Most presidents complain in private, and sometimes in public, about media coverage of their administration, but they begrudgingly accept it as the cost of doing business. A few presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, developed mutually beneficial relationships and even friendships with reporters that led to positive coverage. Conversely, some presidents, like Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump, proclaimed that reporters were the enemies of the people.
In his new book, Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis, Jon Marshall, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, examines presidents’ often combative relationship with the media. While Marshall’s tour through presidential history is highly informative about key episodes, a longer lens would have better situated his argument about a president’s treatment of the press as the natural by-product of increasing innovation and levels of hostility.
After two short chapters on 19th-century presidents, Marshall’s study begins in earnest with Woodrow Wilson—the pinched academic who notoriously detested journalists, and the first president to boost the White House’s press management by appointing an official press secretary and holding press conferences. After America’sentry into World War I, Wilson took a more prosecutorial approach, establishing ominous precedents, questioning the patriotism of dissenting journalists, and invoking national security concerns to censor the media. Ironically, his war on journalists led to legal rulings that contributed to journalists’ defense during future administrations, including restrictions on spying on civilian mail and phone calls.
Franklin D. Roosevelt avoided Wilson’s mistakes. He famously mastered the medium with his friendly, accessible fireside chats but kept them infrequent enough to ensure that they’d be special events. FDR also built a capable, professional White House communications team that understood deadlines, feeding reporters information and suggesting story lines about the president, the first lady, their aides, and cabinet secretaries. Finally, they compiled newsreels and distributed them to movie theaters across the country.
When war broke out in Europe, FDR capitalized on his goodwill with the press. A friendly press corps touted the president’s Lend-Lease programs and cheered the war effort. After Pearl Harbor was attacked and the administration adopted wartime measures, FDR persuaded reporters to voluntarily follow censorship guidelines like Wilson’s mandatory crackdowns.
A few decades later, Nixon harkened to the Wilson model by casting journalists as enemies. The famously paranoid president believed that the “left-wing” press was out to get him, regardless of the positive coverage he received, which far surpassed his predecessors.’ Nixon’s contempt for the media was well known even before revelations about an enemies list that included prominent journalists became public. Nixon had masterminded Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famed speech denouncing the national media as “nattering nabobs of negativism” and arguing that it didn’t represent the views of the American people, Nixon’s “silent majority.”
During Watergate, Nixon found an opening with the press. He capitalized on the expanded use of live television to assure the American people of his innocence. Most journalists were ready to believe that the Watergate break-in originated in the Oval Office. (Nixon’s famous “I am not a crook” line came in November 1972 at Disney World for a meeting of newspaper editors. The New York Times reported that he acquitted himself nicely.) As the scandal metastasized, Nixon’s cover-up expanded. He explicitly used executive branch officials to lie for his political purposes.
Nixon’s California successor, Ronald Reagan, distrusted the press no less but knew how to package his message. The former actor worked the camera, and he was so likable that reporters stopped covering his falsehoods because readers complained that the press was being mean to the Gipper.
The Reagan White House learned from Nixon’s downfall—not to stop engaging in illegal activity but to hide it better. Like Nixon’s staff, the Reagan White House engaged in a massive cover-up of the 1986 Iran-Contra affair. Still, they were able to retain a circle of secrecy around the presidency such that the press could never prove the full extent of Reagan’s involvement.
Marshall also dives into how Reagan benefited from the gutting of the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air contrasting views of controversial matters. Without a need to offer “equal time,” broadcast moguls like Rupert Murdoch and right-wing gasbags like Rush Limbaugh had free rein.
But the full force of the new right-wing media wouldn’t be felt until Bill Clinton took office. Every news story became a scandal, fueled by, as the particularly maligned First Lady Hillary Clinton put it, a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to take down the Clintons. The press turned its sights on a president years before his election with a new level of scrutiny. These efforts were amplified by the mainstream media, eager to show that it was equally tough on Democratic presidents after Watergate and Iran-Contra.
Clash culminates with several chapters on the Trump administration, noting that while Trump’s media relations echoed his predecessors, he didn’t even feign interest in the truth. As a liar, he outdid the presidents before him on sheer volume alone. Trump’s verbal attacks on journalists laid the predicate for physical violence. At least 24 journalists were physically attacked in 2018. His spread of disinformation included promoting disproven medical theories as COVID-19 spread. Finally, his Big Lie led to the January 6 attack on the U.S Capitol.
Marshall positions Trump as the culmination of technological innovations and rising animus driving relations between presidents and the press. He provides ample evidence but would have benefited from a robust examination of presidential-press ties before the 20th century. Marshall leaves out Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The early-19th-century parties created dueling press establishments that rivaled the partisan ferocity of Sean Hannity and Alex Jones.
Jefferson was one of the first American politicians to harness the media. As secretary of state under George Washington, Jefferson helped fund an opposition paper and cultivated ties with Democratic-Republican newspapers that were instrumental to the decisive Democratic-Republican win in 1800.
Jackson took the party newspaper structure and ran with it. His administration represented the high point of providing insider access in exchange for preferential coverage. Francis Blair, the editor of The Washington Globe, lived across the street from the White House and was one of Jackson’s closest advisers, often hosting the president in his home, crafting policy, and selling it to the public.
A century later, Theodore Roosevelt never missed an opportunity to invite journalists and photographers along as he toured factories, visited natural wonders, or delivered speeches on trust-busting and conservation, even taking journalists’ questions while he received his morning shave. The comradery ensured that TR got his message out before it could be belittled or even analyzed by opponents.
Marshall devotes only two short chapters to pre-20th-century presidents. He examines the Alien and Sedition Acts passed during John Adams’s presidency before moving on to Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with the Black press during the Civil War. In the Lincoln chapter, Marshall argues that the Black press was responsible for pushing Lincoln to support emancipation with little evidentiary support. To be sure, abolitionists advocated for emancipation, but there is no evidence that those articles or speeches changed Lincoln’s mind. Instead, once military conditions convinced Lincoln of the necessity of emancipation, the inverse occurred—he relied on Black and abolitionist papers to cultivate public support for his policies. Marshall barely addresses Lincoln’s attacks on habeas corpus and other civil rights, which were fueled by concerns of rapid intelligence and were a critical part of the Civil War.
Clash isn’t really about presidents and the press in moments of crisis. Instead, it’s a book about the presidents, the press, and key developments in that relationship that led to our current standoff. Marshall excels when he explains the role of technology in providing new challenges and opportunities for presidents and the media alike and when he describes turning points in the relationship and draws parallels between presidential tactics. His chapters on Obama and Trump reveal the importance of social media to the 21st-century presidency. There is much to learn from those 20th-century stories. But Clash would have been even richer had Marshall also dug deeper into the 19th century.