The work­ing press

It’s in a per­ma­nent war with the pres­i­dent and no­body can win

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Al­most from the found­ing of the repub­lic, there has been a vi­brant com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the me­dia for ex­press­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy and gov­ern­ing strat­egy. Writ­ing from Paris to Ed­ward Car­ring­ton, whom he had sent as a del­e­gate to the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress, Thomas Jef­fer­son fa­mously said had he to choose be­tween “a gov­ern­ment with­out news­pa­pers or news­pa­pers with­out a gov­ern­ment, I should not he­si­tate a mo­ment to pre­fer the lat­ter.” News­pa­pers have been us­ing (and some­times abus­ing) Jef­fer­son’s ac­co­lade since.

Yet no pub­lic fig­ure suf­fered more from at­tacks by the me­dia — news­pa­pers and hand­bills in that re­mote day be­fore ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia — than the third pres­i­dent. But once pres­i­dent he even­tu­ally be­came crit­i­cal of what he saw as the par­ti­san na­ture of the press, air­ing bit­ter griev­ances in per­sonal let­ters: “Noth­ing can now be be­lieved which is seen in a news­pa­per,” he wrote to John Norvell in June 1807. “Truth it­self be­comes sus­pi­cious by be­ing put into that pol­luted ve­hi­cle.”

Dur­ing Jef­fer­son’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign against John Adams, both men used the press to in­sult each other. Jef­fer­son-al­lied pa­pers ac­cused Adams of be­ing a her­maph­ro­dite and a hyp­ocrite, while Adams’ camp at­tacked Jef­fer­son’s racial her­itage, ac­cus­ing him of be­ing “the son of a half-breed In­dian squaw, sired by a Vir­ginia mu­latto fa­ther” who was an athe­ist and a lib­er­tine.

By the time he had be­come pres­i­dent, var­i­ous dis­ap­point­ments had pushed news­pa­pers to forge a crit­i­cal opin­ion of the au­thor of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. Jef­fer­son, in turn, de­vel­oped a more re­al­is­tic view of the gen­tle­men of the press. He had not fore­seen how it would be­come a par­ti­san tool for war­ring po­lit­i­cal fac­tions. In the midst of his sec­ond term, Jef­fer­son wrote to a Mas­sachusetts con­gress­man: “As for what is not true, you will al­ways find abun­dance in the news­pa­pers.” He also urged “state at­tor­ney gen­er­als in New Eng­land to pros­e­cute news­pa­per edi­tors for sedi­tion.”

His­tory has been re­peated. In more re­cent times, Pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt and the own­ers of the ma­jor news­pa­pers quar­reled over how much of the leg­is­la­tion of the New Deal was wise. News­pa­pers cel­e­brated the de­feat of his pro­posal to pack the U.S. Supreme Court, ex­pand­ing the court from nine to fif­teen jus­tices to en­able a trans­for­ma­tion of the tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics he had in­her­ited from his Repub­li­can Party pre­de­ces­sors.

To­day’s bit­ter an­tag­o­nism be­tween most of the tra­di­tional me­dia and Don­ald Trump arises from this his­tory. But it is also a prod­uct of the sig­nif­i­cant changes that have taken place in the me­dia and in the ex­ec­u­tive. The ad­vent of ra­dio and tele­vi­sion are of course the most dra­matic.

In an ear­lier time the con­flict was a con­test be­tween “the work­ing press” and the edi­tors and own­ers, much as ex­pressed, if ro­man­ti­cally, by two Chicago reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, in their 1928 play, “The Front Page.” They pre­sented news­pa­per­men as of the work­ing class, and their edi­tors and pub­lish­ers as part of a mon­eyed elite.

But as Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, the so­ci­ol­o­gist, diplo­mat, U.S. se­na­tor and ad­viser to pres­i­dents, pointed out, there has been a dra­matic if lit­tle re­marked change in the char­ac­ter of the reporters them­selves. From their work­ing class ori­gins of the ear­lier pe­riod, larger salaries and the dra­matic me­dia scan­dals which have drawn re­cruits, they’re mem­bers now of the new sub­ur­ban elite. Their tra­di­tional role as par­tic­i­pants in the strug­gle to present the news (“all the news that’s fit to print”) has some­times given way to mostly opin­ion (“all the news that fits our opin­ions, we print”).

That con­test is the essence of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the press op­pos­ing Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and a hand­ful of other out­lets. Lead­ing the me­dia against the pres­i­dent is The New York Times, which still con­sid­ers it­self the stan­dard of the trade even if not ev­ery­body else any longer does, and The Wash­ing­ton Post, largely be­cause of lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, and a fab­u­lously wealthy owner who can af­ford to buy the pa­per to print the opin­ion on.

The press critic A.J. Leib­ling got it right a gen­er­a­tion ago. Free­dom of the press, he said, be­longs to the man who owns one. But with all its preen­ing, bias, fail­ures and short­com­ings, it’s far, far bet­ter than a press on a gov­ern­ment leash.

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