When Presidents and the Press Clash

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BOOK REVIEW: Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis

By Jon Marshall, Potomac Books

Reviewed by Bill Harlow

The Reviewer — Bill Harlow is The Cipher Brief’s senior book editor.  He is also a former chief spokesman for the CIA. From 1988 to 1992 he was Assistant White House Press Secretary for National Security.  A retired Navy captain, Harlow is the co-author of four New York Times bestsellers on intelligence and is the author of Circle William: A Novel which is about a time of crisis at the White House. Follow him on Twitter.

REVIEW — One of the main takeaways from Jon Marshall’s Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis is that just about every person who ever became President of the United States left office with a more unfavorable opinion of the press than the one they had when they entered office.

You’ve probably heard the 1787 Thomas Jefferson quote that, if left to him to decide “whether we should have a government with newspapers or newspapers without government” he would “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” But within a couple years of becoming president, Jefferson was saying that, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

Likewise, Woodrow Wilson campaigned for office saying he believed there was “no place where anything can be done that everybody else doesn’t know about” and that “Secrecy means impropriety.” A few years later, he was using the Espionage Act and Trading with the Enemy Act to give the government powers of censorship over communications.

This book lays out many anecdotes going back to the nation’s founding of the interaction (or lack thereof) between the commander in chief and those reporting about him. Marshall says that presidents, “have frequently tried to attack, restrict, manipulate, and demonize the press in order to strengthen their own power.” But he adds that those who “nurtured respectful relationships with reporters have more long-term success than those who don’t.”

(Note: Marshall elects to refer to the reporting class as “the press.” Producing stories without the aid of a printing press, using radio, television or the internet may have caused some to go with the term “media” but the author thinks that “press” covers the profession just fine.)

Another takeaway from Clash is that while mechanisms for reporting news, and the size and ubiquity of those doing so, may have grown exponentially – there are more similarities than you might imagine from the earliest days of American presidential press coverage and today.

In the election of 1800, a New York newspaper warned that if Thomas Jefferson were elected – Irish and French immigrants would flood the country and the nation would end up in a civil war. Meanwhile, a newspaper in Connecticut said if Jefferson’s opponent, John Adams won, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest, will be openly taught and practiced.”

Marshall is an associate professor at the Medill School of journalism at Northwestern University.  And so, it comes as no surprise that his solution to most problems is more journalism, greater access, and more transparency from presidential administrations.  And it is difficult to argue with his conclusion in many of the instances he cites.

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I suppose it comes as zero surprise that I, as someone who worked as a government spokesman for many years, find somewhat lacking in the book, much appreciation for the fact that at times, there are things that governments need to keep secret – at least for a while.

While the way administrations have gone about trying to plug leaks has often been ham-handed at best, the impression you get from Clash is that all leakers are good, and all secrecy is bad. Franklin Roosevelt comes out pretty well in the narrative thanks to his regular, skillful engagement with the press. However, Marshall notes that FDR was outraged when the Chicago Tribune published an article correctly suggesting that the U.S. had cracked the Japanese military code during World War Two. The legal case floundered, however, when the Navy refused to provide a grand jury the evidence that the code was actually broken.

While Marshall covers much American presidential press history from John Adams to Joe Biden, it is unclear why certain presidents made the cut in his narrative and others did not.  For example, he starts with a chapter on John Adams, then skips to Abraham Lincoln and then to Woodrow Wilson.  While the record of some presidents like Millard Fillmore and others of the distant past may not be rich, it is hard to understand why Marshall basically skips over the presidency of Jimmy Carter (which would seem to have been worth looking at, particularly because of the Iran hostage crisis.) And admittedly, I am biased (having worked in the Bush ‘41 White House) for wondering why that administration, which handled crises like the first Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union, gets almost no mention except for a couple of minor references in the chapter on Bush ’43.

If you know anyone taking a class at Northwestern from Professor Marshall, advise them to make sure they fully document any homework they submit to him because he clearly has a passion for endnotes.

There are 281 pages of text in the Clash – followed by 87 pages of endnotes and an additional 24 pages of bibliography. The only reason that the number of pages of reference material doesn’t exceed that of the actual text is that the typeface for the references is about half the size of the main body of work.  I’m not complaining about endnote overkill (well, maybe a little) it just seems the trees that were sacrificed in printing them would have suffered a more productive death if a few more presidencies had been included in the book.

Marshall sums up Clash by saying “Wise presidents do not demonize or try to suppress the press.” He adds that “Those who get along with journalists tend to be the ones remembered most favorably by future generations.”  This is a lesson that few presidents – especially recent ones – seem to have learned.

This book earns a solid three trench coats.



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