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Jon Marshall on the Campbell Conversations

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Jon Marshall

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with author Jon Marshall who has written a book about the history of the tensions between the President and the press called, "Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis." Marshall is a Professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Program Transcription:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. The relationship between the press and the president has always been fraught with tension. During the Trump presidency, that tension boiled over into out-and-out conflict. My guest today has written a new book on the history of the relationship. Jon Marshall is a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and is the author of “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.” Jon, welcome to the program.

Jon Marshall: Thank you, Grant. It's an honor to be here with you.

GR: Well, it's great to have you. Let me just start with a really basic question. How'd you get the idea to write this book?

JM: I first started working on this book early in 2017, soon after Donald Trump became president and it became clear that there was a great deal of tension between President Trump and his White House and the journalists who were covering him and a deep level of really sort of angry partizanship that was going on. And it really creating a tumultuous US relationship. And I wanted to understand how did we get to this point? And I knew there had been other presidents in history where there had been tensions between the press and the presidency. But I really wanted to explore it in-depth and try to figure out what was unprecedented about the Trump presidency and what maybe there were some precedents for.

GR: Yeah, I want to get into both of those things, the new and the continuing. But let me ask you this other basic question at the beginning. So you wanted to take a look back. How did you go about writing it? What what what methods did you use? How did you put it together?

JM: Well, fortunately, there's a there is a great deal that's written about each individual president, and there's a lot written about lots of different journalists over time. So I looked at both of those sources to get some perspective on it. But I think my book is one of the few that really puts the two of them together. And I chose several points in history where there had really been crises that the United States was facing, where the tensions between the presidents and the press were greatest. And during those times, I had a lot of fun going back through old newspapers and magazines back when we only had print publications. And then once we started to have radio and then later television listening to some of those broadcasts and looking through some of those transcripts. And then once we got to the Internet era, looking at websites and eventually tweets and Facebook posts to dig into what the different presidents were doing and saying and how the different reporters were covering them.

GR: Yeah, we'll get into some of that, too. So let's go back to something we both mentioned early on. Everybody, I think at this point probably now you know, first thinks of Donald Trump if the topic of hostile relations between the president and the press come up and he actively tried and is still trying to undermine public confidence in the press, he's been pretty successful at it in a lot of quarters. And again, your book demonstrates that attacks on the press are not new. Looking back on that history, pre-Trump, what are a couple of the greatest hits, do you think, in that history of presidents going after the press?

JM: Well, the first president to really go after the press was John Adams, our second president, who was also in the White House. Actually, it wasn't the White House yet. He was in he was president at a time where it was very tense and a lot of turmoil. And The Federalist, who he was part of, were in a great rivalry with the new what was then called the Democratic-Republican Party, it later morphed into what became the Democratic Party, and they went after each other quite viciously through the newspapers and pamphlets of those days. And John Adams did not like at all the criticism that he was receiving. And there wasn't yet sort of an understanding of what kind of role a free press would really play in this new government. We were really sort of still in the experimental stages of democracy. And Adams and his federalist allies in Congress felt like these rival politicians like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were being much more aggressive through the press. And so they passed the what was known as the Sedition Act in 1798, which basically made it illegal to say or write anything that was critical of the president and the government. And Adams signed the law and his federalist allies who controlled the courts, went after the Democratic-Republican Press and others who were criticizing his government. And in the end, more than a hundred people were prosecuted under the Sedition Act, many of them thrown in jail, many of their newspapers forced to close. But it actually proved to be very unpopular. It didn't stop the Democratic-Republicans from criticizing John Adams. And in fact, Adams ended up losing the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, to his great rival. And many scholars think that was partly due to the fact that the Sedition Act was so unpopular. And then probably a second time where a president really went after the press. There were several but one that one that really stands out is Woodrow Wilson during World War I, where he and the Congress passed a new version of the Sedition Act as well as the Espionage Act, which is still in the books and the Trading With the Enemy Act. And again, it made, it criminalized any kind of criticism of the World War I War effort. It made it illegal to be against the draft of people being drafted for the military so newspaper editors were thrown in jail and indicted. A reverend who spoke out saying that he didn't believe in the draft was thrown in jail someone who said that they thought war was immoral was thrown in jail. So it was a real period of censorship and clamping down on dissent.

