Fake hues and cries: Trump and the White House press corps

Fake hues and cries: Trump and the White House press corps
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Most presidents have a love-hate relationship with the press. They love fawning stories from media allies but hate the slings and arrows launched by what they perceive as an adversarial “fourth estate.” Yet this role is exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned for a free press as enshrined in our Constitution’s First Amendment. The amendment’s author, James Madison, explained: “Freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

A more recent interpreter of the Framers’ intentions in protecting the press, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, argued in the 1971 Pentagon Papers Case, which allowed the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the secret history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, that “in the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. … Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did so in the Watergate scandal, a 1974 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans trusted the media “a great deal or a fair amount.”

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Justice William Brennan applied the Founders’ free press theories in a 1964 landmark libel case, protecting newspapers from defamation suits brought by public officials. He cited “a profound national principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open. … It may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Juxtapose these principles with President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s recent Tweet: “The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press. I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!” Sanders held her first televised press briefing of 2019 on Monday.

The president trumpeted a characteristic hue and cry over how the press covers him. Interestingly, the phrase “hue and cry” originated in British law. It described whipping up the public to pursue and apprehend a criminal. As Trump demonizes the media, he gins up his base to harass them at his rallies. A recent Gallup poll found that only 21 percent of Republicans trusted the mass media to report the news "fully, accurately and fairly.”  Conversely, three-quarters of Democrats trust the press, another reflection of current polarization between our two political parties.

To be sure, Trump is not the first president to take issue with press coverage of his administration. John F. Kennedy famously cancelled the White House subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune after it published editorials critical of him. Having served as a newspaper reporter for a brief stint after World War II, JFK had a natural affinity for journalists. He counted Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee, TIME’s Hugh Sidey, LIFE’s Ted White, the New York Times’s Bill Lawrence, and columnists Joseph Alsop and Arthur Krock among his friends and informal advisers. In fact, journalist Charles Bartlett’s Washington home was the setting for an arranged blind date between JFK and his future wife Jacqueline Bouvier.

But Kennedy’s longtime speechwriter Ted Sorensen observed that Kennedy saw reporters “as his natural friends and newspapers as his natural enemies.” Ironically, Sorensen observed, the president “was more concerned about a news column read by thousands than a newscast viewed by millions.” Perhaps it was because he had been devouring newspapers since his days in prep school and assumed they had more influence on the electorate and thought leaders.

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In addition, Kennedy had mastered broadcast journalism. He turned his live televised primetime news conferences into an art form, filled with drama and his sparkling wit. It was the best entertainment going in the nation’s capital at a time when households were centered around the new technology of television. In his 1,036 days in office, he gave on average of two press conferences a month. His puckish and popular press secretary, Pierre Salinger, continued press briefings, but some journalists worried that the president’s televised press conferences gave him too much power to communicate directly with the people.

Although first lady Jackie  Kennedy assiduously protected her young children from the prying press eye, when she was away, Salinger would call in the cameras for beguiling photos of young Caroline and John Jr. frolicking with their dad. When media maven Mae Craig asked the president if he was managing the news, he responded, “We’ve had very limited success in managing the news, if that’s what we’ve been trying to do.” Craig retorted that she thought journalists should “get everything we want,” and, with a wry smile, Kennedy agreed: “I think you should, too, Ms. Craig. I’m for that!” prompting peals of laughter from the assembled reporters.

Presidential press manipulation, especially when it involves denying access to information, violates a corollary of free media. The right of the press to report on government officials has led to a right to know, enshrined in the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. Thus, Trump’s limitation of reporters’ access to the White House and his press secretary, regardless of how forthcoming she is, violates the letter and spirit of our Constitution and the laws passed under it.  

Justice William Douglas wrote in his contribution to the Supreme Court’s Pentagon Papers opinions that “the dominant purpose of the First Amendment was to prevent the widespread practice of government suppression of embarrassing information.” Although Trump’s tweets often are embarrassing, and undoubtedly he is attempting to divert attention from other matters such as the Russia investigation, why should he depart from his practice of using social media to communicate directly with the people? Bypassing traditional media landed him in the White House.

The Founders could not have contemplated such a turn of events. It is a misnomer to use the term media — a mediating institution between the governed and the governors — when we are all the media now.

Barbara A. Perry is the Gerald L. Baliles Professor and director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.