Home Books The Presidents vs. the Press: by Harold Holzer

The Presidents vs. the Press: by Harold Holzer

There’s long existed a contentious relationship between the sitting American president and members of the press. But up until the most recent administration, there had also existed a certain level of decorum and mutual understanding that this relationship was a necessary part of a healthy democracy and national discourse within a free press system. As Thomas Jefferson noted, when discussing having to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” In other words, despite the mutual disdain that often existed between the two parties, the work of each was entirely necessary to ensure the continued success of the United States.

In his new book, The Presidents vs. the Press, historian Harold Holzer examines the longstanding tradition of presidents and the press set to cover them sparring with one another, a precedent that was established virtually from the start of the office of the president. Beginning, logically, with George Washington, Holzer sets off on a fascinating journey through history, showing how a handful of prominent presidents dealt with the press and vice versa. And while he understandably doesn’t go into great detail regarding each administration’s handling of the press in its myriad iterations, he instead chooses to focus on those who not only faced the most challenges (either through war, public perception or administrative failings), but, significantly, those presidents who proved to be masters of new media.

For the first 100-plus years of the office, print media dominated the landscape of information dissemination. Names like newspapermen and publishers Horace Greeley and William Randolph Hearst became nearly as well-known as the presidents and political figures they set out to cover. In this age, newspapers could quite literally make or break a candidate, so each president’s need to cozy up to certain publishers was well understood. As they were often the public’s only connection not only to the president, but the news of the day, these papers wielded tremendous power in shaping public perception.

They could also be seen as potentially damaging to the new republic, with Presidents John Adams and Abraham Lincoln going so far as to establish the Sedition Act of 1798 in the case of the former and barring and even imprisoning journalists who were seen as threats to national security in the midst of the Civil War in the case of the latter. So often we’re led to see these iconic presidents as being unblemished paragons of an ideal democracy when, in truth, each and every president has had numerous flaws that marred their respective legacies. Those unaware of Lincoln’s transgressions with regard to the press will find these passages particularly enlightening. A Lincoln and Civil War-era political cultural expert, Holzer is clearly most comfortable discussing this period of American history and shows a different side of the iconic 16th president.

What’s equally fascinating is just how different each individual president and accompanying administration was with regard to their treatment of and by the press. For instance, FDR’s disability was widely known amongst the press pool, however there was a sort of unspoken gentleman’s agreement in which it remained unremarked upon. Anyone found attempting to photograph the president in a compromising position (i.e. being lifted in and out of his chair or struggling under his own power) would immediately be stripped of their credentials. JFK’s peccadilloes were similarly ignored or overlooked in favor of preserving the integrity of the office, if not necessarily the man holding it at the time. This type of deference is unfathomable in our modern age and simply would not work within the 24-hour news cycle.

Because of this, The Presidents vs. the Press is as much a chronological exploration of advancements in mass communication as it is an examination of how each has shaped the broader societal perception of both the presidents and the press. Namely, the more information there is to be had and dispensed by an increasing number of news outlets, the harder it seems to have become to set the proverbial record straight, causing increased confusion and mistrust on the part of the American people now unsure of just who, or what, to believe.

Of course Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did themselves and future presidents no favors by outright lying and eventually being caught doing so. This led to the so-called “credibility gap” that has only widened to cavernous proportions in the half century since Johnson was in office. The rise of cable news and social media have, in effect, irreparably damaged the relationship of trust fostered by earlier presidencies, resulting in our current fractious social and political climate.

Yet during the media evolution and revolution of the last half century, presidents like Reagan, Clinton and Obama managed to, like JFK and FDR before them, make the most of the new media at their disposal in terms of getting their respective messages out to their base. With Reagan and Clinton, it was television and, in the case of the latter, moving away from the more traditional news outlets and favoring the more pop culturally-oriented programing that helped shape the national dialogue beginning in the ‘90s. With Obama, it was taking control of the messaging coming out of the White House via social media. In essence, his administration’s approach rewrote the rules with regard to press coverage, rendering the traditional press nearly obsolete.

All of which brings us to the most recent administration, one which will remain unnamed in this review so as not to provide further coverage to the man whose sole goal in life seems to be to see his name in print time and again. Here Holzer marvels at how quickly and efficiently the president undermined trust in traditional media, haranguing members of the press for being “enemies of the state” and “fake news”. And while previous presidents had their skirmishes with the press, there remained a level of begrudging respect and admiration that allowed the system to keep functioning as it had for more than two hundred years. His Twitter storms and firebombing of the cultural landscape has wrecked irreparable damage on the minds of countless Americans, resulting in a credibility gap on the part of both the president and the press that will likely never be bridged.

It’s a sobering tone on which to end the narrative, to be sure, but it is also not necessarily without precedent, as Holzer is quick to point out that many presidents before this last lashed out at the press. But none did so with such unbridled vitriol and disregard of and disdain for the facts, nor with the access and reach to the American people. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, but if history is any indication, Joe Biden will have an immensely difficult go of it, as will the traditional news outlets in terms of retaining and, more often than not, regaining the public trust. The Presidents vs. the Press is an essential text for understanding where we’ve been and how we got here and what must be done to attempt to repair the smoldering wreckage of American democracy and the very concept of a free press.

As much a chronological exploration of advancements in mass communication as it is an examination of how each has shaped the broader societal perception of both the presidents and the press.
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Age-old grudge match

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