Researching the History of Presidents and the Press

24 Feb 2022 12:01 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Jon Marshall, Northwestern University

My fascination with the presidency was born at age five during the summer of 1968 when my family went on vacation to San Diego. Richard Nixon, fresh from winning the GOP presidential nomination, was staying at a hotel a couple of miles down the beach from us. My dad, never one to be shy, decided my brother and I should meet Nixon. We hiked across the sand to Nixon’s hotel and stationed ourselves outside the entrance. When Nixon walked by, my dad greeted him, and the soon-to-be president graciously walked over and shook our hands. 

My interest in the presidency deepened a few years later as I learned about Nixon becoming ensnared in the Watergate scandal. My mom and I spent the summer of 1973 watching the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings on television. The next summer we watched Nixon resign as I wondered how this powerful man could have such a steep downfall. 

Fast forward to 2017. The recently elected Donald Trump was shattering every norm in the relationship between presidents and the press. He was using Twitter to bash journalists, calling them enemies of the people, and threatening them with violence. Much of the media was fractured along deeply partisan lines. I wanted to know, “How did we get here?”  

To find an answer, I began the research that resulted in my second book, Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis (Potomac Books, 2022). I had already satisfied some of my Nixon fascination with my first book, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse. This time I wanted to take a broader look at the history of presidents and the press during some of the nation’s tensest moments.  

Clash has the dual aim of providing knowledge that will be useful to historians while also appealing to students and other readers who are interested in government, politics, and the media. I chose ten presidents (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump) who encountered severe crises and whose relationships with the press tell us something important about how we arrived at our current toxic media environment. By exploring this history, Clash seeks to identify what was truly unprecedented about Trump’s relationship with journalists.  

I began by reading the many outstanding books, articles, and papers that other scholars have produced on the presidency and the history of the Washington press corps. During the AJHA conference in Dallas, I was able to visit the archives at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and found fascinating material about his efforts to woo conservative radio hosts. However, like other scholars trying to conduct research in the age of COVID, I was soon limited in the number of physical archives I could visit. Fortunately, the cavalry of digital resources came to the rescue. I found a bounty of online primary sources in presidential archives, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Internet Archive. I examined White House and congressional documents, speeches, public opinion polls, letters, oral histories, memoirs, and much more 

One of my researching joys was using America’s Historical Newspapers, Gale’s Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, NewsBank, ProQuest, and Readex’s African American Newspapers series to find and analyze articles, editorials, and cartoons in more than six dozen newspapers and magazines stretching back to the 1790s. In addition, I used clips and transcripts available from the C-SPAN Executive Branch Archive and Vanderbilt Television News Archive. For the Trump and Obama years, I also sifted through collections of social media posts. 

One of my biggest challenges was sifting through this rich material to determine what to include within my publisher’s 90,000-word limit. I had to ignore some presidents (sorry about that, Millard Fillmore fans), and there was a lot more I could have written about each president who appears in Clash. In the end, I cut twice as many words as I included.  

Based on my research, Clash highlights eight main themes: 

  • Presidents have frequently attacked, restricted, manipulated, and demonized the press to strengthen their own positions 

  • Using new technology, presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have boosted their power by avoiding the White House press corps and communicating directly to the public.  

  • Presidents who developed respectful relationships with the press have had more long-term success than those who didn’t.  

  • Journalists who advocated for political and social movements have pushed presidents to dramatically change their policies. 

  • Despite their own mistakes and formidable forces trying to hinder them, reporters often have courageously served the public when covering the White House.  

  • Starting with Reagan, policy changes have led to a surge in partisan, divisive media content that widened polarization. 

  • Faith in democracy has been undercut by presidents and their media allies who spread conspiracy theories and other lies. 

  • The news media’s economic woes have weakened its ability to hold presidents accountable.

I had the most fun writing about the moments that bring the relationship between presidents and the press to life: Adams stomping on his wig out of frustration, Lincoln chatting amiably with Frederick Douglass, Wilson lecturing the White House press corps as if they were dimwitted schoolboys, Roosevelt and Edward R. Murrow discussing World War II over sandwiches and beer deep into the night, the inept Watergate burglars accidentally locking themselves inside a banquet room, George H.W. Bush carrying Rush Limbaugh’s luggage into the White House, and Trump studying printed copies of his first tweets to learn which words sparked the most controversy 

Before completing Clash, I faced one final challenge. I thought it was important to include the Trump presidency, and so I had negotiated an early 2021 deadline with my publisher, figuring I could wrap the book up quickly after the November 3 election. But then Trump refused to concede, leading to the bloody January 6 insurrection. I scrambled to include at least a rough draft of that history and the role some media played in America’s descent into political madness 

Clash ends with Joe Biden’s inauguration. Coincidentally, Biden is the other president I’ve met. When my family was visiting Boston in the fall of 2007, my wife, Laurie, spotted Biden coming out of a restaurant. Like my dad with Nixon nearly 40 years earlier, I shouted a greeting to Biden. He came over and chatted with us for about five minutes, asking our three young sons all about their lives. Who knows, maybe someday one of them will want to write about presidents too.

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