Trump vs. The Media - and the Scary JFK Precedents

News & Politics

Long before Election Day, Donald J. Trump, unhappy with media coverage of his campaign, alarmed many journalists and advocates of press freedoms with hostile remarks, promises and tweets.    

He threatened, as president, to try to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets.  He created a kind of blacklist to deny credentials to reporters from certain organizations in certain periods.   He ordered a leading Univision anchor out of a press conference after he asked an "impertinent" questions.   Trump singled out specific reporters at some rallies for scorn, and some in his audience then verbally attacked them and threatened violence.  In one speech, he mocked a New York Times reporter's physical disability.   After the first Saturday Night Live comedy sketch featuring Alec Baldwin's parody of him, Trump charged on Twitter:  "Media rigging election." 

And little more needs be said about his vendetta with Megyn Kelly, who he called, among other things, "a bimbo." 

Days after the election, he severely limited pool coverage of his visit to the White House.  Then his press spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, declared that criticism of Trump that week by Senator Harry Reid were "beyond the pale," and advised him to be careful in the "legal sense." 

The New York Times has been a recurring target.  In September, he promised to sue the Times after a particularly negative series of stories about him appeared.  More Trump tweets hitting the paper arrived, continuing after the election.  On the morning of September 13, with so many serious hiring decisions on his plate, he found time to tweet, "Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the 'Trump phenomena."   (The Times quickly denied it.)   Minutes later, Trump tweeted, "The @nytimes states today that DJT believes 'more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.' How dishonest are they. I never said this!"  Of course, he did say this, on camera. 

James Poniewozik, chief media writer at the Times, took a wider view in a series of Tweets:  "Sure, Trump is mad at the NYT. But this tweet is aimed as much, or more, at warning other news outlets, newspaper, TV, &c.  The message being, Cross me, and I’ll rally my voters, and you’ll lose audience and money.  Media outlets are susceptible to fear after political shocks: we’d better watch ourselves, get in line with the mood out there, &c."    

The Committee to Protect Journalist has called Trump a “threat to press freedom.”   Its board passed a resolution declaring Trump “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.”  Trump may not do this directly, but through his appointees to the Federal Communications and Justice Department.   

Of course, as president, Trump may even try to cozy up to the press.  Nearly every president has what might be called a "love/hate" relationship with the media.  Trump tilts far to the "hate" side right now but that may change, as his victory partly wipes out vindictiveness.

However, if history is a guide (and it is), any warming trend will likely be disrupted after 1) a series of leaks from a federal bureaucracy where many hate him or fear his policies 2) any national security crisis or terror attack.   It may surprise many to learn that the example of John F. Kennedy shows how quickly and severely this can occur.

Kennedy: Myth and Reality

Kennedy, by every measure, was one of America's most popular presidents, while in office and even more so in the decades since.   He was also a favorite of  reporters who covered the White House.   It didn't hurt that he had a beautiful and photogenic family and, after the dull Eisenhower years, that he brought wit, "vigor" (as he called it) and idealism to the Oval Office.  Unlike his predecessors he held press conferences about twice a month--and most of them were televised in full, attracting millions of viewers in the afternoon.   The three television networks thereby played a key role, enabling him to become the first President to speak directly to Americans on a frequent basis—live, unedited, and without a filter.  

Despite this, Kennedy had a low opinion of many reporters and resented critical media coverage and commentary. Privately, he called the press "the most privileged group" who regard any restrictions on national security coverage as "a limitation on their civil rights.  And they are not very used to it."  To his friend Ben Bradlee, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, he complained, “When we don’t have to go through you bastards we can really get our story to the American people.”

While his televised press conferences promoted his popularity, Kennedy’s honeymoon with much of the press had not survived his first spring in office. First he fenced with the media in April 1961 after asking them to keep secret the (misguided) plans for the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles. Just one outlet, The New York Times, published a vague report, but that was enough to get JFK’s blood boiling. 

