Steven Spielberg’s "The Post" was just nominated for an Academy Award in the coveted Best Picture category. The film exposes how far the Nixon administration tried to go to silence the press and it proves how vital free speech is to a thriving democracy.
But that’s not what makes this motion picture so relevant to our time. Throughout the film, the similarities between President Nixon and President Trump are palpable, just as Spielberg intended them to be. That works beautifully if you’re lumping together two presidents as unpopular as these two, seemingly standing alone in open defiance against the media of their time. It’s a very “us vs. them” message that I’m sure has resulted in a lot of chest thumping and high-fiving among certain members of the press.
While promoting the film, Tom Hanks said President Trump is leading a “guerrilla war” against the media. Spielberg told The Guardian: “The level of urgency to make the movie was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press." Hanks and Spielberg make statements like these as if every president (and every Founding Father) before President Trump didn’t also have their own “climate” of contention with the media of their day. They make it seem like every complaint from this administration is some kind of unprecedented “attack” against the media. And Spielberg directs "The Post" to portray the Nixon administration in a similar fashion. The film’s characters exclaim things like “Jefferson just rolled over in his grave!” and “This has never happened before! Not in the history of the Republic!”
But are those characterizations accurate? President Nixon was hardly the first president to take umbrage with the press and President Trump will hardly be the last. In fact, I could not find a single former president that hadn’t made multiple "attacks" against the media of his day. President Obama, for example, repeatedly went after the news outlet that was hardest on him. In 2009, his communications director told the New York Times: “We’re going to treat [Fox News] the way we would treat an opponent, as they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House. We don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave."
I wonder how many news organizations President Trump feels are “undertaking a war” against him. Is it okay for the Obama administration to treat Fox News as an “opponent,” but not okay for the Trump administration to do the same with CNN? It’s easy to love the media when they love you back but no president has skated by without being held accountable by at least some members of the press. And thank goodness for that. Imagine the state of affairs America would be in without the fourth estate of journalism!
The Founding Fathers may have designed the Constitution so that a free press could check abuses of executive power, but that doesn’t mean those same men appreciated it when they became the media's target. It was President Thomas Jefferson, not Trump, who said that “[n]othing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."
Even President George Washington, who was treated more kindly by the media of his time than any president since, was so fed up with the press that by the end of his second term in office he wanted to use part of his farewell address (which he knew would be read by the entire nation) to condemn newspapers. According to historian Ron Chernow, he planned to say that “they teemed with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent to misrepresent my politics.” The final, more statesmanlike farewell address that Washington delivered was actually written for him by Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton, too, thought that the press could go too far. As a victim of repeated press abuse himself, he declared: “I consider this spirit of abuse and calumny as the pest of society. I know the best of men are not exempt from the attacks of slander." President John Adams went further than any of these by signing into law the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, giving Congress authority to fine and imprison anyone that did “write, print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against any members of government. It was under the terms of this law that over twenty newspaper editors were arrested and many were even imprisoned.
It’s difficult to believe the First Amendment was attacked so blatantly only seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified. But such attacks are the norm for presidents, not some unprecedented exception. Maybe the constant complaints of President Trump against the media aren’t so unprecedented after all. We don’t need to speculate about the way past presidents saw the media of their time. For better or worse, they chose their own words deliberately and sometimes even defiantly. We don’t need Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks or anyone else to pretend otherwise. Their words speak for themselves.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.