GR: And still sticking with the pre-Trump era. Did you notice any overall trends in the relationship between presidents and the press over time, or is it just kind of something that goes up and down with events?

JM: A couple of trends I would point to are the presidents who are able to build a friendly rapport with reporters, no matter how tense the times are, are the ones who end up being remembered usually the most fondly by history, because they say, you know, journalism is the first rough draft of history. And what journalists write and say often ends up being the perspective that historians take later on. So a prime example of that is Abraham Lincoln, and there was no time in the United States history where things were tenser and more in crisis during the Civil War. And certainly a lot of reporters and editors went after Lincoln because of the stance he took. But on an individual level, he was very good with reporters and would joke around with them and chat with them. And at least reporters in the north pretty much would portray him in a friendly way. Another good example of that would be Franklin Roosevelt, who, again, was very good sense of humor, would joke around with the reporters, made sure to provide them with plenty of information for them to work with, met with them regularly. And even though many of the publishers didn't particularly like Roosevelt, the day-to-day reporters often portrayed him in a friendly light. And yet I think Roosevelt when the presidents are ranked by historians, Roosevelt and Lincoln are certainly usually at the top. Another one would be Ronald Reagan. Again, he had a very good kind of personal relationship with a lot of reporters, and Reagan usually ranks near the top when historians come up with their list. A second I think overall through line would be the presidents who are able to take advantage of new technology in their favor are the ones who are most successful in dealing with journalists. Franklin Roosevelt certainly did that with radio, with his fireside chats John F Kennedy and Eisenhower before him learned how to effectively use television for the first time and then on social media Barack Obama and then Donald Trump were very successful at getting their messages out with the new, new technology of social media.

GR: I'm Grant Reeher. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations, and my guest is Northwestern University professor Jon Marshall. He's the author of a new book on presidents and the press called “Clash.” You mentioned Kennedy with television and I, I always think of watching his televised press conferences or video clips of them. And he's just he's so good. It's amazing to watch. They're really entertaining and he manages to be charming, entertaining and informative. All right. And perhaps deceptive all at the same time. Let me ask a different kind of question, more philosophical though. Who do you think of the presidents has provided the greatest public service to small “d” democratic aims with his relationship with the press who most advanced democracy, by the way, that he approached the press.

JM: Oh, that's a terrific question. And I'm going through my mind the list of presidents in terms of who was good at that. I think I would point to Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and actually maybe Teddy Roosevelt as well. We'll give both Roosevelts credit. Teddy was the first to really hold regular kind of meetings with reporters. He would very informally meet with them while he was shaving in the White House. He would invite them in he wasn't doing the shaving yet. He had a barber doing the shaving and he would chat with reporters and was really quite open with them. And I think that sort of advanced the spirit of sort of presidential openness with reporters. And then Franklin Roosevelt probably held more news conferences with reporters on a regular basis than other presidents did. He would meet with them once or maybe twice a week in comparison to presidents now who are lucky if they meet with reporters, you know, more than once a month that Roosevelt would chat with them and hold their news conferences and give information. And then he was also quite effective at reaching the American public through his fireside chats and was able to explain his New Deal policies. And then later on in World War II policies using the medium of radio.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Jon Marshall. He's a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and he's the author of a new book titled “Clash: Presidents and the Press and Times of Crisis.” Well, Jon, I want to come to the elephant in the room now that you and I have mentioned a couple of times. But really look at this in greater detail and that's President Trump. Former President Trump. What was fundamentally different, if anything, about Trump's approach and methods than anyone before?

JM: I would point to two things. One, that was somewhat different and then one that was quite different. What was somewhat different is that Trump made central to his strategy, casting the press as an enemy of the American people and you know, he's famously quoted as calling journalists and enemies of the American people and quite often and quite publicly disparaging the press as part of his strategy to have people not take what journalists wrote and reported seriously so they were more likely to believe what he said. Right when he was becoming president in 2016 Lesley Stahl of CBS interviewed him and Trump was quite upfront and saying, I do this to discredit you all so that people are more likely to believe what I say. And he, he was actually quite effective at that, at least for a fairly large segment of the population as trust in the press and the media declines. And this was a strategy that Richard Nixon tried to some degree Nixon's chief of staff wrote a memo saying we should cast the press and quote as, quote, a useful enemy, an enemy like crime, or in those days, you know, the communist menace who we should get the public to distrust. So they, Nixon talked about this behind closed doors. He sent his vice president, Spiro Agnew, out to make speeches, criticizing the press and…

GR: The Nattering Nabobs of Negativism as I recall?

