Masthead members often tell us they value historical context, particularly into moments of American political history that shed light on what may otherwise feel like unprecedented upheaval. We recently covered the Watergate prosecution from that perspective. Returning to that era, today’s issue dives into The Atlantic’s archives to recapture the spirit of a time when President Richard Nixon was warring with the press. The echoes of future presidents’ experiences—including today’s—are unmistakable. Here’s archives editor Annika Neklason with the story.
The Film The Post Bridges Two Eras of Presidential Hostility to Journalism
Nixon is much on the mind these days. Steven Spielberg’s The Post recalls a pivotal episode from his presidency that feels, to borrow Christopher Orr’s phrase, “so on the nose for the political moment.” The film covers the Washington Post’s role in the 1971 publication of the classified “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed that presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson had lied to the public about the Vietnam War.
As the movie unfolds, the Papers bring on a reckoning about the trust between members of the media and government officials, and, for the journalists involved, spur a new dedication to sharing the truth with the public—especially when those in power want to keep it hidden.
The film also has a pivotal villain: President Nixon, who doesn’t just lie to the public like his predecessors, but also attacks the very institution of the free press. Though he appears on screen only briefly, and then only at a distance, Nixon’s influence is felt throughout the film.
Some of his attacks on the press are waged out in the open: In an early scene, Nixon bars a Washington Post reporter from covering his daughter’s wedding; later, and to far greater consequence, his administration obtains an injunction against The New York Times to prevent the publication of the Papers. Still more attacks are made behind closed doors, as a silhouetted Nixon threatens the Post and the media more generally in words taken from his own clandestine recordings.
In the film, this is, essentially, all Nixon is: less the leader of a nation than an aggressive obstacle against which the press must make a principled stand. The Atlantic’s archives from the early 1970s paint Nixon in some of the same shades, repeatedly referencing and exploring his historic hostility toward the media. But they also help orient that hostility within the broader context of Nixon’s character and political life.
In an April 1973 examination of “The President and the Press,” for instance, David Wise traced Nixon’s ill-will toward reporters back to a moment decades earlier in his career:
It was the newspapers that broke the story of the “Nixon Fund” during the 1952 presidential campaign—the $18,235 collected from wealthy contributors to help pay for his political expenses, or as Nixon put it, “to enable me to continue my active battle against Communism and corruption.”
The damaging aftermath of this revelation instilled a lasting hostility toward newspapers in Nixon. Afterward, Wise wrote, he decided to cut out the press and address the people directly in front of television cameras to address their anger over the fund. “The public response was overwhelmingly favorable,” Wise noted, and
the lesson of all this was not lost on Nixon: the newspapers had threatened his political career; television had saved it. ... The way to deal with newspapers was to tell them very little, build up suspense, and then go over their heads to the people via television.
But Nixon didn’t see television as a wholly friendly or trustworthy medium either. Rather, as Wise wrote,
in Nixon’s view television ideally should serve only as a carrier, a mechanical means of electronically transmitting his picture and words directly to the voters. It is this concept of television-as-conduit that has won Nixon’s praise, not television as a form of electronic journalism. The moment that television analyzes his words, qualifies his remarks, or renders news judgments, it becomes part of the “press,” and a political target.
To Nixon, as Wise presented him, the press was an obstacle in communicating his message to the people and shaping the public narrative of his political career. “Nixon accorded the press the sort of hostility which hateful men reserve for their most threatening enemies,” wrote George V. Higgins in November 1974, three months after Nixon resigned from office. “He believed that newsmen fabricated the stuff that made voters and other politicians dislike and oppose him.”
Nixon, as a result, made himself unavailable to the press “to an unprecedented degree in the modern presidency,” Wise wrote. But at the same time, Wise describes administration officials’ obsession with Nixon’s portrayal in the media and continuous efforts to manipulate that portrayal to accord with their own more favorable visions of his presidency: “By applying constant pressure, in ways seen and unseen, the leaders of the government have attempted to shape the news to resemble the images seen through the prism of their own power.”
Leaks from within the government, like military analyst Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, complicated these efforts to control the public narrative. And Nixon’s efforts to suppress such leaks backfired, driving far-reaching questions about press freedom and government secrecy into the courts. In a November 1972 article, Sanford J. Ungar described the implications of the federal trial of Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo for releasing the Papers:
Inevitably political, the Pentagon Papers case is a decisive test of the federal government's capacity to control the disclosure of information stamped “secret,” of an individual’s right to defy the security classification system, and at least peripherally, of the press’s ability to rely on “leaks” in government circles.
The Justice Department lawyers representing the prosecution attempted to steer the case away from such implications and toward a more straightforward criminal proceeding, as Ungar described, by working to avoid and correct the influence of the press on the trial jurors:
Insisting that the press had cooperated with Ellsberg and Russo to distort the meaning and substance of the case, the Justice Department demanded that Byrne correct any “false impressions” among the jurors that it had something to do with, among other things, “newspaper publication of the stolen documents in the summer of 1971, freedom of the press, and the public's right to know … the morality, course and conduct of the U.S. military in Vietnam.” … The prosecution said that it was especially on the lookout for readers of the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Saturday Review, Look, Harper’s, Esquire, and Ramparts, because all had published material dealing with the Papers.
But the influence of and implications for the press inevitably crept into the trial, as Ungar reported. Nor did it end, as the Nixon administration might have hoped, with a clear rebuke of federal leakers. Instead, a mistrial was declared after several instances of misconduct on the part of the Nixon administration were brought to light: hired men breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist; an administration job offered to the trial judge; lost records of unlawful wiretapping against Ellsberg conducted by none other than the White House Plumbers of Watergate infamy.
In hindsight, the road from the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to the end of the Nixon presidency three years later is clear. The knowledge of what comes next—the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post’s role in revealing it, and the fallout—hangs heavy over The Post; the break-in at the Watergate, with the promise of everything yet to come, composes the film’s final scene.
But in our archives the perspective of that interim time, between the publication of the Papers and Nixon’s resignation, is preserved as if in amber. There, in those pages, the contemporaneous context can always be revisited; the tension can always be found still building, the suspicions still mounting, the final story foreshadowed but not quite broken.
—Annika Neklason, archives editor
Today’s Wrap Up
- Question of the day: The archives of The Atlantic run all the way back to the Civil War. What other episodes in history should we revisit? Reply to this email to let us know.
- Your feedback: Take a moment to let us know about your experience of The Masthead in our brief survey.
- What’s coming: Tomorrow, we’ll share Atlantic editors’ annotations of my interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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