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Trump's public attacks on the 'enemies of the people' echo Nixon's private press war — except worse

Trump has not yet run afoul of criminal law (that we know of), but his rhetoric may still have a more dangerous effect on press freedom.
President Richard Nixon picks a questioner as newsmen vie for his attention during a televised news conference in the White House East Room March 14, 1969 in Washington.
President Richard Nixon picks a questioner as newsmen vie for his attention during a televised news conference in the White House East Room March 14, 1969 in Washington.AP file

President Donald Trump’s vilification of the news media, with his almost-daily charges of “fake news” and the recent directive barring CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House, invokes echoes of the secret war on journalists undertaken by President Richard Nixon almost five decades ago.

Even though attacks by the Nixon White House on the press involved criminal acts, some of which eventually lead to Nixon’s impeachment, Trump’s attacks are arguably more pernicious and damaging to the free press. Why? Because Trump is seeking, and to a startling degree succeeding, in discrediting the entire media profession by declaring the press to be “enemies of the people.”

Still, years before the 24-hour cable news cycle, the Nixon administration’s attacks on journalists constituted a serious presidential abuse of power. Some of this animosity was public. In November of 1969, for example, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew openly challenged the alleged bias of network television coverage by “privileged men” whose broadcasts “do not, and I repeat not, represent the views of America.”

Agnew’s rhetoric was far less harmful than Nixon’s secret suspicious, however. In June 1969, for example, a few months after Nixon took office, his key adviser John Ehrlichman authorized non-governmental employees to install wiretaps in the home of newspaper columnist Joseph Kraft. Similarly, after CBS journalist Daniel Schorr broadcast an unfavorable analysis of a Nixon speech, the White House launched an FBI investigation of Schorr which included interviews with his neighbors, his employer and family members. When news of the FBI inquiry leaked, the president’s aides invented a fabricated story that Schorr was being considered for federal employment to cover up the misconduct — a lie which Nixon approved.

In that same year, Nixon authorized the FBI to wiretap two additional journalists, as well as government employees, following news accounts about U.S. bombings in Cambodia. In one instance, Attorney General John Mitchell directed that a wiretap be installed in the residence of a TV network correspondent and that the journalist be placed under 24-hour surveillance, even though the reporter had no known connection with any classified material. The FBI persuaded Mitchell to withdraw the physical surveillance directive, but the FBI wiretap remained in place for two months.

Each of these episodes was cited in the final report of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee as evidence supporting the committee’s passage of Article II of the Articles of Impeachment charging Nixon with abuse of power.

Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean testified before Sen. Sam Ervin’s committee investigating Watergate that the White House maintained a political “enemies list” and an early version of that list included the Los Angeles Times managing editor. Later additions to that list, which became an exhibit in the Senate hearings, included TV network journalists at NBC and CBS and print journalists at the New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, news magazines and regional newspapers.

But a primary object of Nixon’s personal vendetta was then-major syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, whose columns were printed in newspapers nationwide. Before cable TV and the internet, Anderson was one of the most influential political journalists in the country. In late 1971 and early 1972, White House tapes reveal that Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell and senior White House adviser John Ehrlichman discussed prosecuting Anderson for allegedly receiving leaked classified information. Ehrlichman’s notes of these meetings read, “We’ll prosecute Anderson, et al. after the election.” They never did, but that was the least of it.

Unlike the Nixon White House, Trump operates in the open in attacking the media. Character assassination of journalists is the hallmark of his campaign-style rallies.

G. Gordon Liddy, an employee of Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, admitted that he went so far as to explore the possibility of killing Anderson. Liddy said he had discussed various techniques including poisoning Anderson or killing him in an automobile crash. These far-fetched schemes were abandoned, and Anderson was not harmed. Instead Liddy received another assignment — to oversee the burglary of the Democratic National Party headquarters in the Watergate in June 1972.

Unlike the Nixon White House, Trump operates in the open in attacking the media. Character assassination of journalists is the hallmark of his campaign-style rallies. This barrage is working.

A Monmouth University poll published in April 2018 reported that 31 percent of Americans believe that major media and print outlets publish “fake news” regularly and another 46 percent believe that the media publishes “fake news” occasionally. Monmouth University reported that this 77 percent response rate represented a 12 percent increase from the results of a 2017 poll.

The media is finally starting to fight back, however. CNN recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Acosta claiming that the revocation of his White House press privileges violates the First Amendment. An array of other media organizations, including Fox News, announced their intentions to file legal briefs in support of the CNN position. After a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order reinstating Acosta’s White House press privileges, the White House backed down, but not before posting a new set of rules for White House reporters to follow in the briefing room.

Meanwhile Charles Whitaker, interim dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (where I am also an adjunct instructor), recently issued a public statement that “we cannot turn a blind eye to the encroachment on press freedom.” Whitaker added that Medill must “insist that our students and our professional colleagues are allowed to perform their roles honorably and without being declared ‘enemies of the state.’” Whitaker joins other leaders in the media community who have also spoken out about this administration’s efforts to discredit the profession.

Nixon’s war on the press crossed the line into grave misconduct — and he was punished as a result. While Trump’s public attacks have not run afoul of criminal law (that we know of), their impact may have a more dangerous and lasting effect on press freedom than Nixon’s secret crimes perpetrated ever did. Poisoning the American people against the press may have short-term advantages for an embattled Trump, but his anti-press campaign will mostly be remembered for the long-term damage it did to this cornerstone of our democracy.