By Hank Boerner
The relationship between the President of the United States of America and the free press of our nation is very often a contentious one. Print me good news, and spare me the bad is often the wish of the nation’s leader (and we should include this as views of corporate CEOs and others not sitting at the Resolute Desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).
As the Founding Fathers debated the future government of our country, and shaped our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the man who would become POTUS #3 — Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, observed: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the People, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…”
Of course, even President Jefferson (serving 1801-1809) had his issues with the press of his day. And that has been a constant tone for most-if-not-all of our heads of states for yea, these many decades back to the time of our Founding Fathers and Mothers.
The man credited with creating the modern presidency, President Theodore Roosevelt (#25, serving 1901-1909) was a writer himself, a prodigious book author and magazine contributor, and he used the technology of the day (the printed press) to get his points across to friends, allies and enemies.
Behold, The Muckrakers!
Five years into his presidency, and beginning the second year of his second term, the Crusader-in-Chief (fiercely battling monopolies, Big Business, fraudulent food and drugs, and more) delivered a speech in which he targeted the media of the nation.
This was April 1906, as “TR” celebrated the setting of the cornerstone of the Cannon Office Building up on Capitol Hill. President Roosevelt famously termed his position as the nation’s highest office holder as having possession of the “Bully Pulpit” — bully at the time meaning something of celebration and victory rather than today’s popular meaning as a bully picking on the vulnerable.
And so from the Bully Pulpit, TR held forth, targeting the media of the day who (he charged) made up stories and dug and dug for “dirt.” These, he said, were the “muckers with rakes,” a takeoff of the description in the Pilgrim’s Progress (a late-1600s Christian allegory by English author John Bunyan). The allegorical “muckrakers” were (men) who looked down at the bottom of the bay, rake in hand, tackling the muck at the bottom.
Sounding eerily reminiscent of January 2016 and the lively dialogue going on about the President and The Press and their relationship: These men (TR charged) were selling newspapers and attacking mean and women and society should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. Wow!
The journalists of the day were mostly delighted by this! They began to call themselves muckrakers (the term comes down to us today) and their ranks grew as these investigative writers poured out magazine articles and books.
You may know some of their names and certainly know of their works: Ida Tarbell, and her crusades that led to the breakup of the monopolistic Standard Oil (the Rockefeller interests); Lincoln Steffens (also taking on Big Oil interests); Jacob Riis (a Danish immigrant and chronicler of the fate of poor immigrants in New York City); S.S. McClure (an immigrant), publisher of the populist magazine of the day, McClure’s. And, Ray Stannard Baker, Edith Wharton, Finley Peter Dooley. Later came such muckrakers as the legendary I.F. Stone, the nemesis of president-after-president.
And even later (more recent, that is) successors to their legacy include the CBS team of “60 Minutes“‘ the writers at Mother Jones; at The Nation; at The Progressive; of Rolling Stone (like Matt Taibbi).
Master of The Media – Especially The Radio
One of the Masters-of-the-Media residing in the White House was the sixth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945).
There’s an important point to make here: the media covering the White House has leveraged the technology of the day to communicate the news (and opinion) to the masses. And so have presidents.
President Donald Trump’s expert use of social media (call it “citizen publishing” to be correct) is a parallel to the expert use of “The Radio” by #33, President Franklin Roosevelt.
Upon taking office, FDR delivered his first “Fireside Chat” from the White House (the media applied the name soon after).
On March 12, 1933 he spoke to the nation on :”the Radio,” — the nation was deep into the crisis of the Great Depression (with one-of-four households having no income). He began….”My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the People of the United States about banking…” (He was declaring a “bank holiday,” a wonderful phrase about shutting every bank in the US to determine which ones could open later with solid finances to protect customers.)
Keeping the Words Flowing from the Chief
FDR would deliver some 30 chats (the number is disputed with some saying 27 or 28 is more accurate). He spoke to the nation during war time, when his administration was taking steps to address this or that crisis of the day, such as why we had to be the Arsenal of Democracy to save democracy around the world, and more. Commercial radio was created in 1924, so “The Radio” was as new to FDR as Twitter is to President Trump.
And press conferences — FDR would gather “the boys” around his desk to chat about this and that. Some 337 press conferences in his first term and more in the second term.
Earlier in the 20th Century, President Teddy Roosevelt used the media of his day — especially mass readership magazines. (He himself often wrote for “Century,” the influential thought leadership mag of the day.)
Press Freedoms – Guaranteed
It’s January 23rd today (in the glorious year 2017, approaching 229 years since that day in June 1788 when our beloved and very durable U.S. Constitution went into effect with the vote of the ninth state, New Hampshire).
The very first Amendment, we all have to remember, was this: Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…
And so, these many years on since the first president assumed the office (George Washington, April 1789 in New York City, then the capital), the to-and-fro of the media-White House relationship continues in time-honored tradition of each party!
And so back to President Thomas Jefferson, who long after leaving office observed publicly: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
And privately he complained to a successor, President James Monroe (#5): “”From forty years’ experience of the wretched guess-work of the newspapers of what is not done in open daylight, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, and almost never worth notice…”
In composing this, I thought about the communicators-in-chief and their origins. New York is considered to be the Media Capital of the nation. And Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and now President Donald J. Trump — all New Yorkers. Maybe it’s something in the water here….
Let that be the last word for today!
# # #
If you want to hear a magnificent orator addressing the nation, tune in to President Franklin Roosevelt’s radio speeches, courtesy of his library at Hyde Park, New York. Link: http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/collections/utterancesfdr.html
FDR’s “Chats” are here: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/fireside.php
Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech launching the Muckrakers movement is interesting: The Man With the Muck Rake: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/tr-muckrake/