President Donald Trump has made it almost a theme of his presidency to declare war against the media. And the media have decided to use all of their resources to fight back.
You can’t go a day, much less a week, without hearing of Trump tweeting about the “fake news,” and you can’t go an hour without the media reporting on something he’s done or said. It’s a war of power, essentially.
Trump has declared that “no politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly” by the media. Accuracy of the claim aside, he should have realized and expected, with historical precedent, that this is not new war. In fact, it’s a war that is as old as the United States.
Andrew Jackson was one of the first leaders to have the vilest, most false, most despicable press attacks against him during his electoral campaign in 1828. It was a series of pamphlets called “Coffin Handbills,” passed around the U.S., accusing Jackson of all manner of crimes.
Jackson was a national hero from the War of 1812, having led U.S. forces to defend New Orleans successfully against over 14,000 British troops. That did not stop the pamphleteers, who accused him of murdering six militiamen in the Creek War in 1818. (Their coffins are prominently displayed in the pamphlets, hence the label “Coffin Handbill.”)
Written in sensational “eye-witness” accounts, the Coffin Handbills accused Jackson of all manner of violent and sexual events, from sleeping around hundreds of dead corpses to adultery and cannibalism of dead militiamen.
“Would you believe it, ‘gentle reader,'” one of the most well-known pamphlets said, “this monster, this more than cannibal, Gen. Andrew Jackson, eat the whole Six Militiamen at one meal!!! Yes, my shuddering countrymen, he swallowed them whole, coffins and all, without the slightest attempt at mastication!!!!!!” The excessive exclamation marks in the original surely make it a bizarre but also scandalous read.
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When Jackson got word of this, he shot back, accusing the incumbent, President John Quincy Adams and Jackson’s rival in the election, of being a womanizer and “pimp of the coalition” for the Tsars (whom one Jackson aide called a “lascivious monarch”) when Adams was ambassador to the Russian Empire. It was not a pretty time.
Fast-forward to President Abraham Lincoln — and you’ll see the press was as split as the nation was during the 1860s, and not just among Southerners who naturally viewed him as a tyrant.
Northern Union newspapers also smeared Lincoln during the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation was dubbed by the Chicago Times “a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.”
A Columbus, Ohio, newspaper wrote, “We have no doubt that this Proclamation seals the fate of this Union as it was and the Constitution as it is … The time is brief when we shall have a DICTATOR PROCLAIMED, for the Proclamation can never be carried out except under the iron rule of the worst kind of despotism.”
A secretary to Lincoln, William Stoddard, called them the “opposition press,” and the president later issued an executive order allowing the arrest and imprisonment of “irresponsible” journalists, mostly “Copperheads” who were Southern sympathizers.
Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, used the press to his advantage and was among the more sophisticated of America’s leaders to use publicity for support. But as much of a “media darling” as he was, that did not stop the press from reporting critically negative events about him.
Take his “shocking” dinner with Booker T. Washington in October of 1901, where the two discussed race relations and violence against blacks. That sent southern politicians and newspapers into a frenzy, with a 14-stanza poem being distributed in many newspapers titled “N****rs in the White House.”
The author, who is anonymous, had this work published in Missouri’s Sedalia Sentinel, the Greenwood Commonwealth in Mississippi, the Kentucky New Era, among many others. It envisioned “six months hence, perhaps” with “n****rs running everywhere,” listing every room in the White House. The last stanza in particular was racially provocative: “But everything is settled / Roosevelt is dead; n****rs in the White House / Cut off Teddy’s head.”
Southern Democratic politicians wrapped themselves around this poem and this scandal. Democratic Sen. Cole Blease actually inserted the poem into resolution to “respect the White House” in 1929, reading it aloud in the Senate. The resolution and the poem were unanimously rejected. Republican Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut called the incident “indecent, obscene doggerel.”
Woodrow Wilson also issued edicts against the newspapers of World War I, and government officials harassed some newspapers editors.
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was hit by all sides for his views. Liberal newspapers, among them The New York Times and The Washington Post, harped harshly, meanly and unethically against the president.
They mocked his ideology, his positions, his successes, his failures. It was so bad that even with successes like the impending unity of Germany, The Times published a letter to the editor arguing against it.
During the 1988 Republican Convention, U.S. News & World Report Editor Roger Rosenblatt said the Reagan legacy was “a dangerous failure at least in terms of programs. A mess in Central America, neglect of the poor, corruption in government … And the worst legacy of all, the budget deficit, the impoverishment of our children.” The facts and history now show how untrue that statement was. It was worse. It was a deliberate liberal lie.
In Reagan’s eight years and all his conflicts with the Soviets, not once did The Post ever editorially and unconditionally support “the Gipper” over the Kremlin. They hated him and America that much. Even in death, the despicable Post attacked the dead Reagan.
Even when the Soviets killed innocent civilians, The Post only occasionally and lightly slapped the murderous, thuggish and evil Communists on the wrist. The lying liberals of the unethical Post still predominate, even as almost everybody in Real America tunes out the paper’s foul filth.
Before Trump became president, he already had the press against him. Now that he has the powers of the presidency, the media have attacked him nearly nonstop. That is their right, and that should never be taken away. But it is not unique to Trump.
The media attacked Jackson, Lincoln, Reagan, and George H.W. and George W. Bush. Gerald Ford, one of our most athletic presidents, was widely mocked and parodied for his gaffes and falling-down antics. Lest we forget one of the funnier “Saturday Night Live” skits, with Chevy Chase dressed as a perplexed Ford during a debate: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.” Ford took it in stride.
President Trump should understand the parodies are an unwritten rule for the presidency, or any public job. You have to laugh them off. As for the so-called fake news, this isn’t the first time the media have attacked a president unwarranted.
It’s expected, and as president, just as Reagan tuned out the liberal creeps of the commentariat, Trump should learn to tune it out. The American people have.
Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and presidential historian. He has written four books on President Ronald Reagan, along with his latest book, “Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” about the early career of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois, the 40th president’s alma mater. He also wrote the critically acclaimed “December 1941.” Scott Mauer is a research assistant for Craig Shirley.
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