Nixon was the first president to regularly refer to reporters as “the media,” a more ominous sounding term than “the press.” Like George W. Bush, he and his aides argued that the media were an unrepresentative, irresponsible interest group that patriotic Americans needed to defend themselves against.
In 1969 Nixon directed Vice President Spiro Agnew to make speeches attacking newspapers and the television networks as if they were rival political parties. Agnew said the president was the victim of “a small and unelected elite” who controlled the media. The vice president’s popularity soared after these speeches, and the intimidated networks backed away from critically analyzing Nixon’s speeches.
Without devoting entire speeches to the subject as Agnew did, other administrations have used the tactic of denouncing the media. During his 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush criticized CBS anchorman Dan Rather when asked uncomfortable questions about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. One of his son’s press secretaries, Dana Perino, accused The New York Times of “gross negligence” and “reporting failures.” In July, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest criticized The Washington Post for using anonymous sources even as the White House insisted its own officials remain anonymous during a phone interview with reporters.
Presidential attacks against journalism, of course, can go beyond words. Nixon’s anger against the media led his administration to wiretap reporters’ phones and order the Internal Revenue Service to harass journalists he disliked. When the Obama Justice Department investigated leaks, it secretly seized records of more than 20 Associated Press phone lines.
The Obama White House has also threatened to prosecute journalists who don’t cooperate with its investigations into information leaks. So far it has pursued criminal charges in eight cases against whistleblowers, five more than all previous presidents combined. As a result, government workers increasingly fear talking with reporters, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report.
To be sure, these recent presidents have not been as savage toward the press as Nixon and his aides. Borrowing a tactic used by Lyndon Johnson to stop unfavorable newspaper stories, Nixon vowed to “screw around” with the lucrative TV licenses of The Washington Post after it began investigating Watergate. John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager and former attorney general, once infamously threatened Post Publisher Katharine Graham when Woodward and Bernstein asked him about a secret campaign slush fund that paid for the Watergate burglary and other espionage activities. “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published,” Mitchell screamed at them.
Some of Nixon’s team had even more violent ideas. The reelection campaign’s general counsel, G. Gordon Liddy, and White House aide E. Howard Hunt hatched a plot to assassinate muckraking columnist Jack Anderson after he infuriated Nixon by publishing embarrassing leaks. After much talk, the plot was never carried out; Hunt and Liddy moved on to planning the Watergate break-in.
Nixon and his staff ultimately bungled their efforts to silence journalists, and he paid the price with his resignation. In contrast Obama, Bush, Reagan and other successors have used Nixonian tactics more skillfully, and with less criminal intent, to control the media as they present a slicker image to the public than Nixon could ever manage. The result is a nation that knows less than it should about what its government is really doing.