What a Real Attack on the Media Looks Like

One of the President’s favorite things to do in speeches is to drop the word “historic” before some pronouncement about his Administration or campaign.  Sometimes it’s justified, like when he talks about his performance during the Republican primaries, and sometimes it’s just salesman-style puffery.

But President Trump isn’t the only one who likes to throw around words like “historic” and “unprecedented.”  You’ll hear the same thing coming from the mainstream media, especially when they’re talking about Trump’s attacks on the press.  Even before the election, press groups were labeling President Trump’s disdain for the press as “unprecedented.”  The Committee to Protect Journalists passed a resolution “declaring Trump an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.”  Since the election, the President has railed against what he’s called “fake news” while trying to point out some of the hypocrisies, poor fact checking, and bias in media reports about the actions taken by his administration.  This has led to continued calls that the President’s complaints about the media are “unprecedented.”

That begs the question. Are they?

The Historical Record

It’s hard to argue President Trump’s attacks on the media are either unprecedented, historic, or even otherwise noteworthy.  Beyond speeches, tweets, and comments at press conferences, the President has done nothing to the media beyond criticize them for what he perceives as clear evidence of bias.  Past Presidents, including some of our greatest, have gone much, much farther than merely complaining about the press.

Sedition Act

During the Adams Administration, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which criminalized the “publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States…” and established a punishment of a maximum of a $2,000 fine (the equivalent of approximately $40,000 in modern value) and sentence of not more than two years in jail.  The Act was used during the Adams Administration to imprison a number of journalists and publishers, including Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and the publisher of the Aurora, an anti-Federalist newspaper.  Bache was the king of “fake news” in his day, and he viciously attacked both George Washington, whom he accused of collaborating with the British during the Revolution, and John Adams, whom he labeled as “a weak old man.”  His constant attacks on the Adams Administration landed him in jail for violating the Sedition Act, and it was there that he died of yellow fever before he was brought to trial for sedition.

Thomas Jefferson, for all his praise of the press prior to his presidency and his outspoken views about the unconstitutionality of the Sedition Act, did an about face on both the press and the act when he was in office.  President Trump highlighted this in a speech a few days ago, which led to an outpouring of complaints from those who don’t seem to remember Jefferson’s changed views on the media after his time in the White House.  Like Adams, when Jefferson was heavily criticized in the press, he too chose to try to find ways to censor them.  Noted Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis pointed out that despite his attacks on the federal Sedition Act as being unconstitutional, Jefferson urged state Attorneys General to use state laws to prosecute newspaper editors in New England for sedition.  Jefferson’s later writings indicate that his experience with the media had soured his belief on the virtues of a free press, and those writings were littered with comments like “[a]s for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers,” which he wrote in a letter to Congressman Barnabas Bidwell of Massachusetts in 1806.

In both these situations, Adams and Jefferson – two of the most revered founding fathers, joint authors of the Declaration of Independence – went far beyond mere criticism of the press and went so far as to actively use the power of the presidency to jail and censor the media.

Fake news

What Adams and Jefferson did, though, pales in comparison with how Abraham Lincoln dealt with “fake news.”

In May of 1864, Joseph Howard, Jr. a reporter in New York, was able to sneak a fake presidential proclamation into the pages of two major New York newspapers by using the same methods the New York Associated Press (the forerunner of today’s Associated Press) used to distribute telegraphic communications from Washington.  The proclamation, purportedly coming from President Lincoln and countersigned by Secretary of State Seward, called for 400,000 new troops to be raised, among other things.  Howard’s goal, apparently, was to cause a run on gold in the New York financial markets, by playing on New Yorkers’ fears of another draft – the last of which caused riots that resulted in the death of over one hundred people and wounded thousands.

Lincoln acted swiftly, and sent the following message to General John Dix, in charge of the army in New York:

Whereas there has been wickedly and traitorously printed and published this morning in the New York World and New York Journal of Commerce, newspapers printed and published in the city of New York, a false and spurious proclamation purporting to be signed by the President and to be countersigned by the Secretary of State, which publication is of a treasonable nature, designed to give aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and to the rebels now at war against the Government and their aiders and abettors, you are therefore hereby commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison in any fort or military prison in your command the editors, proprietors, and publishers of the aforesaid newspapers, and all such persons as, after public notice has been given of the falsehood of said publication, print and publish the same with intent to give aid and comfort to the enemy; and you will hold the persons so arrested in close custody until they can be brought to trial before a military commission for their offense. You will also take possession by military force of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce, and hold the same until further orders, and prohibit any further publication therefrom.

Both the New York World and the Journal of Commerce remained dormant for two days, after which the mess was sorted out and Howard and his partner were arrested after confessing.  Howard remained in jail until August 1864, before Lincoln pardoned him.  Howard’s fake news incident didn’t seem to dent his career, as he went on to continue writing for the New York Times, became publisher of the New York Star and continued writing for a variety of other papers, and was elected President of the New York Press Club four times.

Espionage Act

In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which would be the basis of multiple future attempts by Presidents and Presidential administrations to censor the media, particularly stories that were critical of foreign and national security policy.

The Nixon Administration had multiple high profile tussles with the press, including the prosecutions surrounding the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that led to the Supreme Court’s famous decision in New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 712 (1971).

Even recently, we’ve seen Presidents who have actively used criminal statutes to go after the press. During the Obama Administration, according to CNN’s Jake Tapper and backed up by Politifact, the Espionage Act was used more often in an attempt to silence whistleblowers leaking classified material to the press than in every other Presidential administration combined.  The Department of Justice even went so far as to suggest a Fox News reporter was a “criminal co-conspirator” in a leak case, seizing his emails.  Although the reporter was never charged with a crime, press advocates at the time argued that this type of heavy handed behavior would drive away sources.  To this day, it’s still unclear how far the Espionage Act can be used to curb the media.

Current Debate

All of these instances have the same thing in common – Presidents that went far beyond mere rhetoric and tried to use the law to censor media that was critical of them, to punish the publication of “fake news” and to try to block the publication of classified, yet embarrassing, material.

Yet despite these active attempts on the part of Presidents to curb the media, today’s reporters would have you believe that the President merely labeling the press as an “enemy” is somehow unprecedented or historically dangerous.

No reporters have been arrested.  No publications have been shut down because they published fake news.  Nobody has died in prison on press related charges.

All of those things have happened in the past.

Politicians attacking the press – even presidents – is one of the most commonplace things that happens in our representative democracy.  It is as common as the sunrise.  The constant press hyperventilation about the President’s anti-media rhetoric just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny of the historical record.

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