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The Complicated History Between the Press and the Presidency

Banning a newspaper like the ‘Post’ is a move that wouldn’t fly even in the Nixon White House

(National Archives)
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On Monday, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump sent out a tweet reading, “Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.”

The tweet was in response to a headline the newspaper posted that day about Trump’s comments on the Orlando mass shooting, which first read, “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting," and then was edited before Trump's comments to read, “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting".

Over the course of his campaign, Trump has denied or revoked press credentials from several outlets, including the Huffington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Beast, the Des Moines Register, the New Hampshire Union Leader and Univision, NPR reports. As a candidate, Trump’s campaign has control over who attends its rallies and which media outlets they choose to cooperate with. If he were to win the presidency, similar bans on press outlets would be without precedent.

According to Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy, to get a press pass to the White House briefing room, a reporter needs to pass a few checkpoints. First, he or she needs to be approved by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, an association of reporters that approves press passes for Congress. To get into the White House, reporters then need to go through a Secret Service background check. Keating says there about 2,000 reporters with “hard passes” allowing them access to the White House, which can be renewed every year. While the White House does have the power to revoke passes, it rarely pulls passes except for security reasons or unusual circumstances, like a 2001 incident in when freelancer Trude Feldman was caught rifling through a press aide’s desk drawer. Even then, Feldman was suspended for 90 days, but didn't have her pass unilaterally revoked.

George Condon, longtime White House reporter and former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association tells Andrew Rafferty and Alex Seitz-Wald at NBC that he knows of “no instance of any newspaper having its [White House] credentials pulled” since the inception of the correspondents' association in 1914.

But that’s not to say media outlets haven’t earned a president’s displeasure. The Washington Post has been a target for several administrations—most notably, after the newspaper broke the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon banned reporters from anywhere in the White House outside the press briefing room.

As famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward tells NBC, “The Nixon White House did not formally pull press credentials of the Post but did begin excluding the Post from covering social events at the White House.” 

In an audio recording, Nixon threatens to fire his press secretary Ron Ziegler if he ever let a Post reporter in.

“I want it clearly understood that from now on, ever, no reporter from The Washington Post is ever to be in the White House. Is that clear?” Nixon says on the tape. “No church service, nothing that Mrs. Nixon does…and no photographers either… Now that is a total order, and if necessary I’ll fire you, do you understand?” 

Lyndon Johnson had a much different relationship with the paper, and in 1963 during a phone conversation he flirts with the Post’s editor Katherine Graham, saying he regretted just talking to her on the phone and wishing that he could be “like one of these young animals on my ranch and jump the fence” to go see her.

But his charm on the phone was likely just a manipulation tactic. Johnson was a keen observer of the media and often tried to wield his influence behind the scenes, even with the Post. As Michael R. Beschloss writes in his book, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963-1964, in transcripts of his tapes, Johnson calls in FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to see if they can pressure the paper after learning they are planning to run an editorial that would call for a commission to investigate President Kennedy’s assassination, which Johnson opposed. Hoover and Johnson both contacted Post reporters in an attempt to kill the story.

Gerald Ford never made a statement about the Post, but indirectly blamed the paper for his reputation as a klutz, as immortalized by Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live". During a visit to Salzburg, Austria, in 1975, Ford fell while descending the stairs of Air Force One. According to Mark Rozell's book, The Press and the Ford Presidency, the Post ran an image of the incident on its front page along with a story that said “the fall summarized the journey. Stumble, fumble, tumble and jumble.”

The image of a bumbling president stuck, and is still part of his legacy today. In his memoir Time to Heal, Ford says, “From that moment on, every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else. The news coverage was harmful.”

Uncomfortable presidential-press relations date back to George Washington, who "expressed dismay" that his farewell might not be properly covered in the press. Undoubtedly other presidents have had beefs with the Washington Post, and many other outlets without the same national profile. While relations vary—William McKinley had a yellow-headed Mexican parrot named “Washington Post” who was the official greeter for the White House—the dance between reporters and the commander-in-chief has always been seen as a necessity for the nation to function. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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