On Saturday, May 15, President Trump tweeted: “Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia.
This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country.”
And in another tweet, he continued: “ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
The New York Times responded the same day with a tweet on its communications Twitter account, @NYTimesPR, saying, in part: “Accusing the press of treason is dangerous.
We described the article to the government before publication. As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns.”
So is the sky falling, with a new low in president-versus-the-press relations? Not really. Historically this is nothing new.
An aggressive president meets an aggressive press head on, with a loud butting of heads.
Indeed, there’s something comforting about a press and a president who are at odds. It’s a lapdog press, instead of a watchdog press, that should cause concern.
A press too cozy with the president would be worrisome. With a few exceptions, coziness between journalists and the president clearly isn’t happening now.
The most famous clash between an administration and The New York Times came in the wake of the newspaper’s first story about the Pentagon Papers, a classified account of how the United States became involved in the war in Vietnam.
Daniel Ellsberg, one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers, had turned against the war and leaked the voluminous account to The Times.
The first New York Times story based on the Pentagon Papers appeared at the top of the front page, on Sunday, June 13, 1971.
To the left of the story appeared a picture of President Nixon escorting his daughter Tricia in her wedding gown on her wedding day in the Rose Garden.
It was a lovely picture and accompanying story. But the wedding account was upstaged.
Two days later, June 15, The New York Times received a telegram from John Mitchell, the attorney general of the United States.
Mitchell told The New York Times that any more articles based on the Pentagon Papers would bring about “irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.”
The battle was on. The New York Times didn’t bow to John Mitchell, and the government pursued its case in court, hoping to end the newspaper’s publication of Pentagon Papers stories with an injunction.
On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the Pentagon Papers case. On June 30, the Court handed down its decision. The New York Times won. The government didn’t get its wish of restraining the press.
In his concurring opinion, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, in part: “The dominant purpose of the First Amendment was to prohibit the widespread practice of governmental suppression of embarrassing information. ... Open debate and discussion of public issues are vital to our national health.”
Not quite six months later, on Dec. 14, 1972, President Nixon was caught on a tape recording saying this to his national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig: “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy.“
As epic as that battle was, the battle between President Teddy Roosevelt and the press contained much more colorful presidential venom.
He coined the phrase “Muckrakers” to refer to the press, and it was meant as a pejorative. The press, of course, took the term as a badge of honor.
In his address made at the laying of the cornerstone for the office building of the U.S. House of Representatives on April 14, 1906, President Roosevelt cited a great literary work to craft his press putdown: “In Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand....”
President Roosevelt continued: “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake.... But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.”
There you heard it from a president: The press is “one of the most potent forces for evil.”
Here are a few examples of the “evil” done by the muckraking press back then:
Lincoln Steffens wrote a series on corruption in city governments for McClure’s Magazine, starting with a piece titled “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” published in October 1902. Some scholars consider that article to be the first muckraking piece.
Steffens turned to corruption in Minneapolis, returned for more on St. Louis corruption, then moved on to Philadelphia, Chicago and New York.
He based his subsequent book, “The Shame of the Cities,” on his magazine articles. It was published in 1904.
During that same time, Ida Minerva Tarbell became one of the most famous muckrakers with her investigation of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Co.
Like Steffens, she wrote for McClure’s Magazine. She exposed Rockefeller’s brutal business practices and corruption in 19 magazine installments and then in a two-volume work, “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” published in 1904, the same year as Steffens’ book.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s undercover investigation of the meatpacking industry in Chicago resulted in his book, “The Jungle.”
Its chronicling of the inhumane treatment of animals and filthy working conditions in slaughterhouses caused a public uproar that helped spur national reform.
The Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906.
Muckrakers, in Roosevelt’s words, “look at filth on the floor.” Muckraking journalists expose the filth to the public. That’s their job.
They shouldn’t ignore the muck they find. Sometimes that means criticizing presidents. Of course, they should make sure they get the story right.
If Russia is waging cyberattacks, then that surely is a form of filth that needs exposure. The press needs to haul out the muckrakes.
No, presidents don’t always appreciate the press. And vice versa. So be it.
We should really start to worry when the press parks its muckrakes and only praises the president, and the president then basks in unopposed glory.