Taking Media Control “To A New Level”?

In a post earlier today, my colleague James complains about Obama’s criticism of the media, saying that it is a “difference in kind” to what Presidents have done in the past.

Obama has taken it to a new level to such an extent that a difference in degree may be a difference in kind. Not only is his team spending an inordinate amount of time going after the Fox News network and Republican talk radio hosts but they’re questioning the entire agenda of the mainstream press corps. They’re also not so subtly punishing those who dare question him and rewarding those who follow his agenda.

“Punishment,” of course, consists of lack of access to White House PR resources, while “reward” consists of access to those same PR resources. While I might question the prudence of calling out silly questions or pointing out the obvious that Fox News has a partisan agenda, this is hardly the stuff of concern. Indeed, in the past many Presidents have done far worse. For example,

  • In 1800, John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which made criticism of the President and other government officials illegal. Many newspaper editors were arrested and tried under this law, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Matthew Lyon, a Congressman, was also tried under the law.
  • At the same time, then Vice-President Thomas Jefferson actively paid newspaper reporters to dig up dirt on Alexander Hamilton and John Adams and provided funds for the publication of same.
  • During the Administration of President Andrew Jackson, an attempt was made to make it illegal to distribute abolitionist literature through the mail service.
  • During the Civil War, newspaper editors critical of Lincoln were jailed and the writ of habeus corpus suspended.
  • During World War I, President Wilson spearheaded the passage of the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the war effort or the Administration. Many editors and reporters were jailed under the Act.

And there are many other examples throughout the history of the United States. Obama’s criticism of the press isn’t even in the same league.

Update: James notes in an update to the post referenced that, after considering examples of earlier Presidnets such as those above that, “Rather than ‘new,” I should simply say he’s raised the bar compared to presidents in the post-Watergate era.”

But even post-Watergate, I’m not sure that Obama is more egregious than other Presidents. For example, Presidents Reagan and Bush I denied reporters access to the portions of combat in the Granda and Panama invasions. Bill Clinton often stonewalled reporters looking into scandals in his Administration. Under George W. Bush, blogger Josh Wolf was held for 226 days under a Federal contempt order for not giving up the source of a video showing a police officer choking an anti-war activist.

There are other examples, of course. And all the Presidents above have played games with reporters like arranging planted questions during press conferences, trading interviews in exchange for not releasing stories. Etc. Hell, George W. Bush hired Fox News reporter Tony Snow to work as his Press Secretary.

My point here is not to defend Obama, whose actions I find to be counterproductive and silly, but rather to point out that Presidents generally have an antagonistic relationship with the Press, sometimes stemming to the point of censorship and abuse, and other times merely walking a thin line.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Media, US Politics,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. When it comes to Fox there are two kinds of defenders: those who are in on the con, and marks or suckers.

    The people in on the con — that Fox is a news network — include Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch and most politicians and pundits. They defend Fox for strategic partisan reasons, knowing full well that it is essentially a partisan tabloid. I assume Joyner is in that category.

    The suckers are the Fox audience, people who defend Fox with a naive sincerity that must make Ailes laugh. Granted, he laughs all the way to the bank.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I believe Jackson’s kitchen cabinet, which was dominated by newspapermen, was perhaps the nadir of political media. You basically had the power of the press being augmented with political patronage and vice versa.

    The most loyal of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet was journalist Amos Kendall, who was eventually awarded the Postmaster General position in which he could censor the mails of anti-social views. Another member, Francis Blair was given control of the Washington Globe to disseminate the Jackson administration’s p.o.v., and then as a reward he got the contract to publish Congressional debates, which he used to suppress anti-administration speech.

  3. Alex Knapp says:


    Further proof that Andrew Jackson was perhaps the worst President in U.S. History.

  4. Wayne says:

    IMO Obama hasn’t done anything yet to justify accusing him of illegality. Not that he hasn’t done some things to upset many and they do have a right to speak out. His fixation with Fox and Rush doesn’t reflect well on him. Also many of the MSM are in his back pocket anyway and don’t hold him accountable.

    Now if they somehow succeed in passing the fairness doctrine, there should be great outrage.

    As for the sedition act, I don’t think many would consider it appropriate if Hitler was allowed to buy the NY Times so he could spread propaganda. However great care should be taken since it would be very easy to suppress legit free speech. Of course what qualifies as legit free speech and enemy propaganda is in itself very tricky.

    If the result of Lincoln not suspending some laws resulted in the North losing, would it have been worth it? Of course the ordeals Bush faced or Obama is facing are nowhere near as serious.

  5. Drew says:

    The historical perspective is interesting…….but

    I’m 52 years old. Not a newby. I simply have never seen a general media slurping the unit of a candidate/elected official in my life like President Obama. Its shamefull.

    I know there are singular anecdotes. But people, please. This guy has gotten the ultimate pass.

    When the (then candidate) Clinton’s are bitching…..and when Saturday Night Live is doing parody’s on this subject…….WTFU.

  6. democratsarefascists says:

    Fascism is nothing if not predictable.

    And as we know, all Democrats are FASCISTS.

  7. tom p says:

    “Hi Kettle. I’m Pot. You’re Black!”

    (or is that a little too “politically incorrect”?)