In his new book, Clash, Northwestern University professor Jon Marshall examines the adversarial relationship between Presidents and journalists amid periods of national crisis. We asked him to pick five moments when that conflict proved especially consequential.
John Adams uses the newly enacted Alien and Sedition Acts to muzzle his press critics. Despite more than 100 prosecutions at the federal and state levels, the move ultimately backfires. “It was causing lots of excitement and controversy,” Marshall says, “which in the end drove up news-paper sales.”
After Abraham Lincoln suggests that free Black Americans move to Central America, an outraged abolitionist press amplifies its calls to outlaw slavery. “With pressure from the abolitionist press and concern about the war,” Marshall says, “Lincoln secretly drafted the Emancipation Proclamation that summer.”
The Woodrow Wilson administration uses new legislation outlawing expressions of disloyalty to prosecute journalists. Among those arrested are employees of a magazine that had published cartoons critical of the war effort. “It was definitely a period of great repression against the free press,” Marshall says.
With some of the country’s leading papers railing against government expansion associated with the New Deal, FDR turns to a novel piece of technology—the radio. “He starts holding his fireside chats,” Marshall says, “as a way to get around the gatekeepers—these powerful publishers whom he was in conflict with.”
Richard Nixon’s administration devises a new way to delegitimize journalists, branding them as “elites” and describing them as “the media,” which, according to Marshall, makes the press seem like something “you should be concerned about in the same way you are about crime or drugs.”
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Washingtonian.