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Experts: Trump Not First President to Have Strained Relationship with Press

MartinezRoessnerDonald Trump is not the first president to have a strained relationship with the media.

Associate Professor Amber Roessner and Assistant Professor Michael Martinez, both from UT’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media, say many presidents—and their press secretaries—have at times been at odds with the press.

“While many presidents may have had conflicts with the media, they also recognized that they needed access to each other,” Martinez said. “With the advent of Twitter and the current president, that is changing.”

Martinez said social media has made it easy to circumvent the traditional media and go directly to the people, as Trump’s now-famous tweet made clear: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Trump’s fixation with media coverage is not new either, according to Roessner, who said that all modern presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson have closely monitored media coverage of their administrations.

“Although Trump is exponentially more obsessed,” she added.

Here’s a look at some of the worst—and best—relationships between past White Houses and the press:

Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew

President Richard Nixon, like Trump, limited press access to the White House, circumvented mainstream media outlets, and tended to lash out at the “establishment press,” Roessner said, adding that Nixon was the first modern president to refer to the press as “the enemy.”

Martinez said Nixon’s resentment and adversarial relationship with the media started with the debates with John F. Kennedy before the 1960 election in which Kennedy was victorious. Nixon even attributed his loss to Kennedy to those debates.

When Nixon was finally elected president, he was wary of the media and did all he could to manage the image he projected, Martinez said.

Nixon’s breaking point came when he went on television to make an important pronouncement on his Vietnam War policies. It was carried live by all three networks and followed immediately with instant analysis by reporters who summarized the highlights of the speech and then criticized it as nothing new.

Nixon charged Vice President Spiro Agnew with taking the media to task for challenging his version of reality, Martinez said. Agnew spoke before a group of party loyalists in Iowa and delivered what has become known as the Agnew Doctrine, which made the “nattering nabobs of negativism” famous.

According to Roessner, the adversarial relationship with the press culminated with the Pentagon Papers verdict and the 1971 congressional hearings on the freedom of the press.

Gerald Ford

President Gerald Ford sought to turn around the combative relationship that Nixon had with the media as he tried to heal the country in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Martinez said.

Only one month into office, Ford pardoned Nixon. Public reaction was mostly negative and that decision may have cost Ford the election of 1976 against Democratic opponent Jimmy Carter—one of the closest elections in history.

Press Secretaries 

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer—who has had angry outbursts at the press during briefings and been criticized for ignoring reporters and sidestepping questions, and recently had to apologize for erroneous statements about the Holocaust—is not the first controversial presidential spokesperson.

Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, and Ford’s, Ron Nessen, were often criticized for not being forthright or well informed.

By contrast, Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell—who didn’t have a media background—is often considered one of the best modern press secretaries because of his commitment to an open administration and his role as Carter’s close advisor.

“People always sing the praises of Jody Powell. They knew what Jody was giving them was from the mouth of Jimmy Carter,” Roessner said.