Attacks on the Press Have Helped Bring Down a President Before

Donald Trump’s bizarre press conference yesterday, in which the president-elect refused to answer a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta—he labeled the network “fake news” and called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage”—was only the latest salvo in his long-running war against perceived media antagonists. It’s easy to see why CNN journalists chose a simple title for their book about the election of 2016: Unprecedented. Donald Trump called the network “unwatchable,” “fiction,” and a “disgrace”—all in a single tweet in September. Yet while Trump’s blatant hostility to the press may indeed seem unprecedented, it actually echoes the political career of another Republican president: Richard Nixon. Examining the Nixon administration’s attacks on the press and its eventual collapse in corruption and disgrace shows that both had a common source: a cynical belief that politics is a game where anything goes and everyone breaks the rules. The history of Nixon’s treatment of the media offers a cautionary tale about where Trump’s attacks on the media may lead.

Nixon had a clear media strategy: go directly to the people through live television events, sidestep the White House press corps, and publicly denigrate journalists as biased elites. All were on display when he announced and introduced his entire cabinet lineup on live TV on December 11, 1968, from the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.  The New York Times noted that “there was no precedent for the procedure adopted tonight of announcing a Cabinet en masse to the nation through the medium of television,” and surmised that the strategy aimed to reduce objections to individual members.

The next morning, President-elect Nixon brought together the cabinet members and their wives behind closed doors to offer advice on dealing with the press:

Always remember, the men and women of the news media approach this as an adversary relationship. The time will come when they will run lies about you, when the columnists and editorial writers will make you seem to be scoundrels or fools or both and the cartoonists will depict you as ogres. Some of your wives will get up in the morning and look at the papers and start to cry. Now don’t let this get you down – don’t let it defeat you. And don’t try to adjust your actions to what you think will please them.

As president, Nixon translated his animus into action. He approved illegal wiretaps to listen into the phone conversations of journalists critical of the administration. His Justice Department lodged antitrust charges against the three broadcast networks. He asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to develop “a run down on the homosexuals known and suspected in the Washington Press Corps.”  In Poisoning the Press, Mark Feldstein notes that Nixon ordered aides to “pick the twenty most vicious Washington reporters,” put out damaging information, and “[j]ust kill the sons of bitches.” Feldstein also recounts how the president told a group of broadcasting executives invited to the White House that “your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office. They have opposed me for twenty-five years [and] they’ll continue to oppose me.”

Ultimately, less visible decisions made during the Nixon transition than the cabinet selections came to upend his administration. As governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew had received kickbacks on public engineering contracts awarded by the state, and he secured agreements to keep the money flowing as vice president. Late in the 1968 campaign stories about Agnew’s  finances had led the New York Times to conclude in an editorial that he had engaged in “clear and repeated conflicts of interest” and that “he is not fit to stand one step away from the Presidency.” Richard Nixon joined Agnew’s defense, declaring, “This is the lowest kind of gutter politics that a great newspaper could possibly engage in.”

A year later, Nixon struck back, tasking his speechwriter Pat Buchanan to draft an attack on the news media. Nixon went through the resulting text line by line, and Agnew delivered it on November 13, 1969. He asked his audience:

How is this network news determined? A small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen “anchormen,” commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the twenty minutes or so of film and commentary that is to reach the public. … to a man, these commentators and producers live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City. …  The views of this fraternity do not represent the views of America.

The three broadcast networks carried the half hour speech live, and an estimated 50 million viewers tuned in. The networks got about 150,000 communications from their audiences, with about two-thirds in favor of the vice president. Agnew himself got about 74,000 letters, with most voicing their support.

A week later, in a speech to the Alabama Chamber of Commerce, Agnew turned his sights on the Washington Post and the New York Times. After offering examples of media coverage he disagreed with, Agnew concluded that for the press and the broadcast networks, “the time for naïve belief in their neutrality is gone.” The media critique was mixed in with conservative messages about society and culture that reverberate eerily with the themes of Trump’s 2016 bid. On crime: “Already there are sections of cities where citizens fear to travel after dark. … The public must learn that the cop on the beat, the patrolman in blue, is on our side in the war against crime.” On the flag: “The Republican Party has a place for every American who believes that flag-waving is better than flag burning.” On liberal intellectuals: “They are asking us to repudiate principles that have made this country great.”

But while Agnew was touring the country attacking elites, he continued to collect kickbacks from the construction contracts approved while he was governor of Maryland—including a total of $28,000 paid by a state roads contractor during his tenure as vice president. Eventually, federal prosecutors got wise to his scheme. Agnew pled no contest to a count of income tax evasion and resigned in October 1973. His fate was sealed by his belief that this was how politics operated. The contractor payments, he insisted, were “part of a long-established practice of political fundraising in the state.”

Less than a year later, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after the public learned that he had tried to use the CIA to stymy the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. In his memoirs, he made clear that, in his view, using the CIA as a political tool was simply how the game was played:

I was handling in a pragmatic way what I perceived as an annoying and strictly political problem. … We were going to play it tough. I never doubted that that was exactly how the other side would have played it.

William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter who went on to write for the New York Times, saw a direct line between Nixon’s contempt for the press and his self-destructive willingness to break the rules. Nixon, he wrote in 1975,

… was saying exactly what he meant: “The press is the enemy” to be hated and beaten, and in that vein of vengeance that ran through his relationship with another power center, in his indulgence of his most combative and abrasive instincts against what he saw to be an unelected and unrepresentative elite, lay Nixon’s greatest personal and political weakness and the cause of his downfall.

The antagonism Nixon and Agnew expressed toward the press had many sources, including the liberal bias they saw in the media and the popularity of their attacks among voters who viewed the press as distant elites. Disdain for the press was also part of a cynical view of politics as a game where everyone breaks the rules. After reading a summary of press criticisms about his lack of openness, Nixon noted to an aide, “If we treat the press with a little more contempt we’ll probably get better treatment.” Writing to Pat Buchanan, Nixon stressed, “It is very important in terms of the final [1972] campaign that the media be effectively discredited.” Contempt for the media as an institution led the Nixon White House not only to deny reporters access and attack them in speeches, but also to bug their phones and query the FBI for information about reporters.

That amoral notion of how the game is really played eventually caught up with both Nixon and Agnew, of course. Donald Trump’s campaign and transition have shown a remarkably similar hostility to the media. If his expressed belief that the media are dishonest and corrupt leads him to govern as if opponents are enemies and rules are to be ignored, then Trump’s parallels with Richard Nixon may be more than rhetorical.

James T. Hamilton

James T. Hamilton is Hearst Professor of Communication at Stanford and the author of Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism.