Nixon Is Gone, but His Media Strategy Lives On

Forty years after Watergate, presidential suspicion of reporters and attempts to keep the press at arm's length remain high.

Charles Tasnadi/AP

Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace 40 years ago this month, but the war he launched against journalists has continued under Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and other recent presidents.

Nixon’s resignation is remembered as a great victory for the media. Investigations by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and other reporters helped expose the White House crime spree that caused the president’s downfall. Even though he lost his battle to remain in power, Nixon’s way of handling the press has prevailed in American politics. Intimidating journalists, avoiding White House reporters, staging events for television—now common presidential practices—were all originally Nixonian tactics.

Nixon would enjoy the frustration many reporters feel toward the Obama White House. This summer 38 news organizations sent Obama a letter protesting his administration’s obstruction of journalists. The news groups complained of officials blackballing reporters, delaying interviews until after deadlines had passed, and preventing staff experts from talking with journalists. For example, they said the Environmental Protection Agency refused to answer questions about the mishandling of hazardous waste despite repeated requests from reporters.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, repeated many of Nixon’s arguments—protecting national security and executive privilege—to keep information about his administration secret. Bush bluntly told reporters he did not think they represented the public, echoing the adversarial relationship cultivated by Nixon.

The perpetually insecure Nixon was sure reporters were out to get him. After voters rejected his 1962 bid to become California’s governor, he accused journalists of being “delighted that I lost,” ignoring the fact that most of the state’s major newspapers endorsed him. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Of course, that wasn’t true. Once his comeback culminated in his being elected president, Nixon read a summary of each morning’s news and then directed his staff how to respond, noting in the margins which reporters he liked and disliked. When Stuart Loory of the Los Angeles Times wrote about how much Nixon’s vacation home cost taxpayers, the president angrily told his staff to ban Loory from the White House.

John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and other previous presidents had wooed reporters, but Nixon made media manipulation a central focus of his administration. For his chief of staff, he picked H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, a former advertising agency executive. To shape the president’s public image, Nixon and Haldeman created the first White House communications office. It made sure Nixon avoided spontaneous encounters with reporters when he might look or sound awkward. Instead, Nixon’s staff arranged carefully orchestrated appearances in front of friendly crowds. This approach is now commonplace, but at the time it was a drastic change from presidents such as Harry Truman who regularly chatted with reporters.

Large communications offices have since become White House staples. Ronald Reagan’s communications team was especially adept at creating TV scenes of the president surrounded by American flags while shielding him from reporters’ questions. But the Obama White House has used new media to take image control to new levels. It sends a stream of tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos directly to the public while bypassing journalists. Last year, in a separate letter, 38 news organizations complained to Obama’s press secretary that photojournalists are often barred from public events. They said the White House prevented photographers from covering presidential meetings with congressmen and Middle East peace negotiators but then released its own photos of these events using social media.

Obama also avoids interviews with White House reporters, preferring appearances on The View and late-night talk shows where easier questions are asked. Nixon first used this tactic, favoring interviews with reporters from small media markets who were more likely to be dazzled by the chance to interview a president and tended to ask easier questions than the Washington press corps.

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.

Spiro Agnew (Reuters)

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.