Two weeks later, he delivered a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association that one can easily imagine Trump offering in the future, substituting terrorism for Communism.  He boldly asked “every publisher, every editor, and every newsman” to "reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril.” The U.S. was threatened around the globe by the Communist menace and “in time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort, largely based on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy.” At such a time, “the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.”

The Communist threat required an unprecedented change in outlook and “missions” not just by the government but by every newspaper. Each democracy, he said, recognizes the necessary restraints of national security—and the question in the U.S. was "whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed.” He railed against leaks published by the press that might tip off enemy powers. These leaks might have passed the test for journalism but not for national security, and Kennedy wondered aloud whether additional tests "should not now be adopted.” He urged his audience to give it “thoughtful consideration” and reexamine their “responsibilities.” 

When details of the speech were published, media commentators—with or without thoughtful consideration—rejected what many considered thinly veiled threats to impose new controls if the call for “self-restraint” was not heeded. Time magazine, under a headline announcing “The Press: No Self Censorship,” called the speech “ill conceived.” Even many Kennedy aides, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., felt he had gone too far.  The President backed off, but his views on press irresponsibility festered.   (Trump's views are already far more negative today.)

JFK's resentment was brought to the fore the following year when he approved the FBI tapping the phone of a prominent New York Times reporter, Hanson Baldwin-- and the paper's secretary in D.C.--after a Pentagon official leaked classified information on the Soviet nuclear missile program.  The tap remained for several weeks.

Against the Networks, Underground

Even more dramatic was Secretary of State Dean Rusk bullying CBS into canceling correspondent Daniel Schorr's plan to cover a risky escape via a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, and nearly accomplishing the same regarding an even more ambitious NBC primetime special several weeks later--the subject of my new book, The Tunnels

Declassified cables to and from the State Department, the White House, and the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, quoted in my book, detail the sustained efforts to suppress the two programs, over many days in the summer and autumn of 1962.  This included at least three confrontations between Rusk and network executives in his office, and several showdowns between U.S. diplomats and Dan Schorr in Germany.  In both cases, the networks had donated funds to the tunnelers in West Berlin. 

Cables reveal that JFK and Rusk feared that the two TV programs would suggest official U.S. support for escapes from East Berlin which might exacerbate the conflict with the Soviets in the world’s most dangerous Cold War hotspot.  America was now concentrating on shoring up its West German ally.  “We don’t care about East Berlin,” Kennedy told one of his top aides, McGeorge Bundy.

In the case of CBS,  U.S. diplomats tried to convince Schorr to drop his tunnel project in early August 1962 on grounds that it would “raise tensions.”   The chief of Berlin Mission’s politics desk advised a superior, “If Schorr does not agree, we may recommend CBS in US be approached by department.”

Rusk (with the approval of the White House) summoned the correspondent’s CBS boss, Blair Clark--a longtime friend of the President--to his office just before midnight on August 6, the eve of the tunnel escape.  Three CIA officials were also present.  Rusk convinced Clark to call the correspondent at that late hour and order him to desist.   

Minute minutes, Clark told Schorr that his coverage would amount to a “provocation.”  Rusk, before going home at that night, cabled an official in Berlin: “I saw Clark tonight and he agreed scrub CBS participation in tunnel project.”  To make sure, Rusk met with Clark again early the next morning. Diplomats in Germany, under orders from Rusk,  would soon warn Schorr to never try this again. 

Rusk informed his diplomats and the White House: “US officials have no apology for prompt actions taken with CBS and Schorr.  Schorr involved himself in a matter which was far beyond his private or journalistic responsibilities...”   The newsman would remain bitter until the end of his life, complaining that it was “a case of a boss of mine, who was a friend of President Kennedy, and it was possible for them to go to him and tell him, the President asks you to do this”--that is, cancel his coverage.  Would TV execs, especially at a certain cable news network, be able to resist such a demand from President Trump"?

