I originally wrote this piece a good while ago. But great minds think alike and the comparison between Nixon’s and Trump’s abhorrence for the press was too good not to make; with a number of high authority journalistic pieces made my post somewhat extraneous. However, with the recent news that Trump’s Press Secretary is denying access to The Guardian, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, CNN, and the BBC to press briefings, combined with Trump announcing on Twitter that he will be absent at this year’s Correspondent’s Association Dinner, it’s probably worth re-approaching the perspective. With a particular focus to Social Media.
This post’s name comes from the history of the press briefing room itself, which formally hosted the Presidents swimming pool. Now carefully decked over and repurposed, the room was converted in such a way that any future President may transfer it back into use. Not surprising, the deep end is right under the podium where the Press Secretary stands. The rectangular room, encircled by arched ceilings and high rows of half-mooned windows was chosen by Nixon as the location for the press briefing rooms to accommodate for television cameras, and of course to be somewhat further away from the Oval office.
Typically, in modern times, the press stationed at the White House receive daily press briefings directly from the Press Secretary, with occasional visits by the President for more formal televised conferences. Direct contact to the President is more often with reporters from small media markets who are more pliable and dazzled by the title of the office compared to members of the press core. This strategy for engaging with the media has been mirrored around the world, but it hasn’t always been the case.
In the past, the press had a greater level of access to areas of the White House, and to the President himself. Rather than an adversary to presidency, the press were a neutral loudspeaker and occasional soundboard for policy. The press had informal meetings with the President, the First Lady, and even members of core staff on a regular basis during the 1940’s (Jabcobs, 2015). Today its unforeseeable that the President would have members the press in the Oval Office, nevertheless have the whole press core packed in front of the President’s desk while he gave daily press briefings. But there are photographs of just that.
Reporters at Presidents Roosevelt’s Desk in 1944. Source.
Yet as the press core increased in size, levels of informality decreased. The Oval Office became too small and new rules put in place. A new dedicated press area and reduced levels of access to the President became the norm; not as a deliberate distancing between the two, but as a way to deal with the sheer amount of reporters and news to be covered (Kilpatrick, 1970). Presidents did indeed try and continue to impress reporters, building mutually-beneficial but friendly relationships (Liebovich, 2003).
By the 1970’s the relationship was less friendly, the press was moved more and more outside the Oval office. Rather than personal direct meetings with the President, the press was limited to daily news briefings by the Press Secretary, with occasional visits by the President and other members of his staff for more formal, televised conferences (Jacobs, 2015).
The Nixon Shift
The Nixon administration brought in one of the most distrustful Presidents in history. Perpetually insecure and occasionally bordering on paranoia, about the media’s motivation – President Nixon became obsessed with the thought the press wanted nothing more than to bring his presidency down (Matthews, 1997:217). Nixon shifted the White House approach to media relations. While traditional journalists got the hard shoulder, interviews were conducted more often with reporters from small media markets – more likely to be dazzled by the chance to interview a President. Meanwhile the administration openly attacked the press. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, made a series of speeches in 1969 attacking newspapers and TV broadcasters – treating them as rivals as opposed to the traditional view of a partnership between the White House and the media (Marshall, 2014). In a statement made by Agnew, he claimed the administration was attacked by a “a small and unelected elite” who controlled the media…. Sound familiar?
Nixon even went as far as to prohibit a Washington Post reporter from the White House after an article itemising the public cost of Nixon’s holiday (Liebovich, 2003:12). Even then this was generally considered an extreme move. The administration didn’t officially pull their press passes but barred them from anywhere else than the press briefing room. Even Nixon must have known that the press is a required part of democracy, and pulling their passes might have drawn unhealthy comparisons with the USSR.
However, the institution memory of distrust rather than partnership between the White House and the press core was maintained. Notable examples include Bush number 1 attacking CBS anchor-man in 1988 over how they covered the Iran-Contra scandal and Bush number 2’s Press Secretary accused the New York Times of gross negligence and reporting failures. Even Obama’s Press Secretary criticized the Washington Post its use of anonymous sources.
Dispute the animosity between the two, one line remained. Every administration kept the relationship going. By removing the press core from the briefing room, the executive would be eradicating an important mouthpiece, at the same time opening the door for criticisms based on anti-democratic principles and the first amendment.
Or as The West Wing would put it, you don’t hide your opponents, you give them front row seats, you make them cover and wallow on your victory.
The comparison of Trump and Nixon
Unlike Nixon, Trump lives in a very different media age. Complex intertwined media-logics, fake-news, the rise of online journalism, and social media echo-chambers give Trump something Nixon could only dream of: an unmediated connection to his core audience. Indeed, even the platform of social media communication benefits Trump’s own person style. Twitter’s character limit demands a simpler, straight-forward, message (Ott, 2017). Meanwhile he sends message out in such a frequency and on inconstant (but often related) messages that by the time he’s been fact-checked, the audiences gaze has already moved on. The media is chasing a President on his terms. Nothing is more telling for me of this is when, on the 4th February, BBC news gave it’s breaking news jingle and announced ‘We have some BBC breaking news from America where Donald Trump has just started tweeting’.
But what Nixon would be most envious of is that Trump’s political base isn’t found through high quality journalism, or even respected broadcast platforms. They are found through Trump’s own channels online, or through more supportive news channels. It’s no secret that organization sympathetic to the administration are given preferential treatment: Breitbart, One America News, and The Washington Times are all unharmed by the new ban on journalists.
It appears that the current press core, of perceivably hostile journalists, simply offer no advantage to Trump as he has other means to distribute his message. An option not open to Nixon at the time. At the time of writing, Trump has a Twitter following of over 25 million, and an extremely loyal base on the subreddit /r/the_donald of over 374,000. In comparison, the Wall Street Journal, the largest press paper in the US has a print circulation of 2.4million. While the influences of online media vs print remains an ongoing debate, the figures go some way into understanding Trumps order of preference.
So this all adds to one large question: given Trump’s current trajectory, will we see a President more distant from the press aside from a small cherry picked group of favorable reporters alongside his own social media channels?
And more importantly, will we find that Trump has more use in reinstating the White House swimming pool than retaining the press briefing room?
Jacobs, J.A. (2015). The White House and the Press. White House History, 37. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-president-the-press-and-proximity Kilpatick, C. (1970). A new Pressroom for White House, Washington Post [March 31st]. AI8. Liebovich, L.W. (2003). Richard Nixon, Watergate and the Press: A Historical Retrospective. Praeger Publishers Marshal, J. (2014). Nixton is Gone, but his media strategy lives on. The Atlantic, August 4th. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/nixons-revenge-his-media-strategy-triumphs-40-years-after-resignation/375274/ Matthews, C.J. (1997). Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. Free Press Ott, B.L. (2017) The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 34:1, 59-68, DOI:10.1080/15295036.2016.1266686