White House

The Press, the President and the Danger Zone

Trump's predecessors also tried to manipulate the media and punish leakers. Here's why some did better than others.

Behind enemy lines.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Trump administration’s political “war” against the media to be replaced by, or merge with, a new one: against legislators and other officials who are pressing harder for a full-scale investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

These are the multiple fronts in a growing conflict that has pitted the president and the tight group around him against what they see as adversaries spread throughout the government -- in the courts, in federal agencies and in Congress.

Yet, for all the off-the-chart bizarreness of its first six weeks, the Trump presidency is repeating some patterns long established in American politics. This dates from the early 20th century, when presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson believed themselves to be tribunes of the people, since they had been elected by the entire nation, and so could claim a mandate. 

Thus was born the “imperial presidency” -- or “plebiscite autocracy,” as the political thinker Walter Lippmann wrote in his book “Liberty and the News,” published in 1920. "Decisions in the modern state tend to be made by the interaction, not of Congress and the executive," Lippmann argued, "but of public opinion and the executive."

This is what appears to be happening now, as different factions in the new administration jockey for advantage by trying to dominate the media “narrative.” Start with the case of Michael Flynn, the short-lived national security adviser, who was forced to resign after intelligence officials leaked damaging details gleaned from telephone intercepts. Who was the real “enemy” here -- the “lying media” or Flynn’s many adversaries in the intelligence community? The answer is: both. As Lippmann explained, “Government tends to operate by the impact of controlled opinion upon administration.” In this instance, the controllers were officials in the CIA, NSA and the FBI.

Something similar happened with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, after the Washington Post reported he had met with the Russian ambassador, in contradiction of Sessions’s testimony in the Senate. Again, the dispute looked at first to have pitted the administration against the press.

But, in fact Trump, who has maintained there was no improper contact between his campaign and the Russian government, was taking on the Justice Department, which favors an investigation. 

The wheel turned again over the weekend, when Trump went on Twitter to accuse President Barack Obama of wiretapping his 2016 campaign headquarters. This was followed by reports that FBI Director James Comey, in reply, urged the Justice Department to make a public denial of Trump’s allegation. Again, the internal conflict is playing out on the field of public opinion.

In Lippmann’s day, the public got its news from daily newspapers, “the bible of democracy,” to use his phrase. This changed with the growth of mass communications. First came high-circulation weekly magazines, like Time and Life, and then the rise of radio and TV. As media evolved, politics and presidents changed, too.

The key figure was John F. Kennedy, whose vaunted “charisma” made him as much celebrity as statesman. In a famous article, the columnist Arthur Krock accused Kennedy of tending a vast and sinister “public-relations project,” whose purpose was to provide the most flattering coverage of him.

This meant not simply controlling the flow of information, but trying to control those in charge of it -- the “purveyors of the news,” including “news reporters in general (most definitely including the TV and radio broadcasters), widely read commentators and flattered editors, publishers and network moguls.” Kennedy wanted them to be courtiers, spreading his message, not journalists, who assessed it from a distance.

A bitter controversy developed over what came to be known as “managed news” or “manipulated news.” A House committee looked into charges that the Kennedy White House had given out false information on vital national security issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. At the same time, Krock and other journalists said the administration was trying to enforce “peacetime censorship” through tactics such as leaking information to handpicked journalists, while bullying reporters they disliked.

“FBI agents have been employed in at least half a dozen separate instances in the last two years in investigations of the sources of news stories,” the military correspondent Hanson Baldwin wrote in 1963, when J. Edgar Hoover ran the bureau. FBI agents also intimidated Defense Department staff. “The interrogations have been detailed and sometimes hectoring; junior officers have even been threatened with lie detector tests,” Baldwin wrote.

Kennedy understood the gulf that separates the president’s public persona from his private self. He charmed the press and the public at news conferences, but then phoned the Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Sr., and lobbied him, unsuccessfully, to replace a young correspondent, David Halberstam, who was filing reports from Vietnam that implied, accurately, that the war was being lost.

When Richard Nixon was president, this friction turned into open warfare. Angered by press reaction to his speech outlining a new Vietnam strategy, he didn’t lodge a private complaint but instead had his vice president, Spiro Agnew, deliver a scorching attack on the “big three” TV networks, “a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one.” 

But even as Nixon depicted the press as the enemy, the deeper problem was internal dissension within the administration, as a member of Nixon’s Cabinet, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pointed out. In “The Presidency and the Press,” an essay in Commentary magazine, Moynihan described an unholy alliance of disgruntled officials, tangled in bureaucratic and turf conflicts, who aired their grievances and settled scores by leaking information to sympathetic, usually left-leaning reporters.

These reporters, in turn, gobbled up every morsel, without ever disclosing “who the leaker is and why he wants the story leaked,” Moynihan wrote. And yet “more often than not, this is the more important story.” It amounted to “disloyalty to the Presidency” and raised the question, for Moynihan at least, “just how much elitist criticism is good for a democracy.” 

One answer came quickly and ambiguously. At almost the same moment that Moynihan’s essay was published, in winter 1971, the policy analyst Daniel Ellsberg began photocopying 7,000 pages of a government report on Vietnam and slipping batches to the New York Times. The Pentagon Papers, as they were known, so infuriated Nixon that he demanded retaliation against Ellsberg -- a first step toward the crimes that led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

Watergate was another example of an inside-outside collaboration. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post broke the story, but with the assistance of a leaker, the disgruntled FBI official Mark Felt, better known as “Deep Throat.” 

Nixon’s frustrations undid him. But his successors have felt similar pressures, especially with social media and the flood of information spilling out through more and more outlets. Obama took the cool-headed Kennedy approach -- outwardly genial even as he punished government whistle-blowers and leakers. Trump seems more a Nixon-style combatant, tweeting angrily about “fake news” created by a press that is “the enemy of the people.” 

He was loudly denounced for this outburst, though most presidents have felt uniquely aggrieved. “No president has ever been in this position before,” Bill Clinton complained to the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1994. “It’s maddening -- a bigger gap than ever existed in modern history... We’ve got to find a way to get information on what we are doing directly to the people.” 

The trouble is we don’t live in a “plebiscite autocracy,” but in an ever more complex democracy in which many diverse voices have their say. This leads to another problem, which Lippmann pointed to in 1920, and which seems especially relevant today. In the new age, he noted, presidents don’t only dispense information. They also receive it, from “special groups” outside of government that have their own agendas. 

In these conditions, information and misinformation are easily confused. “Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence,” Lippmann warned, “the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation.” 

This is what tempts presidents. They can’t really manage the news. They can only over-manage or manipulate it. And that’s where the danger begins.

(Corrects affiliation of Mark Felt in 19th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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