JM: Negativism, exactly that. They were an unelected elite who were against the interests of the American people. So Nixon's vice president said that a few times, not on a constant basis like Trump did. And I think Trump sort of borrowed that strategy and depending on your point of view, perfected it in terms of casting the press as an enemy. The other thing Trump did which I think is really unique to him, is that he made conspiracy theories central to his presidency. When he was running for president in 2016 he went on Alex Jones's show, “Infowars,” which is infamous for spreading conspiracy theories and in fact, Alex Jones just had to declare bankruptcy because he was sued by the families of the children who were murdered at Sandy Hook. And he claimed that was it was false and those kids were never murdered. And the family sued him for the distress he caused them. And he lost that case. So Alex Jones, who is is the paragon of transmitting conspiracy theories, Jones, Donald Trump goes on his show and 2016 and the two of them trade conspiracy theories back and forth and Trump rose to the White House during Obama's presidency by spreading the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama had not been actually born a U.S. citizen and that his birth certificate was fake. And Trump went on any number of TV shows spreading that conspiracy theory which helped to raise Trump's public profile and he helped to ride that to the White House. And he continued to do that as president, spreading conspiracy theories. And, you know, other presidents have said things that were wrong. Other presidents have lied, other presidents have distorted the truth. But no one has made the spreading of conspiracy theories really kind of central to what their White House was all about before Donald Trump.

GR: I wonder if there might be a third ad see what you think about this one that occurred to me as his use of Twitter in particular. But other similar means, but that one in particular to kind of stay out ahead of the media and to stay ahead of his own media operation. In the White House. You know, he was kind of his own press spokesperson, if you will.

JM: That's true. You know, he used Twitter, as we know, frequently, to a very large audience, but he really wasn't the first to do that. You know, Obama before him was very effective at using social media as well. Obama was using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and, you know, MySpace back when MySpace was a thing. Obama or his aides.

GR: Yeah, that was one difference I was thinking of with Obama, social media aides doing it. With Trump, you get the feeling it's a guy sitting on the side of his bed at 3 in the morning.

JM: Sometimes it is. And sometimes it was. It was a couple of his aides doing it, but it was often Trump himself. And, you know, I think Trump was probably more effective at igniting his base through Twitter and through social media than Obama did. But Obama certainly his White House certainly used it effectively especially during his presidential campaigns. And then other presidents have used the technology of the day effectively. I mentioned earlier FDR with radio and Kennedy with TV and certainly and Obama and Trump now with social media.

GR: OK, so let's go forward from Trump. How would you assess Joe Biden's relationship and Joe Biden's White House relationship with the press?

JM: I would consider it mixed. I think it's much more similar to what other president's relationship with the press had been before Donald Trump. There's certainly tension and a few times Biden has snapped at reporters, you know, particularly ones from Fox News. There's no love lost there, and that's apparent but he more often than not his press conferences are at least polite if not exactly always warm and friendly. His press secretary, Jen Psaki, holds regular press briefings, which Donald Trump's didn't always do that. His press secretaries, you know, went for more than a year without holding a press conference. So that's you know, that's going back more, to the norm. Biden holds fewer news conferences than most presidents have, but that's been a downward trend. Really, for the last 20, 30 years. The last president who really made a point of holding a lot of news conferences was the first President Bush, George H.W. Bush. And it's been kind of downhill since then. And reporters are certainly challenging the Biden administration. You know, there's plenty of stories about problems with inflation. There are plenty of stories about the problematic pull out from Afghanistan. There's been a lot of stories challenging his response to COVID. So and that's as it should be. So I think we're kind of back to more of a normal relationship between presidents in the press, which means it's tense. Presidents are doing what they can to avoid tough questioning and reporters are doing what they can to try to dig out something and find some controversy and scandal to report on.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is professor and author Jon Marshall. So sticking with the relationship with Biden and the press have there been any behavior changes, do you think, on the part of the press during Biden's presidency that are there because of the Trump effect? In other words, has the press made any kind of adjustments because of Trump that they've carried over? And you can see it when they're dealing with Biden.

