Now comes distinguished Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer of the City University of New York’s Hunter College to tell us that this is only the latest chapter in “the endless battle between the White House and the media, from the Founding Fathers to fake news.” His new book, “The Presidents vs. the Press,” is a lively, deeply researched history of the roller-coaster relationships between presidents and journalists, from George Washington to Donald Trump.
Holzer recounts how Washington and Thomas Jefferson angrily castigated reporters and newspapers that opposed them at a time when the new nation’s fledgling newsrooms were avowedly partisan. Yet both presidents repeatedly affirmed the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. John Adams, by contrast, oversaw the prosecution of opposition-party newspaper editors under the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts. Andrew Jackson co-opted friendly editors by putting them on the government payroll. Abraham Lincoln also did so, in addition to censoring news and shutting down newspapers judged to be endangering or opposing the Union cause during the Civil War.
Over the next several decades, American newspapers modernized and became less partisan. At the beginning of the 20th century, journalists at some papers and national magazines pioneered what we now know as investigative reporting. They revealed corruption in local, state and national government, and exploitive monopolies in the oil, railroad, banking, insurance and food-processing industries. President Theodore Roosevelt initially befriended these journalists and championed reforms that included trustbusting and the Pure Food and Drug Act. But when the journalists investigated his allies in Congress, Roosevelt disparaged them as “muckrakers.”
Investigative journalism receded during World War I, the Depression, World War II, the Korean War and the communist-hunting McCarthy years. Significant aspects of some presidents’ lives known to journalists went mostly unreported, including Woodrow Wilson’s incapacity during his last year in office, Franklin Roosevelt’s lower-body paralysis, John Kennedy’s womanizing and much of Lyndon Johnson’s crude personal behavior.
Holzer recounts all this and much more in considerable colorful detail. He brings to life the loquacious Teddy Roosevelt’s punishment of reporters who broke his off-the-record rules, FDR’s adept use of frequent news conferences and occasional radio “fireside chats,” and JFK’s mastery of television. Holzer explains the effectiveness of Ronald Reagan’s media management, and he blames a Newsweek magazine cover story, “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor,’ ” for George H.W. Bush’s failure to win reelection.
Holzer credits the impact of skeptical newspaper and television reporting about the Vietnam War for Johnson’s decision not to seek a second full term and The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation for Richard Nixon’s eventual resignation. But too often, he portrays the tension between post-Watergate presidents and the press as primarily a petty contest of wills. “Journalists after Nixon made ‘gotcha’ their credo,” he writes. “And presidents ever since have reaped the whirlwind.”
This distorts the post-Watergate role of investigative reporting in holding accountable presidents and most other powerful people and institutions in American society. For example, Holzer variously characterizes media investigations of Bill Clinton as “zealous,” “titillating speculation,” “cannibalistic feeding frenzies,” “post-Watergate cynicism and careerist ambition,” “red herrings” and a “record-high level of antagonism.”
At The Post, I was a career-long practitioner and leader of accountability journalism, including when I was one of the editors on the Watergate story. I oversaw Post investigations of the behavior of many public officials, including Clinton’s sexual escapades inside the White House with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky. As should now be clear from the #MeToo movement, a sexual relationship between a powerful boss and a young female employee, accompanied by an attempted coverup, is newsworthy, if not a firing offense. Clinton’s political popularity, presidential accomplishments and escape from impeachment, all cited by Holzer, did not negate the news media’s oversight responsibility.
In his chapter on George W. Bush, Holzer focuses on the often-petty news management struggles between Bush’s press secretaries and the White House press corps. Holzer largely ignores the much more important accountability journalism issues over the administration’s fallacious justifications for the Iraq War, its bungled postwar occupation of Iraq, and its secret detention and torture of terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
Holzer details Barack Obama’s unprecedented efforts to tightly control the flow of government information to the press and his effective use of the Internet to go around it. His administration forcefully fought against leaks to the press and prosecuted government sources who disclosed classified information, something the Trump administration has continued to do. Citing my 2013 Committee to Protect Journalists report on how Obama failed to fulfill his promise to make his administration the most transparent in American history, Holzer adds, “If Downie’s view is correct, then Obama’s failure to meet his original standards helped set the harsh tone made harsher by the president who succeeded him.”
That president, Trump, poses a problem for Holzer, the historian. He chronicles the chaos of Trump’s war with the media without a clear perspective about what it could mean for the future of presidential relations with journalists or the larger role of an American free press. Holzer strangely equates “the rogue belligerence of an independent media” with the “jarring bellicosity of a headstrong president,” as though accountability journalism is somehow “rogue belligerence” and Trump’s attacks are not aimed at the very existence of press freedom.
As Holzer concludes at the end of his engaging and enlightening book, however, “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.” That would be a threat to our democracy.
The Presidents vs. the Press
The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media — From the Founding Fathers to Fake News
By Harold Holzer
Dutton. 554 pp. $30