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Trump Isn't The 1st President To Have Had A Tense Relationship With The Media


One of the central tensions of the Trump presidency has been his relationship with the media. Given how aggressively this president has attacked the press, it's easy to forget that these institutions have been at odds with one another throughout history.

In a new book, historian Harold Holzer charts this tumultuous relationship from George Washington to the present. Holzer, whose research included insight gained working as a political press secretary himself, shows how various presidents built their own unique relationship with the press, sometimes for their benefit and at other times to their peril. It's called "The Presidents Vs. The Press: The Endless Battle Between The White House And The Media - From The Founding Fathers To Fake News."

When we spoke, Holzer explained that this tension dates back to President Washington, when two opposition papers began circulating after he took office.

HAROLD HOLZER: And the two papers relentlessly attacked Washington, as you say, for being too British, for being too monarchical in his carriage - and also attacked his carriage - literally his carriage - for being too ornate and on and on and on until - I mean, they hounded him all the way back to Mount Vernon and after.

And he was known to lose his temper, throw newspapers on the ground, stomp them with his boots. And that was the beginning of partisan journalism. And, you know, it's sort of - right before Washington's second term, he hated partisanship, but he got the full force of the opposition.

GONYEA: One of the first masters of really playing the press from the perch of the presidency was Teddy Roosevelt. You write about how he used to hold - was it the barber hour?

HOLZER: Barber's hour, yeah.

GONYEA: And he would speak to reporters while sitting for a shave...

HOLZER: Exactly.

GONYEA: ...Or a haircut.

HOLZER: Yes. He had these when he was being shaved. This inveterate multitasker would have the reporters in to ask off-the-record questions. And they loved it, and he loved it. And they - you know, he - they purposely asked him the most inflammatory questions when the barber was shaving his neck to see if they could draw blood...

GONYEA: (Laughter).

HOLZER: ...Because every time he was upset or challenged, he would leap up and throw the apron off his chest and gesture. I don't think they ever draw blood, but they had a good time.

GONYEA: Let's talk about President John F. Kennedy and his relationship with the press. You note that he was the first TV president, absolutely. You write about how he really soared in that medium and really became a television star due to his charm and his on-air appearance. Let's give a listen to a clip of him engaging with reporters at a televised news conference, which was a very new thing.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: President, you have said - and I think more than once - that heads of government should not go to the summit to negotiate agreements but only to approve agreements negotiated at a lower level. Now it's being said and written that you're going to eat those words and go to a summit without any agreement at a lower level. Has your position changed, sir?

PRESIDENT JOHN F KENNEDY: Well, I'm going to have a dinner for all the people who've written it, and we'll see who eats what.


GONYEA: You also write about how his relationship with the press did change with the emergence of news management. I mean, I think I know what that term means, but what does it mean in this context? And how did it change things?

HOLZER: Kennedy wanted the press to report only what the administration was willing to reveal. So they curtailed release of the Bay of Pigs invasion plan, and they allowed very little information about the Cuban missile crisis until Kennedy was ready to go on television and break the news in his own way without the press, again, to filter it. And they pushed back. And so there was a great deal of tension.

In fact, Kennedy gave a speech at the American Publishers Association in New York City in which he said, I was going to call this speech the presidents versus the press. He was laying down the gauntlet about the adversarial relationship being tested by national security concerns. And he made it clear that national security trumped freedom of the press, no pun intended. And that's been a matter of tension from the Kennedy through the Obama years. How much can the press report if they find something out?

GONYEA: You devote the latter chapters to the Trump presidency. I can't imagine what it's like to write an historical account of a president whose relationship with the press changes on a minute-by-minute basis. The last seven weeks alone have been fodder for a whole new...


GONYEA: ...Book. What was it like trying to put together a chapter on Trump as the world was changing, even as your fingers were on the word processor?

HOLZER: It was (laughter) - it was really difficult. But I think that the main takeaways were there. One is that he go - you know, he deserves to be - Trump, that is, deserves to be ranked with FDR and Kennedy and Obama among the presidents who found alternative means to speak to the people without the press. But I think the damage he's done is on objective truth and the fact that the country no longer agrees on what's - what the facts are. And that may be the most insidious part of his legacy.

GONYEA: And I guess he's also borrowed something from the earliest days of the republic. He acts as his own press secretary.

HOLZER: Yeah (laughter). I hadn't thought of that. Well, his press secretaries do play an interesting role - basically, promoting the president rather than answering questions. And it'll be interesting to see what happens with White House briefings under President Biden. Do they return to informational in structure, or are they going to be promotional publicity vehicles?

I expect that they'll go back to some semblance of normality, but I think - you know, I've read through recent presidents on the subject of press honeymoons, which are the traditional break that you get, like, you know, a hundred days where you don't get really put in the - into tough situations by the press. Kennedy complained of no press honeymoon. Bill Clinton said more than once, I didn't have a press honeymoon.

But Joe Biden was asked whether he expected a honeymoon, and he said, hell no. This is a crisis. This is a catastrophe, I think he said. So maybe the days of press honeymoons have gone the way of the - I don't know - the old-fashioned barber's hour.

GONYEA: Harold Holzer is an award-winning historian. His book "The Presidents Vs. The Press: The Endless Battle Between The White House And The Media - From The Founding Fathers To Fake News" is out now.

Harold Holzer, thanks so much for your time.

HOLZER: Thank you. It's been great fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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