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By Cory Wolfe
During his commencement speech delivered to the United States Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump stated: “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately – especially by the media. No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse, or more unfairly.”
Presidents have, throughout the course of American history, been subject to the castigation of those in the media. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the freedom of the press and the people to criticize, condemn, and assemble against their government at any time and for any reason. In November of 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the importance of the freedom of the press in a letter to Marquis de LaFayette. In it, he said: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
For the centuries since our inception, the press has followed in every President’s steps, casting blame, aspersions, praise, congratulations, and all the like. Let’s take a look back through the years at some of the criticisms Presidents of past have faced.
John F. Kennedy
Though perhaps one of the most popular Presidents in the history of The United States, JFK was no exception to condemnation from the media. He faced relentless criticism for the handling of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. At times, Kennedy would vocalize his frustration with the media’s manner of handling the news. However, John F. Kennedy had a deep respect for the role of the free press in our Republic. Asked by a reporter in 1962 how he felt about the media’s portrayal of his presidency, Kennedy answered with a laugh: “Well, I am reading more and enjoying it less. But I have not complained nor do I plan to make any general complaints. I read and talk to myself about it, but I don’t plan to issue any general statement on the press. I think they are doing their task, as a critical branch, the fourth estate. And I am attempting to do mine.”
Years before his letter to LaFayette, Thomas Jefferson was himself facing heavy criticism from the press. With the approach of his presidency, tensions were growing high and the press had taken a critical stance. In turn, Jefferson had grown critical of them, at least in his personal letters. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote in a letter addressed to John Norvell. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
Jefferson was a controversial candidate for the presidency. He was portrayed by the newspapers to be a Francophile and an atheist, and was later rumored to have had illegitimate children with a slave at Monticello (a rumor now believed by many historians). Many believed that he was putting the survival of the Republic at risk – a sentiment which became amplified by the press. Later, during his presidency, Jefferson was heavily criticized by the press for his actions, most particularly the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act of 1807.
Jefferson’s second presidential term came to a close in 1809, but his frustrations with the press had not. In 1814, he stated, “I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” A year afterward, he wrote in a letter to James Monroe: “A truth now and then projecting into the ocean of newspaper lies, serves like head-lands to correct our course. Indeed, my skepticism as to everything I see in a newspaper, makes me indifferent whether I ever see one.”
Monticello historian Christa Dierksheide said that Jefferson was lamenting the press he had hoped would come to life when he originally fought for its freedoms. Nevertheless, said Dierksheide, Jefferson still “held that a free press had to be protected.”
During his presidential campaign in 1828, candidate Andrew Jackson was criticized by the press for a multitude of reasons, including his violent temper, his execution of US militia and foreign nationals during the 1810s, and even his questionable marriage to his wife, Rachel, who was accused by Jackson’s critics and political rivals of bigamy (divorce proceedings with her previous husband had begun, but the marriage had not yet been legally dissolved).
During the closing six months of the 1828 campaign, newspapers nationwide were full of attacks and counterattacks as to whether or not Jackson matched the stereotypical profile of a southern planter. Critics highlighted accusations that Old Hickory had been a slave trader prior to the War of 1812 – A claim Jackson denied. These accusations called into question his morality and suitability for the highest office. “There is no charge which ought to affect more seriously the reputation and prospects of General Jackson than that of speculating in slaves,” published the Daily National Journal (Washington, D.C.) in mid-October. It continued, “Could the people of the United States, under the influence of a momentary infatuation, elevate to the first office in the nation a man who had been engaged in carrying slaves from one State to another, for the purposes of traffic and profit, ages would be insufficient to wipe away the foul stain from the annals of our republic.” Jackson would later win the presidency, having run his campaign based on becoming “The People’s President,” but he continued to face criticism throughout his two terms in office.
One day in April of 1864, President Lincoln walked into the office of aide John Hay. He picked up a copy of the Richmond Examiner and began to read their most recent attack on Jefferson Davis. Hay recounted in his diary: “It amused him. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘the Examiner seems about as fond of Jeff as the New York World is of me.’” While the New York World was a Democratic owned by August Belmont, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, there were also many Republican newspapers who had negatively portrayed the President, especially during the Civil War. This was nothing new to Lincoln. Prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln faced criticisms both from newspapers who denounced him for not freeing the slaves and from those who thought he might.
Noah Brooks, journalist and friend of the Lincolns, wrote that “Lincoln found time to read the newspapers, or, as he sometimes expressed it, ‘to skirmish’ with them. From their ephemeral pages he rescued many a choice bit of verse, which he carried with him until he was quite familiar with it.”
Despite Reagan’s personal popularity, his domestic agenda was widely considered a point of controversy among the press and the people. As they still do today, conservatives hailed Reagan for his tax cuts, defense of traditional values and his reputation for getting government “off the backs” of the American people. However, many liberals and progressives saw his domestic legacy quite differently, especially with regards to AIDS, civil rights, reproductive rights, poverty and the expansion of the War on Drugs.
For many in the press, Reagan’s presidency was and still is a polarizing topic in American history. In an article published on June 9th, 2004, less than a week after President Reagan’s death, the LA Times published an article criticizing his legacy with regards to the AIDS epidemic. “AIDS activists,” the article states, “said Reagan did too little to combat the epidemic, and criticized the president for waiting until 1987 – six years after the discovery of AIDS – to deliver his first major speech on the subject.”
A day later, the Associated Press published an article with a similar theme of criticism. In it, the AP reports: “Despite the accolades lavished upon Reagan since his death Saturday, for restoring the nation’s optimism – his many detractors remember him as a right-wing ideologue beholden to monied interests and insensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable Americans.”
The lesson from this article? Presidents come and go, but so long as we live under a free society, the independent and often critical free press is here to stay. President Trump is not the first President, nor will he be the last, to face a heavy degree of criticism from the media.