When Richard Nixon Declared War on the Media

(Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

More than 40 years ago, Richard Nixon subtly changed the modern presidency. During past administrations, the American news media had always been referred to as “the press,” but Nixon, whose contentious relationship with the nation’s newsrooms was longstanding, tweaked that policy, and began labeling the press as “the media,” a term he felt sounded more ominous and less favorable. As Jon Marshall wrote in 2014 for The Atlantic, Nixon was the first president to exclusively use this term, and while subsequent presidents were similarly at odds with those whose job it is to hold the country’s chief executive in check, none were as vitriolic as Nixon.

Donald Trump has come the closest, evidenced by this week’s post-midterm election press conference — his first in months — which quickly went off the rails moments after his opening remarks, devolving into presidential rants accusing those assembled of perpetuating hoaxes while advancing bogus claims of “racist” questions peddled by the “fake media.” The surreality of the conference was part-carnival, part-grand guignol, but it wasn’t without historical precedent: Asked how to “change” the tone of the country, Trump claimed that it “begins with the media — we used to call it the press.” He didn’t credit Nixon, but the connection was readily apparent, even more when the administration followed up by barring CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House, revoking the press credentials of the veteran reporter and gadfly.

Acosta had the temerity to first question the dog-whistle issue of the caravan and then follow-up by asking about Robert Mueller’s probe; in the process, he shielded the microphone from a White House aide attempting to censor him. The government’s decision was outlandish, perhaps, but not all that surprising — Masha Gessen had predicted a similar action in the New York Review of Books just two years earlier, and second, Nixon kept a master list of his “enemies,” dozens of which were members of the press and one specifically whom he banned.

When Stuart Loory wrote a January 1971 article for the Los Angeles Times about the cost to taxpayers of maintaining Nixon’s Western White House in San Clemente and a vacation property in Key Biscayne (which, between the years of 1969 and 1972, would later be revealed to amount to $218,676 — or $1.3 million in 2018), he likely expected pushback from the White House. After all, Loory had written a column for the paper just six months earlier examining the supposed effectiveness of Henry Kissinger, then the special presidential advisor on foreign affairs (as Louis Liebovich recounts in Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press, aide Herbert Klein complained about the coverage to then publisher Otis Chandler). What Loory didn’t expect, though, was to be banned from the White House, which, despite his reputation — the reporter had an illustrious career, working for the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and finally CNN — he summarily was.

All presidents have a detente with the news media, but Nixon’s relationship was especially fraught, which was strange considering the politician enjoyed widespread — and often favorable — coverage. During the first 18 months of his administration, Nixon received more airtime that his three predecessors did during a span of 16 years; his early press conferences were described by the media as “tour de force[s].” Nearly 80 percent of the country’s newspapers endorsed Nixon for president in 1960 and 1968, and a whopping 93 percent did so again in 1972. But Nixon felt that the media had forever turned against him when he previously was a representative and then senator from California, and he could never shake that sense of enmity. In December 1972, he told Kissinger,

Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy…write that on the blackboard 100 times.

The distrust filtered throughout his administration: As vice president, Spiro Agnew was instructed to give speeches attacking the media, referring to reporters, editors, and publishers as “small and unelected elite” who possess “broad…powers of choice” and “decide what forty to fifty-million Americans will learn of the day’s events in the nation and the world.” According to Agnew, there was “a widening credibility gap…between the national news media and the American people.”

Lawsuits were threatened whenever the phrase “Tricky Dick” appeared in print. Reporters’ phones lines were repeatedly tapped. The Internal Revenue Service was directed to investigate tax returns filed by Seymour Hersh and other journalists whom the White House disliked. Publishers, like Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, were menaced:

And these were just mild reactions: before organizing the Watergate break-in, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt discussed murdering Jack Anderson, a muckracking journalist, to end leaks that were damaging the administration and deflect any further criticism. One option was smearing his steering wheel with LSD (presumably so he would hallucinate while driving and crash his car), while the other, said Liddy, was more direct — “I would have knifed him or broken his neck.”

But Anderson and his fellow colleagues were never banned from the White House like Loory, who, according to Nixon, committed the cardinal sin: “They say, ‘But it’s the responsibility of the media to look at government generally, and particularly at the president, with a microscope.’ I don’t mind a microscope, but, boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far.” The consequences for being on Nixon’s enemies list weren’t career-ending for Loory — the president resigned from office in August 1974, and by then, the reporter had already moved on, teaching public affairs reporting at the Ohio State University before his decade-plus career at CNN — but what will happen to Acosta and the current American press is far less certain.

Like Nixon, Trump has managed to marginalize the media, creating an effective foil; in essence, the media is the heel to Trump’s spray-tanned face. But he’s also managed to shift the media to the sidelines, something which Nixon could never accomplish, and according to RonNell Andersen Jones’ and Lisa Grow Sun’s recent paper, “Enemy Construction and the Press,” that transformation— from necessary evil (in 1976, a study found that while Americans believed the press wasn’t always “cordial,” they were “crucial middlemen”) to just evil — will haunt not only this current presidential administration but also all future commanders-in-chief:

Beyond these more traditional rationales for enemy construction, however, lurks one of the most insidious potential consequences of declaring the press to be the enemy of the people: constructing the press as an enemy can pave the way for the invocation of Schmittian exceptionalism that justifies limitation on press freedoms and thus subverts the important watchdog, educator, and proxy roles of the press. This undermining of vital press functions, in turn, damages the democracy and empowers the administration to more easily construct enemies of our other critical institutions—like the judiciary—and of vulnerable groups—such as Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

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