The working press
It’s in a permanent war with the president and nobody can win
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.