President's Day is tomorrow. Some might say it's been a rocky road for 45. And many of those saying that would be in the media. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it might be worth noting, that when it comes to the President and the Press very little has changed since our beginnings. Our Scott Thuman brings a little history and context to the conflict.
It's been a bumpy relationship, to say the least.
Trump: Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth.
The President, and those covering his every comment clashing in headline-grabbing battles.
Trump: I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news. You go ahead.
Although this sometimes contentious relationship between the President and the press started way before Trump, tweets, and a 24-hour news cycle. Even long before President Nixon famously banned the Washington Post from the White House.
Nixon tapes: No reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House again, and no photographer either - no photographer is that clear? None.
In fact, the gloves came off between the media and the President starting with the Nation's first. To explain, we take you from the White House to Washington's house, where Mark Santangelo is Mount Vernon's Chief Librarian.
Scott: Where are we right now?
Mark Santangelo: This is John and Adrienne Mars rare books room. And you’re inside our manuscript collection. We have anything that would be handwritten be it in the form of a bound diary or if it could be in a piece of paper like a letter that would be held within this collection.
That includes newspapers of the time, where innuendo and character assassination often made headlines.
Scott: So they were designed with partisan intent and they knew their readers were into it.
Dr. Joe Stoltz, Digital Historian: Oh absolutely yes. That's part of their marketing plan is to generate content that pulls a certain readership because they have a certain point of view. They want to perpetuate a certain point of view they would argue for you know and that newspaper is owned by someone that has the newspaper because they want to push their political opinion.
Scott: Sounds very much like today.
Dr. Joe Stoltz: In many ways yes.
These partisan newspapers, as opposite as Breitbart and Huffington Post might be - were influencing public opinion - all while George Washington was letting his own writing literally set the standard.
Mark Santangelo: So in front of us is one of the most expensive books in the world. This is George Washington's copy of the acts of Congress and this item is, on one hand, the C-Span of the day if you will. What we're looking at here you see the faint pencil marks in the margin. These are Washington's notes. This one paragraph down below talks about the state of the Union address and it's important. And Washington says in the margins “required” something we do to get to this very day.
Mark Santangelo: I think it's very interesting that Washington is his thumbprint is on this as it evolves.
Scott: the State of the Union has to occur it's required.
Mark Santangelo: It's required I, myself, and those following afterward we have to do this. Got to have good open communication.
Even though the government greybeards may have grumbled about the media, Washington refused to reign them in. The United States, he insisted, could not be heavy handed - like the crown.
Dr. Joe Stoltz: Even George Washington could not get past the scrutiny of the press the way he handles it though is: You have your newspaper friends. I have my newspaper friends and we'll see who the American people believe. What Washington's not going to do is. As president, the United States used the powers of the office of the President. To try and suggest to the press the way they should do something.
Scott: He stayed above that?
Dr. Joe Stoltz: Yeah. Washington wants to set the precedent that the offices of the United States should not interfere directly in the press.
And though our founding fathers didn't have to contend with Facebook, planting stories, even then, was a popular tactic.
Scott: And it’s fascinating. So you had people paying others to write articles that were in their favor.
Dr. Joe Stoltz: Yeah. These newspapers and anyone with a printing press is this is a very strong gatekeeper of what can get out into the public discourse. And so it behooves you if you're going to be making an argument. To have it worded the best way possible.
Four scores and 140 years later, and the feud between the fourth estate and those running the United States, can look eerily similar. Except, the focus can shift with nothing but a few clicks.
Dr. Joe Stoltz: Nowadays the emphasis is on being as concise and short as possible. In the 18th century, it was. As much emphasis placed on the style of how you got the message across.
Scott: Very different from the tweets?
Dr. Joe Stoltz: Good luck putting Jefferson's opinions about the French Revolution into one tweet.
That expensive book you saw - George Washington's copy of the Acts of Congress - was obtained at auction by a collector in the 1960s. In 2012, the collector's estate sold it at auction for 9.8 million to the nonprofit Mount Vernon Ladies' Association which returned the book to the first President's Virginia estate.