Donald Trump's champions and critics agree: He is rewriting the relationship between the press and the presidency. On the pro-Trump side, Newt Gingrich claims that the president's "brilliant" use of Twitter allows him "very quickly over and over to set the agenda at almost no cost," while Press Secretary Sean Spicer says it gives him a "direct pipeline to the American people." Critics highlight how Trump sidelines the press by bullying his critics, rebuffing hard questions, and favoring sympathetic outlets such as Breitbart. They have expressed alarm about Trump's call to "open up" libel laws as a means to quash "horrible and false" stories.
Another president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, revised the media rules in equally profound ways. Like Trump, he feuded with the mainstream media; like Trump, he used a new medium as a direct pipeline to the people. He also used the government's machinery to suppress unfavorable coverage, a fate we hope to avoid in the age of Trump.
Manipulating the Media
Roosevelt, like Trump, had a good relationship with the press at the start of his public career. Journalists found him quotable and amusing. But by 1934 this honeymoon had frayed, and a year later it had given way to a war of words. Roosevelt complained constantly about the press's "poisonous propaganda." With a tone of mock sympathy, he reassured reporters that he understood they were not to blame, because publishers told them what to write.
In the 1936 election, Roosevelt claimed that 85 percent of the newspapers were against him. In the standard work on the subject, historian Graham J. White finds that the actual percentage was much lower and the print press generally gave FDR balanced news coverage, but most editorialists and columnists were indeed opposed to the administration. Convinced that the media were out to get him, Roosevelt warned in 1938 that "our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public, from the counting room. And I wish we could have a national symposium on that question, particularly in relation to the freedom of the press. How many bogies are conjured up by invoking that greatly overworked phrase?"
Roosevelt's relationship with radio was warmer. The key distinction was that broadcasters operated in an entirely different political context: Thanks to federal rules and administrators, they had to tread much more lightly than newspapers did. At its inception in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reduced the license renewal period for stations from three years to only six months. Meanwhile, Roosevelt tapped Herbert L. Pettey as secretary of the FCC (and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission). Pettey had overseen radio for Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign. After his appointment, he worked in tandem with the Democratic National Committee to handle "radio matters" with both the networks and local stations.
It did not take long for broadcasters to get the message. NBC, for example, announced that it was limiting broadcasts "contrary to the policies of the United States government." CBS Vice President Henry A. Bellows said that "no broadcast would be permitted over the Columbia Broadcasting System that in any way was critical of any policy of the Administration." He elaborated "that the Columbia system was at the disposal of President Roosevelt and his administration and they would permit no broadcast that did not have his approval." Local station owners and network executives alike took it for granted, as Editor and Publisher observed, that each station had "to dance to Government tunes because it is under Government license." Some dissident radio commentators, such as Father Charles Coughlin and Boake Carter, gained wide audiences. But radio as a whole was firmly pro-Roosevelt—and both Coughlin and Carter were eventually forced off the air for pushing the envelope too far.
For Roosevelt, of course, the main advantage of radio was that the networks knew they had to carry his frequent fireside chats and other speeches in full, usually with minimal commentary. In very Trumpian language, Roosevelt praised the new media for restoring "direct contact between the masses and their chosen leaders." As the media historian Betty Houchin Winfield notes, radio allowed the president to be "the news gatherer, the reporter, as well as the editor," all at the same time.
Even as he was securing domination of the ether, Roosevelt worked hard to neutralize criticism from the print media. Here he used a combination of manipulation and intimidation. By 1935, the famous Roosevelt charm was much less of a guarantee of success, and his press conferences became increasingly orchestrated. Like Trump, he singled out some reporters who wanted to ask questions and ignored others. Writing for The Washington Post in 1938, Harlan Miller commented that Roosevelt only answered questions which enabled him to "utter an oral editorial.…He selects only those on which he can ring the bell."
He also gave special access to pro-administration outlets, such as J. David Stern's Philadelphia Record and Marshall Field's Chicago Sun. Another Field publication, PM, was probably the closest facsimile to a New Deal Breitbart. In both editorials and news reports, PM repeatedly demonized FDR's enemies, often comparing them to fascists. These pro–New Deal outlets had a special entrée to top administration officials, who gave them valuable scoops. The collaboration went both ways. In 1942, Field brought an antitrust complaint against the much less Roosevelt-friendly Associated Press.
The Black Committee
Roosevelt's intimidation efforts reached their apogee in the hands of the Special Senate Committee on Lobbying. The president indirectly recruited Sen. Hugo L. Black (D–Ala.), a zealous and effective New Deal loyalist, as chair. The committee's original mission was to probe the opposition campaign to the "death sentence" in the Public Utility Holding Company Bill, a provision that would have allowed, under certain circumstances, the dissolution of utility holding companies. The Black Committee gained traction with the public when it brought to light evidence that some lobbyists had concocted thousands of "fake telegrams" sent to Congress to protest the bill. Smelling blood, Black expanded the investigation into a general probe of anti–New Deal voices, including journalists.
The Treasury granted Black access to tax returns dating back to 1925 of such critics as David Lawrence of the United States News. Then he moved to obtain his targets' private telegrams, demanding that telegraph companies let the committee search copies of all incoming and outgoing telegrams for the first nine months of 1935. When Western Union refused on privacy grounds, the FCC, at Black's urging, ordered it to comply.
Over a nearly three-month period at the end of 1935, FCC and Black Committee staffers searched great stacks of telegrams in Western Union's D.C. office. Operating with virtually no restriction, they read the communications of sundry lobbyists, newspaper publishers, and conservative political activists as well as every member of Congress. Writing to Black, one investigator stated that they had gone through "35,000 to 50,000 per day." Various newspapers and members of Congress later estimated that staffers had examined some five million telegrams over the course of the investigation. In 2017, this would be akin to staffers from a congressional committee and the FCC teaming up at the headquarters of Google and Yahoo! and then spending months secretly searching emails.
The committee used the information it found as a basis for more than 1,000 new subpoenas. One of these was for all incoming and outgoing telegrams, not just those sent through Washington, D.C., of W.H. Cowles' anti–New Deal newspaper chain in the Northwest.
The subpoenas' vast reach alarmed Western Union's executives, who didn't want to drive away privacy-conscious customers. In early February 1936, the company adopted a new policy of telling all targeted individuals that the Black Committee had searched their telegrams. Before this time, the committee had been able to do its work in secret; most of its targets had no clue about what was happening. As more people found out, the committee faced intensified opposition.
The angriest response might be that of Newton D. Baker, a cautious critic of the New Deal who had served as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of war. After Western Union informed him that Black's committee had examined his telegrams for an entire year, he wrote: "Man of peace as I am, I am quite sure I could not keep my hand off the rope if I accidentally happened to stumble upon a party bent on hanging him."
The Clash with Hearst
Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson