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FDR's War Against the Press

Franklin Roosevelt had his own Breitbart, and radio was his Twitter.

Joanna AndreassonJoanna AndreassonDonald 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 Cockran 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

David T. Beito is professor of History of the University of Alabama and author of Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power and From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services. 

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Thanks for the expanded look at FDR.

    FDR always had friends in the media who hid his crippling polio from the public. This is one of many examples that the elites felt that the public would kick FDR out of office and FDR was too important to the socialism movement. FDR used government to create an entire generation that went from independence to dependency on government programs by extending the effects of the Great Depression.

  • pan fried wylie||

    "Hitler not evil enough, huh? Fine. This Trump guy is literally worse than FDR.""

  • TommyD6of11||

    Trump was elected to shrink the role, and power, of the government. He has already set about doing exactly that by massively cutting regulations.

    FDR did the exact opposite massively expanding government.

    It is axiomatic that the Bigger the Government the greater the tyranny.

    Time will tell if Trump reverses America's near uninterrupted march down The Road to Socialism and tyranny.

    It is both bizarre yet predictable that those on the Left are screaming FASCIST at those who wish to reduce the power of government.

    Time will tell if Trump betrays the Conservatives who got him elected.

    But one thing is for sure, Conservatives will be keeping a vigil eye on Trump should his acknowledged ego drive him to create a more powerful government.

  • OldMexican Blankety Blank||

    FDR also goaded the Japanese government into attacking the US to get this country into another world war. For that he used, interestingly enough, trade restrictions and embargoes... The art of the deal.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Actually, FDR used the Art of the League of Nations to push the embargo.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Japan withdrew from the League long before FDR started restricting trade. The major actions didn't happen until 1940 and 1941.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Yes, Japan left in 1933. In 1939 the United States terminated the 1911 commercial treaty with Japan.
    July 2, 1940, Roosevelt signed the Export Control Act, authorizing the President to license or prohibit the export of essential defense materials.
    October 16,1940 embargo on all exports of scrap iron and steel to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the Western Hemisphere. O
    On July 26, 1941, Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States, thus bringing commercial relations between the nations to an effective end. One week later Roosevelt embargoed the export of such grades of oil as still were in commercial flow to Japan.
    The British and the Dutch followed suit, embargoing exports to Japan from their colonies in southeast Asia.

    Art of the League of Nations was a play on words about the failed economic and international relations policy of FDR not even working compared to the Art of the Deal.

  • gaoxiaen||

    #BLACKNEWSMATTERS

  • TommyD6of11||

    "America forced Japan to attack us"

    It's amazing that this Liberal meme has any traction at all.

    Japan was a profoundly brutual, racist, imperialist war monger slaughtering people throughout Asia. The Japanese Rape of Nanking is stereotypical of Japanese barbaric genocidal actions.

    Japan was also feverently working on THEIR Atomic Bomb program which they started years before America even considered starting its program. Japan SUCCESSFULLY test detonated its atomic bomb just 2 days before the war end. Japan had no other bombs. It would take them months to build more. We just dropped two and bluffed that we had dozens more.

    The real moral question about US trade sanctions precipitating Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is why America waited so long.

  • Longtobefree||

    Really? Liberals not being open and not following the constitution?
    "I am shocked, shocked"

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Feuded with the media? check
    Feuded with the courts? check
    Grabbed 'em by the pussy (or whatever the euphemism was back then for stepping out on the missus)? check
    Took punitive action against an ethnic/racial minority? check

    FDR WAS LITERALY HITLER!

    That had to be confusing for Churchill.......

  • DontheAmeche||

    You are correct about this.

    However Mrs. Roosevelt also grabbed some "Groin". She was recorded meeting with a male Army Major ( much younger than her). She was reported to "enthusiastic, loud and longlasting" by those recording the Session. It wasn't her only meeting.

  • ThomasD||

    And since FDR the media has largely been a tool of the Democrat party.

    For better or for worse Trump does not appear to be undoing that.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Trump's win exposed the media's bias for many people and that is a big step to having an informed populace.

    The media does not realize that most Americans do not trust them or what they say. That makes it hard to convince people to follow socialism.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It's one of the few good things about a Trump win -- the media finally exposing their bias for even the most naive to see.

    The only good thing about a Hillary win would have been Trump losing. I used to say the exact opposite about a Trump win, that the only good thing would be Hillary losing, but I see there are some bright spots that I had not expected.

  • ThomasD||

    Yes, Trump's win has exposed more people to the reflexive pro-Democrat party/establishment/statist slant present in the media. Many people voted for Trump because, to them, he was not a 'typical' Republican. To now find him treated like a 'typical' Republican has been an eye open for them.

    I tend to think his win has gone even further - somewhat altering the axis on which our politic is seen to divide. There will be significant re-alignment in the coming years. A libertarian publication certainly could help shape that process. That Reason largely appears to be retreating into it's own safe space is unfortunate to say the least.

  • Headache||

    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

    well established since 1932.

  • ||

    Seriously, when the tough gets going....where is Reason?

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Operating as fierce and impartial detectives hounding, dredging, and reporting on the fleet-footed apparition of realities that connect the life threads of their consumers has rarely occurred to most haunting the dripping seedy backwashes of pencil-jiggering self-ascribed elitism. An uneasy place where the propounding ilk bend to the will of their rag's precise whims- where truth gets sticky and bent with misdirection and jaded twisting.

    Where has it ever been enshrined that the scribes, pseudo-protectors of truth, and flagrant extensions of political ideologies operating under a fucking masthead receives a golden card that entitles them to a critique-free existence?

    Aside from a minor clutch of outliers, 'in the age of Obama' the vast and aligned press battled nothing and portrayed little of the stink that burgeoned in the gut of governing under a disinterested coordinator.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    On one fucking side exists the screeching tenor of journalism-school snobs emptied of integrity and character and sparring with cheap plastic articles for clicks and vaporous views, while on the other fucking side lies battalions of driven suits strung-out on the perpetual drive to control the hive through distributions of redesigned reality.

    The collision of these living forces distorts outcomes of collected truthiness and viewers, users, and consumers are left dazed into apathetic mental submission to the pen or to the outright rejection of the printed or transmitted reality.

    Government can never fucking ever be trusted. Its existence relies on the successful molding of the collective cognition. The press cannot be trusted because it exists as a dispensary of untruths designed by well-endowed lechers. However, it is only the press that can fling off its heavy moldy cloak of schlock and half-truths since this creature exists only because of the demand for truth research into out-of-reach realities.

  • Cyto||

    Critics highlight how Trump sidelines the press by bullying his critics, rebuffing hard questions, and favoring sympathetic outlets such as Breitbart.

    Of course, one doesn't need to rebuff hard questions if one only faces a sympathetic media that never asks hard questions.

    Now, let me be clear. There are those who would suggest that the media never questioned anything during the last administration..... never even asked for clarification on self-contradictory statements like "we need to tighten our belts... and make investments in the future".

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Interesting article. Calling FDR's fireside chats his "Twitter" is a bit of a stretch, since he only delivered 30 during his 12 years in office. He certainly did hate "the press", however.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    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."

    Seems like not much has changed since the '30s.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Should Trump make a Rooseveltian assault on free speech, our best hope may be that his haphazardness will be his undoing.

    Which means that a future president, one that's more ... politically astute than Trump will be able to succeed. That doesn't exactly fill me with a lot of hope.

  • BYODB||

    Uhh...am I the only one who read this piece and thought "Obama?"


    Sure, Trump too I suppose. But the level of media manipulation during the Obama years is obviously at a much bigger and much more complicit scale than Trump. In fact, the pushback against Trump in the media shows through the entire articles bogus slant.


    Sorry, guy! I do like the historical context though. It really illuminates the last few years.

  • BYODB||

    Or...oh god. IT'S ALL OF THEM!

    I apologize Beito, you're right. You're so, so right!

    *cries*

  • geknight||

    I too thought Obama much more so then Trump.

  • Vesparado||

    No, you're not the only one. Thank you for your honesty!

    Given what we've just come through (and are still unraveling with respect to using national security apparatus for political spying), I was absolutely gobsmacked when realized this article was about concern over Trump when the real story ought to be thankfulness that have evidently survived yet another stint of State snobbery and suppression. Of course, it helped the former administration that the media (evidently including Reason to judge by this article) were in the tank for Obama et al.

    I, too, found the historical context enlightening, particularly the part about accessing tax return information, publicizing same and asking for IRS monitoring of political opponents. Yes, indeed, FDR was a misuser of the authority of his office. Reminds me of ...

  • whirlwinder||

    The reason FDR hated the media was that he was a full blown socialist while the media was acting like a representative of the people. The media then was guarding the Republic against the aggressions of a tyrant who wanted to be more like communist Russia.

  • Art Gecko||

    FDR was at war with almost everything it meant to be a free people living in a free country. And after the Repubs' humiliating defeat in the mid-term election of 1934, they jumped on the progressive gravy train and have been riding it ever since. Today's "conservative" fully supports ALL of the progressive movements major victories: Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Reserve and fiat money, the creation of the FBI, CIA, NSA and DOD, and on and on and on... it's a one-party system pretending to be a two-party system. Voting Dem makes you a socialist; voting Repub makes you a useful idiot for the socialists.

  • Mikey0||

    Comparing FDR to Trump is an interesting exercise. Certainly no one can quibble with the excellent history lessons provided here but the conclusions still aren't supported. The fact that FDR used the radio and Trump uses Twitter doesn't equate to their motives or aims being the same. It's like saying I'm using my car for the same reason the guy across the street does. The MODE of transportation or communication does not determine direction or destination. There.....is that clear enough?

  • Mikey0||

    The mode of communication used does not determine direction or destination so comparing the use of radio by FDR with the use of Twitter by Trump seems unreasonable.

  • عيون||

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