasing partisan polarization, has challenged the mid-20th-century ideal of objectivity. The war against media credibility has already been won, at least among GOP voters. A recent poll found CNN and MSNBC had net favorability ratings of negative-28 and negative-16, respectively, among Republicans. The charge of “fake news” isn’t likely to depress those numbers more, nor is it likely to appeal to those outside of Trump’s base.
More important: The existence of Fox News Channel, which Republicans approved of with a net favorability of plus-55 in the same poll, means there already are conservative voices and perspectives in the media. In fact, in Fox News the president has the sort of loyal partisan press Nixon could only dream of.
Those changes mean that Trump’s attacks on the media reinforce, rather than challenge, the current media environment. They are in line with public perceptions of the media, rather than offering a transformational vision. Because of this, Trump might rile his base like Nixon did, but he can’t replicate Nixon’s ability to change public perceptions of the media. Because of Nixon’s success, the media environment of today is far less malleable, and the power of the president to control news is not what it used to be.
What is he left with? Using his power to censor the media, in violation of his sworn duties to uphold the Constitution. How far he will go is yet to be seen.