Last week, hundreds of news organizations around the country banded together to defend the freedom of the press. The Atlantic joined in, writing in an editorial that the Trump administration’s rhetoric is “an attack not just on individual media outlets, but on the role journalism serves in a free society; not just on specific stories, but on the need for Americans to know the facts; not just on journalists, but on the right of all people to speak their minds.”
Though it’s hardly new for the press to spar with the president, our editorial notes, this moment feels uniquely “dark.” In today’s issue, we’ll walk you through decades of attacks on the press. We’ll also share a conversation with Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic’s Ideas editor. A former Harvard historian, Yoni explains why this moment feels more sinister than those of the past.
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An Atlantic History of the Freedom of the Press
By Caroline Kitchener and Karen Yuan
The president’s relationship with the press has been rocky for decades. We sifted through decades of Atlantic coverage to detail how it’s changed over time.
A successful democracy requires a free press, argued future President Woodrow Wilson on the 100th anniversary of the Constitution’s ratification. “Nothing could give surer promise of popular power than the activity and alertness of thought” generated by newspapers, Wilson wrote in The Atlantic in 1889. A free press, he continued, “marks the initial stages of effective thought. It makes men conscious of the existence and interest of affairs lying outside of the dull round of their own daily lives. It gives them nations, instead of neighborhoods, to look upon and think about.”
World War I controversially drove support for censorship, even in the pages of The Atlantic. Wartime was marked by government censorship of news, limitations on which opinions could be sent by mail, and expulsions of teachers from schools for opposing the war. “When we start out to kill enemies abroad on a gigantic scale, we are not likely to hesitate to gag those at home who seem directly or indirectly to sympathize with the foe,” James Harvey Robinson wrote in 1917. The heavy hand of government might even make for better, more innovative writers, he remarked. “One cannot avoid at times lamenting the decay of censorship, which in the eighteenth century was the occasion of much humorous pussyfooting on the part of Diderot, Voltaire, Gibbon.”
The press enabled McCarthyism. President Trump recently called attention to his connection to former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy; the two shared an adviser in Roy Cohn. They also shared a similar relationship with the press: “McCarthy in the beginning was largely created by the newspapers,” Arthur Sutherland wrote in 1952. Newspapers were “accomplices” to spreading McCarthy’s platform of bigotry and misinformation, Sutherland wrote. “Objectivity often leans over backward so far that it makes the news business merely a transmission belt for pretentious phonies.”
President Nixon’s antagonism toward the press set a dangerous precedent. While presidents from Truman onward were developing cozy relationships with the press, Nixon was building up a lifelong grudge against reporters. Once he became president, Jon Marshall wrote, Nixon “argued that the media were an unrepresentative, irresponsible interest group that patriotic Americans needed to defend themselves against.” While the press brought Nixon down, his tactics—“intimidating journalists, avoiding White House reporters, staging events for television”—survived him.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama attempted to limit press influence. Bush frequently invoked “executive privilege” and “national security” as reasons for withholding information from the press, Marshall wrote. The First Amendment lawyer John Goodale accused President Obama of being “worse than Nixon” in his dealings with the press. In 2013, Obama’s Justice Department made headlines for secretly seizing records of phone lines used by reporters and editors at the Associated Press. Gary Pruitt, the newswire’s president and CEO, called the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” and “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights.”
Is It Really Worse Now?
We asked The Atlantic’s Ideas editor, Yoni Appelbaum, to recap the history of press freedom. Here, lightly edited, is what he told us. You can also read the full transcript.
Karen Yuan: How has the press evolved since its founding in early America?
Yoni Appelbaum: For any criticism you want to lodge against the contemporary press, it was a hundred times worse in the early days of the republic. Parties fed newspapers government printing contracts and placed classified advertisements in papers that were on their side. The newspapers were the party apparatus for a couple of decades. Many of the stories they ran were factually incorrect. They were routinely picking up and echoing stories that ran in other papers. The language that they used would shock many contemporary audiences—the kinds of slanders, the kinds of invective that they've leveled against each other.
This is something I think the contemporary audiences often don't understand. There's a sense that maybe President Trump's attacks are justified, because after all, the press is hostile to him. Or the press sometimes gets its stories wrong. But the kinds of ethical standards that now pervade American media, even the worst outlets in American media, are so much higher than the standards that prevailed in the early republic.
Caroline Kitchener: This is clearly a problematic time for the relationship between the government, the United States, and the press. Can you put that in historical context?
Yoni: The relationship between presidents and the press has always been awful. George Washington writes a letter to a friend as he's prepared to give up the presidency and not seek a third term, in which he essentially says, The press is infamous, and I'm grateful that I'll no longer be subject to it. John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and then used them to go after his critics in the press. Printers were jailed.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, you see the greatest sustained campaign of violence against the press that we’ve witnessed in American history. At least 20 American publications are shut down or forced out of town by mob violence. Elijah Lovejoy is actually killed in 1837 by a mob in Illinois for daring to publish an abolitionist paper. By and large, the position of slave-state congressmen is that these papers are public nuisances deliberately provoking communities. So we go through a period in this country where there are some things that are considered just too dangerous to print out. And newspapers are harshly punished by elements of their communities for daring to print them.
Karen: What are some forms of journalism that, historically, were not perceived as the establishment press and were still afforded freedom of the press?
Yoni: Press freedom has often been most valuable to those groups in society that are most marginalized. That's where the fights over the freedom of the press have often located themselves, where the press is most vibrant and vital. Publications were shut down for being obscene, for example, because they served the gay community. Or publications were shut down for being seditious because they pushed a kind of politics that neither of the two big parties liked. So it's not just a question of The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Atlantic, but also often a question of smaller publications that were pushing for the rights of various groups, such as LGBT Americans, or the civil rights of black Americans. These are publications that have fought press battles that have often been suppressed, or that have lost those battles.
One of the most interesting things about what President Trump is doing with the American press is that he's attempting to cast it as an institution somehow separate and apart from the American people. The 300 publications that spoke out for the freedom of the press were saying, We are a part of the American people. The freedom of the press is not this peculiar privilege of journalists, but ultimately an American liberty. The overwhelming majority of the titles on this list were not of national outlets. That's striking. For the most part, these were local outlets, where the impact of this kind of rhetoric is felt most acutely and where the dangers are greatest.
Today’s Question: Are you a member of the press? How has your job changed since Trump took office?
What’s Coming: The historian and author Timothy Snyder is joining us in the forums this Thursday to discuss his book The Road to Unfreedom. Got a thought for him? Post it here.
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