Two months later, after learning that NBC, despite warnings from State, filmed the digging of a second tunnel, leading to the dramatic escape of 29 East Germans--and now planned a primetime special--the State Department blasted the project publicly.  Documents that I obtained for The Tunnels reveal that CBS, having axed its own program, was now, in an extraordinary step, lobbying the State Department to shut down NBC's scoop.    

George Ball, an undersecretary of defense, informed the State Department, in a perhaps unprecedented action, that Blair Clark “has justifiably asked whether his excellent cooperation in suppressing CBS effort on earlier tunnel project has in effect left CBS out in the cold. Department feels obliged give him all available information” relating to the NBC film.    The head of the Berlin Mission then cabled Rusk that U.S. journalists were not heeding State’s warnings.    He suggested that “most effective contact” might be with the media headquarters in the U.S.

Rusk moved to make NBC abandon its film and referred indelicately to the “wall escape problem.” His chief spokesman, in a statement cleared with the White House, labeled the program “irresponsible” and “not in the national interest.”   Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy told NBC's Sander Vanocur, “That was a terrible thing you people did, buying that tunnel.” 

When this did not get an immediate response, Rusk called NBC execs, the program's producer Reuven Frank (later president of the network), and correspondent Elie Abel to his office, again with the support of the White House.   NBC soon called off its airing that month.  Fearing the program would be cancelled, producer Frank wrote out his resignation. There was this positive conclusion, however:  Seven weeks after it had apparently killed The Tunnel, NBC quietly went ahead with airing the special, and it would wind up earning three Emmys, and became the only documentary to ever win the top Emmy for “Program of the Year.” It's now considered a landmark in television history. 


Shortly after, during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and his spokesmen misled or lied to the press on numerous occasions during the many days of top-secret discussions.   When the crisis ended peacefully, some in the media accepted the need for this, given the potential for nuclear conflict, but in the days that followed more criticism was expressed.   Many resented JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger’s repeated requests for self-censorship during the crisis.

Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester set off a firestorm when he admitted that the administration’s control of information was even tighter than during World War II, yet defended it, due to “the kind of world we live in.” It was important for the nation to speak with “one voice to your adversary.” He used a loaded new term in speaking favorably of government “management” of the news. 

The New York Times declared in an editorial that “management” or “control” of the news “is censorship described by a sweeter term.” The Times’ legendary Arthur Krock opined that “direct and deliberate action has been enforced more cynically and boldly” by this White House “than by any previous administration when the U.S. was not at war.” The Washington Star called Sylvester's comments, “truly sinister.” 

Sylvester’s views were largely shared at the White House, and one can easily imagine President Trump's support today in a similar atmosphere.  Kennedy himself had used the phrase “news management,” and Salinger believed that disinformation and even lies were justifiable measures in a conflict in which the enemy had the advantage of operating in secret. Privately, JFK admitted to his friend Ben Bradlee, now editing Newsweek, that the U.S. had indeed “lied” to the press during the Cuba crisis. 

"Project Mockingbird"

The Hanson Baldwin leak not only provoked an FBI probe but led Kennedy or order the CIA to establish an office to illegally monitor reporters and any pattern of leaks. This collecting of domestic intelligence on Americans shatteed the CIA's own charter and was formalized as Project Mockingbird. In the spring of 1963 this resulted in the wiretapping of two columnists, Robert S. Allen and Paul Scott, after they allegedly revealed classified secrets. The source of the leak was never identified. Other reporters were also monitored in this program until its end in 1965. 

When declassified documents revealed Mockingbird’s existence in 2007, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner observed, “So now the record is clear: Long before President Nixon created his ‘plumbers’ unit of CIA veterans to stop news leaks, President Kennedy tried to use the agency for the same goal.” The Times separately noted: “By ordering the director of central intelligence to conduct a program of domestic surveillance, Kennedy set a precedent that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and George W. Bush would follow.” 

And now:  will President Trump, citing his predecessors, revive such a program, or another far-reaching anti-media initiative?  He has this to inspire him in this:  Previous presidents who disliked the press never had so many Americans on their side. 

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