At the end of his second term as president, George Washington sent a draft of what became known as his Farewell Address to Alexander Hamilton. In the draft, Washington referred to newspapers that have “teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics, wound my reputation and feelings, and destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me.”
Pleading with Washington to avoid self-pity, Hamilton removed these comments from the address. The president agreed.
None of his successors, Harold Holzer indicates, emulated Washington’s exemplary restraint. In “The Presidents vs. the Press,” Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, City University of New York, and an authority on Abraham Lincoln, provides an immensely informative account of the perennial struggle between presidents and the Fourth Estate, from Washington to Donald Trump.
Judicious and nonpartisan, Holzer covers a lot of ground. John Adams, Washington’s successor, he indicates, declared, presciently, that partisans of each political party read the publications of their “own church and interdict all writings of the opposite complexion.” But despite Sedition Act prosecutions, Adams “could not match, for ferocity and scope, the undeclared, unlegislated, unlitigated, and largely unchallenged war” waged by Abraham Lincoln against hostile newspapers.
After flooding the public with government propaganda about World War I, censoring information and punishing critics of American participation, Woodrow Wilson, Holzer writes, deserves credit for shutting down these activities three days after the armistice was signed.
Despite hostile media attacks, Bill Clinton maintained “a strong commitment to a free and independent press.” Barack Obama’s anti-press record, Holzer claims, rivaled that of his most aggressive predecessors: his administration investigated journalists deemed security risks; blackballed unfriendly media outlets; and prosecuted nine individuals — suspected of leaking classified information to reporters — for criminal felonies under the Espionage Act (compared with a total of three in all previous administrations).
In his final chapter Holzer turns to Trump. He documents the president’s tsunami of lies, characterizations of information he doesn’t like as “fake news,” circulation of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts,” attacks on reporters, editors and publishers in the “lamestream media” as “enemies of the people” and the condoning of violence against them. “It is hard to argue,” Holzer writes, that Trump “did not intend to permanently fracture Americans’ confidence in the press.”
That said, Holzer suggests that compared with Adams, Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Donald Trump’s bark far exceeded his bite. … Whether Trump permanently fractures the working relationship [between the president and the press], merely recalibrates it, or yields to a White House successor who returns it to its former status, no one can yet know.”
Holzer concludes, however, with a warning that seems stimulated, at least in part, by Trump: “The greatest threat” comes from neither “the rogue belligerence of an independent media nor the jarring bellicosity of a headstrong president,” but “with the loss of a universal acceptance of objective truth.” Without it, he cautions, democracies cannot survive.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The Presidents vs. the Press
By: Harold Holzer.
Publisher: Dutton, 576 pages, $30.