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Homepage / Journalism / How do Trump's feelings about the free press compare to previous presidents?

Journalism

How do Trump’s feelings about the free press compare to previous presidents?

Recently, Donald Trump sent out a tweet indicating that he would like to see the Senate Intelligence Committee investigate what he calls the “fake” news media. This sent up red flags for journalists, since the president is essentially saying that congress should investigate the free press, which is protected by the first amendment.

Famed White House correspondent Helen Thomas once said “All presidents rail against the press. It goes with the turf,” and while Trump’s words may be among the harshest and most frequent, he is far from the only president to lash out at the media.

While Richard Nixon is the only other U.S. President to refer to the press as “the enemy,” others have had plenty to say about the role of the press of their day or a free press in society. Some have cast the press in a positive light and others in a negative light. Thomas Jefferson, did both. Here are 45 quotes from presidents about the press:

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
-Thomas Jefferson

Note: Donald Trump used this quote at a rally in Melbourne.

This quote is harsh, as are many by Jefferson. However, Jefferson was a big supporter of a free press with no restraints who favored the government placing no limits on the media’s first amendment protections.

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.
-Thomas Jefferson

But, Jefferson might actually agree with Trump’s repeated refrain of a “dishonest media.”

The advertisements are the most truthful part of a newspaper.
-Thomas Jefferson

Teddy Roosevelt was fine with the press sinking it’s teeth in to controversial issues and holding the powerful accountable, but he felt they went too far at times.

The men with the muck-rake are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.
-Theodore Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt believed a free press to be the bedrock of all other rights and freedoms, and he wasn’t the only president to assert that viewpoint.

Freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.
-Thomas Jefferson

Absolute freedom of the press to discuss public questions is a foundation stone of American liberty.
-Herbert Hoover

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.
-James Madison

That the General Assembly doth particularly protest against the palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution, in the two late cases of the “Alien and Sedition Acts” passed at the last session of Congress; the first of which exercises a power no where delegated to the federal government, and which by uniting legislative and judicial powers to those of executive, subverts the general principles of free government; as well as the particular organization, and positive provisions of the federal constitution; and the other of which acts, exercises in like manner, a power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto; a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.
-James Madison

I’m pretty blunt and pretty frank about the fact that societies that repress journalists ultimately oppress people as well, and that if you want a society that is free and vibrant and successful, part of that formula is the free flow of information, of ideas, and that requires a free press.
-Barack Obama

But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press.
-John Adams

The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.
-John Adams

I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.
-George W. Bush

Because of the media’s responsibility to hold government officials accountable, all presidents should expect to face an adversarial press at times. Many have handled unfavorable reporting with humor.

We’ve uncovered some embarrassing ancestors in the not-too-distant past. Some horse thieves, and some people killed on Saturday nights. One of my relatives, unfortunately, was even in the newspaper business.
-Jimmy Carter

If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: “President Can’t Swim.”
-Lyndon B. Johnson

“It is not always easy. Your successes are unheralded — your failures are trumpeted. I sometimes have that feeling myself.”
-John F. Kennedy

Some presidents handled an adversarial press with grace and the understanding that though the reporting may be unfavorable, the media was holding elected officials accountable.

There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.
-John F. Kennedy

No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.
-Thomas Jefferson

To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.
-James Madison

And as I’ve said elsewhere, a free press helps make a nation stronger and more successful, and it makes us leaders more effective because it demands greater accountability.’
-Barack Obama

There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake.
-Theodore Roosevelt

A few presidents have responded to media hostility with some hostility of their own.

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing, but newspapers.
-Thomas Jefferson

The press is the enemy.
-Richard M. Nixon

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
-Donald Trump

FAKE NEWS media, which makes up stories and “sources,” is far more effective than the discredited Democrats – but they are fading fast!
-Donald Trump

The American people are entitled to see the president and to hear his views directly, and not to see him only through the press.
-Richard M. Nixon

The failing @nytimes writes total fiction concerning me. They have gotten it wrong for two years, and now are making up stories & sources!
-Donald Trump

And some presidents have expressed a desire to place limits on freedom of the press at times.

Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but there is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

I do ask every publisher, every editor, and every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril. In time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort based largely on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy. In time of “clear and present danger,” the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.
-John F. Kennedy

For many occupants of the office of President, the idea of limiting the first amendment or silencing journalists was the end of liberty and the start of dictatorship.

I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.
-Thomas Jefferson

By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeas corpus, no standing armies. These are fetters against doing evil which no honest government should decline.
-Thomas Jefferson

We have our difficulties, true; but we are a wiser and a tougher nation than we were in 1932. Never have there been six years of such far flung internal preparedness in all of history. And this has been done without any dictator’s power to command, without conscription of labor or confiscation of capital, without concentration camps and without a scratch on freedom of speech, freedom of the press or the rest of the Bill of Rights.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press.
-Calvin Coolidge

As unbalanced parties of every description can never tolerate a free inquiry of any kind, when employed against themselves, the license, and even the most temperate freedom of the press, soon excite resentment and revenge.
-John Adams

This security of the freedom of the press requires, that it should be exempt, not only from previous restraint by the executive, as in Great Britain, but from legislative restraint also; and this exemption, to be effectual, must be an exemption not only from the previous inspection of licensers, but from the subsequent penalty of laws.
-James Madison

If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
-Harry Truman

Considering the great importance to the public liberty of the freedom of the press, and the difficulty of submitting it to very precise rules, the laws have thought it less mischievous to give greater scope to its freedom than to the restraint of it.
-Thomas Jefferson

“If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
-George Washington

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
-Thomas Jefferson

“It astonishes me to find… [that so many] of our countrymen… should be contented to live under a system which leaves to their governors the power of taking from them the trial by jury in civil cases, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the habeas corpus laws, and of yoking them with a standing army. This is a degeneracy in the principles of liberty… which I [would not have expected for at least] four centuries.”
-Thomas Jefferson

To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement
-Thomas Jefferson

Several of our presidents believed that the media should be the thought-leaders in society and sought a press that would expand horizons rather than confirm pre-existing biases and world views.

The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral and social being
-Thomas Jefferson

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. … And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. This means greater coverage and analysis of international news — for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security. … And so it is to the printing press — to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news — that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.
-John F. Kennedy

George W. Bush famously didn’t watch much news while he was president, and Thomas Jefferson found that the best way to deal with a critical press was to not partake in its offerings at all.

I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely happier for it.
-Thomas Jefferson

While Donald Trump watches the news more than his most recent predecessors, the current occupant of the White House has called the press the enemy of the people, fake, and called for an investigation into the free press.

Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!
-Donald J. Trump

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