President Bush believes that the media are filtering the news from Iraq rather than reporting it. He believes that they are being unfair and imbalanced and detrimental to the goal of a properly informed American public. He is not happy about it.
As a result, the president has decided that news crews will no longer be allowed on military bases where they might take photographs of the coffins of American soldiers killed in action. It is a significant step. It is an ill-advised step. It is one which will likely hurt the president’s image more than it will help his message about the progress being made in Iraq.
It might even be an unprecedented step. George Bush’s feelings toward the press, however, are not unprecedented; rather, they are as much a part of the office as the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” In fact, presidential distrust of reporters is as old as the presidency itself. George Washington once wrote of his dismay at being “buffited [sic] in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” His most esteemed biographer, James Thomas Flexner, even believes that Washington was the father of the news leak as well as the father of his country, inventing the former to get his side of the story across to journalists too willing to publish the other side.
As David Wise writes in a 1973 book called "The Politics of Lying", Washington’s successor, John Adams, “grumbled that he had been ‘disgraced and degraded’ by the press, and he personally ordered his Attorney General to prosecute William Duane, an opposition editor, under the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.”
And even Thomas Jefferson, “though eloquent in his defense of a free press,” was not its undeviating supporter, writing on one occasion that “even the least informed of the people have learnt that nothing in a newspaper is to be believed...the press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible.”
It has not been possible, at least not as far as many of Jefferson’s successors in the White House are concerned. Abraham Lincoln was known to rail at journalists for what he believed to be their lack of accuracy and judgment; a few of them, in turn, jubilated in print when he died. Some years later, as Wise points out, Theodore Roosevelt indicted Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, for libel, “after the newspaper charged that corrupt promoters had made millions in connection with the digging of the Panama Canal. Pulitzer cruised offshore on his yacht...to avoid arrest.”
Roosevelt could be a terror with the press. He once complained so vociferously about the way his privacy was invaded by a New York Sun reporter that the publisher gave the fellow a new, and lesser, assignment.
And so it goes. William Howard Taft, as he informed an aide no longer to show him stories from The New York Times: “I don’t think their reading will do me any particular good, and would only be provocative of...anger and contemptuous feeling.”
Woodrow Wilson: “I am so accustomed to having everything reported erroneously that I have almost come to the point of believing nothing that I see in the newspapers.”
As for Calvin Coolidge, he made it a practice never to answer a question from a journalist that had not been submitted in advance, and even then did not permit the scribes to quote him directly; he was, rather, to be identified as a White House spokesman.
More modern presidents seem to have become even more annoyed with the media, as the media have, with the passage of time, become even more pervasive. Some, like FDR and JFK and Ronald Reagan, have reacted with honey; others, like the present incumbent, cannot restrain their vinegar. In his displeasure with the way his administration is being covered, Mr. Bush is in good -- and crowded -- company.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).