Presidents often confused about key role of the press

Edmund Shelby
Edmund Shelby

Donald Trump repeatedly charges the media with being “dishonest.” His chief adviser, Steve Bannon, calls the press “the opposition party” and says it should “keep its mouth shut.”

American presidents and the press have had a complex and often strained relationship.

Thomas Jefferson, who faced challenges with the press, said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

A reviewer of Graham J. White’s book “F.D.R. and the Press” said, “White concludes that Roosevelt’s plan was to disarm those he saw as the foes of democracy (including the press) by accusing them of unfairly maligning him.”

When ordering the break-in at the Brookings Institution to retrieve Department of Defense documents stored there, Richard Nixon asked his staff, “Do you think, for Christ’s sake, that the New York Times is worried about all the legal niceties? Those sons-of-bitches are killing me. They’re using any means. We’re going to use any means.”

John F. Kennedy, speaking to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1961, referred to Francis Bacon’s conclusion in the 17th Century that three inventions — the compass, gunpowder and the printing press — were transforming the world. “And so it is 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,” he said.

Presidents might not like it, but they know and understand that they must share power with the legislative and judicial branches of government. However, they often have trouble understanding the role in our democracy of the fourth estate, the press.

With all of its faults, the free press is the one institution in public life that is not tethered to the government. Its role is to examine government and inform the public of what their government is doing, good or bad. It therefore acts as a check on corruption, abuses of power and violations of our Constitution.

Our Founding Fathers thought that a free press was so important that they said in Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The courts have, through the years, seen that constitutional right of a free press as the basis for numerous rulings favoring the press in protection of sources and revelations of governmental wrongdoing.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky has one of the strongest reporter shield laws in the country, to protect the work of journalists from the power of government.

Politicians can like it or not, but the truth is that a free and vigorous press plays a crucial part in preserving all Americans’ freedoms.

Therefore, despite what Bannon wants, the press will not sit down and shut up, and he is going to have to get used to it. Remember what President Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Edmund Shelby of Clay County is a retired journalist and a former president of the Kentucky Press Association.