JM: That's a great question. I think the press today, reporters today are more likely to call out something as false than they were pre-Trump, whether that falsehood is coming from the Biden administration or coming from Republicans or coming from anybody else. There had been a tendency in the past, if a public figure, says something of interest in importance, you report it and then you get differing perspectives to try to balance it out. When the Trump administration really actually started doing his 2016 campaign we started to consistently say things that were untrue. The New York Times and others started to follow along where they would outright say that something is a lie and that it's false. And I think that's carrying over now to their coverage of other politicians, including the Biden administration.

GR: Mm-hmm. Now, based on your historical analysis and synthesis, did you come up with any thoughts about the changes that you would recommend in the way that the press and presidents interact? If you could, you know, ways in which it might be improved for the American people?

JM: Well, I think one way is to continue doing what we just talked about. If something is false, come right outside, come right out and say that. Another thing I think should be done is on the part of journalists is to pay less attention to the day-to-day who is up and who is down terms of the politics. A lot of the coverage of different policies is about what are the odds of this policy passing? What is this policy going to mean for the reelection chances of the president or senators or Congress people? What does it mean for the midterms and less about the policy itself? And what does it really mean for the American people? What's it going to cost? What are the advantages? Where are the disadvantages? What are maybe some unintended consequences? That might happen? I think it's along with that. I think news organizations need to do more to rotate their reporters out of the White House press corps and spend time in other places around the country reporting on the daily concerns of the American people. What are the things that are really affecting people in their day-to-day lives and then bring that back to the White House and bring that back to what they investigate and what they question. So those would be two recommendations I would make.

GR: Yeah, that's interesting, particularly that last one. Get them out of the bubble. Kind of like term limits for White House reporters, if you will, or at least alternating term limits. You've talked about this already, but I wonder if there's anything you'd want to add here. But we and we've got about 3 minutes left. I'd like to kind of squeeze three more questions in if I can. So if you try to be brief on these and they're tough to do this, but any other ways in which social media has affects what mainstream news media does when it comes to presidents other than feeling like, you know, they've got to stay on top of Twitter all the time?

JM: Well, we're certainly in this age of instant, instant, personalized media where each person can find exactly what they're looking for in terms of what they want to listen to and watch and certainly consume on social media. And the algorithms reward that and will give them more of the same. So I think the challenge for journalists today is how to break through that and try to find ways that people are getting sort of a balanced information diet. And a lot of that, I think, falls on the big social media companies to really look at what their algorithms are doing and not necessarily reward the things that are most controversial and the things that people are getting the angriest about, which is generally how the algorithms work today, but instead reward things that are verified and are the most factual and if the social media companies aren't doing that, there are things that Congress can do in terms of legislation that so far has protected social media companies from being challenged for publishing and posting untruthful things. They're pretty much protected by law now, but established media companies are not protected in the same way. So if social media companies aren't going to be responsible about that and it's called Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, that could be revisited.

GR: Yeah, we'll get into that. I think on another program, I know that I've looked at that a little bit myself. And we'll send this interview to Elon Musk as well. But with only about 50 seconds left, I want to try to squeeze two questions in, if I can. First of all, really quickly, just a sentence or two. Where do you see this relationship going in the future? Any particular direction or more of the same?

JM: Well, I think there will always be tension. I think there always really should be tension because there the roles of presidents and the press are serving different functions and I think, yeah, the challenge is, as I just talked about, dealing with the amount of misinformation out there so that's what worries me. But in terms of the established press and the president, I think it's going to be the same.

GR: And and equally briefly, more briefly and anything in particular that we as citizens should be watching for in the 2024 presidential election on this on this subject.

JM: I think we should be watching for, I think it's up to us as citizens to try to break through the noise. And again, look at the actual policies that are being suggested and try to find information about those.

GR: Great. That was Jon Marshall. And again, his book is titled “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis.” And like a good professor at a good journalism school, the book is both substantial and extremely readable. I highly recommend it. Jon, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

JM: Thank you, Grant. It's been a pleasure to have this conversation.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.