Almost from the beginning of the Republic, there has been a vibrant competition for expressing policy and governing strategy between government and the media.
Writing from Paris to Edward Carrington whom he had sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress [1786-88], Thomas Jefferson 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”.
Yet no public figure suffered more from attacks by the media than Jefferson. And during his presidency he became critical of what he saw as the partisan nature of the press, airing his grievances in personal letters: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” he wrote John Norvell in June 1807.
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” as well as an atheist and libertine.
By his presidency, anxieties had pushed newspapers to take a critical stance of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, in turn, had taken a critical tone with them; often excoriated the press he had not foreseen 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”.
That history has been repeated, more or less, by subsequent American presidential administration. In more recent times, a war ensued between Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the owners of the major newspapers, all opponents of much of his New Deal legislation. For example, they celebrated his dramatic defeat of his proposal to expand – “supreme court packing” – the size of the nation’s judicial system to permit 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 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.
But also in an earlier period, the conflict was a contest between “the working press” and the editors and owners, much as expressed, if romantically, by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in their 1928 play, “The Front Page”. That drama presented the contest between the newspapermen as part of the working class and their editors and publishers as members of moneyed elite.
But as Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan, the sociologist, diplomat, and adviser to presidents, has pointed out, there has been a dramatic if little remarked change in the character of the reporters themselves. From their working class origins of an earlier period, increased salaries and the dramatic media scandals which have drawn recruits, they are now members of the new suburban elite. And their traditional role as participants in the struggle to present the news has given way to a contest to lead as opinion makers.
That contest is the essence of today’s relationship between the media opposing Trump’s idiosyncratic administration – largely only leaving it with the support of a more balanced Fox news – and the President. Thus you find leading the media against Trump The New York Times, still considered “the paper of record” however far it has fallen from that encyclopedic station, and The Washington Post, because of its location a spokesman for various political views.