A Brief History of Presidents Punishing the Press

No White House in the last 100 years has yanked a credential the way Trump's did to Jim Acosta. But they've found other ways to get back at disfavored reporters.

President Theodore Roosevelt kept close counsel with some journalists but lashed out at those he felt covered him unfairly.
AP Photo
Nov. 8, 2018, 6:03 p.m.

Every president in the last 100 years has at times been livid at stories written about him. Some even threatened to ban offending reporters from the White House. But none of the 18 ever followed through and stripped any reporter of credentials until President Trump on Wednesday night barred Jim Acosta of CNN from the building.

To find a precedent for a president lashing out like this, you would have to go back more than a century to one of Trump’s predecessors, one who set a pretty high standard for punishing reporters he did not like. That was Theodore Roosevelt, who mixed some harsh reprisals in with generous praise when dealing with the press after he succeeded to the presidency in 1901. Every day, he invited a small group of favored reporters to join him while he was being shaved. Other reporters disparaged them as “praise agents” or “fair-haired boys,” according to Kathleen Dalton’s book Theodore Roosevelt, A Strenuous Life. Those who wrote favorable stories were befriended; those who crossed him were cast out of the shaving group and banished to his Ananias Club, which he named after the biblical figure who was struck dead for lying to the apostle Peter.

Not even Trump’s white-hot hostility to Acosta and the network he brands as “fake news” can match TR’s eruption after Jesse Carmichael of the Boston Herald wrote a White House Thanksgiving story in 1904. Carmichael reported—inaccurately—that the president’s sons had chased a turkey around the White House lawn, cruelly pulling its feathers “while the president looked on and laughed.” Furious, Roosevelt banned all the paper's reporters from the White House and from all other federal agencies. He then ordered the U.S. Weather Bureau to withhold all its bulletins about impending storms from anyone in Boston. In that, Dalton wrote, Roosevelt went too far and “could not get away with punishing a whole city.” Frantic, the co-owner of the paper sent an abject apology to Roosevelt, begging forgiveness for what he called “a silly blunder.”

No modern president has gone so far to retaliate for objectionable stories. Access to the White House did not really become an issue until Woodrow Wilson held the first true presidential press conference. His sessions were off the record, drawing reporters who weren’t really reporters but came to be called “tipsters,” looking for inside information to help them in the stock market. To counter that, the White House Correspondents’ Association was formed in 1914 with the sole purpose of determining who could cover the president and attend his press conferences.

Unlike today, it was the correspondents denying access to the building. In October 1923, their target was Deets Pickett, a representative of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals. To the dismay of President Coolidge, the WHCA barred Pickett from a press conference, saying the group would stand tall against “paid propagandists, press agents, brokers and market tipsters.” Not wishing to offend Methodists, a month later the White House for the first time pushed the WHCA aside and claimed for itself “full authority to make and enforce exceptions” to be invited to press conferences.

In 1937, the WHCA still had enough clout to force anyone attending a press conference to sign a statement that they were not a “tipster” profiting from confidential information. Self-policing was the policy. When Ralph Waldo of the McClure Syndicate wrote that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been “found in a coma at his desk” and favorably quoted a business executive saying that “a couple of well-placed bullets would be the best thing for the country,” the president objected. But he took no reprisals. Instead, the correspondents themselves punished Waldo, with the National Press Club expelling him and the WHCA toughening its rules.

But the trend toward more White House control was inexorable. In 1941, for the first time, the White House fingerprinted reporters and made them carry passes. That same year, FDR bristled at questions about a third term and jokingly ordered the offending questioner from The New York Times to go in a corner, “put on the dunce cap and stand with your back to the crowd.” In 1942, with a world war on, Roosevelt was not joking after a conservative war correspondent, John O’Donnell, wrote a mocking story about war censorship; FDR lashed out.

According to Betty Houchin Winfield’s book FDR and the News Media, he gave a Nazi Iron Cross to another reporter, instructing him to give it to O’Donnell for his aid to the enemy. In 1945, when O’Donnell, back from overseas duty, applied for White House credentials, the president ordered the request be denied. FDR relented only when Steve Early, his top press aide, threatened to quit if the president persisted.

In the decades to come, the White House and the Correspondents’ Association kept batting back responsibility for credentialing. The WHCA tried to bar first radio reporters and then television reporters, only to be overruled by the White House. Similarly, the WHCA wanted to limit credentials to those who write for daily publication. Before his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy overruled them, clearing the way for more black reporters since most of the Negro press of the day were weekly papers. Burned, the WHCA began turning credentialing questions over to the White House. Scott McClellan, press secretary to President George W. Bush, reflected how antsy White Houses were to have the tough questions dumped in their lap. “I don’t think it’s the role of the press secretary to get into picking or choosing who gets press credentials,” he said in 2005. In response, the WHCA board met and reaffirmed it wanted to stay out of the credentialing process.

Between 1945 and Trump this week, no president yanked the credentials of any reporter for writing an offending story. (In 1986, the Voice of America pulled its Radio Martí reporter off the White House beat for asking a tough question of President Reagan. But there was no indication the president had anything to do with that.) Instead, angry presidents in those years resorted to smaller tactics to convey their unhappiness.

Lyndon Johnson banned reporters from the side door to the West Wing so he would not have to face questions. Then, in 1965, angry that reporters were waiting outside a meeting room in the Old Executive Office Building, he ordered that all reporters be barred from the building. During Johnson’s presidency, the Secret Service refused to credential Robert Sherrill of The Nation, later citing a fistfight Sherrill had with an aide on LBJ’s campaign train and calling him a physical threat to the president. Sherrill sued and prevailed in court but refused to again apply for a pass.

In 1972, when Beijing put a hard limit of 87 on the press who could accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China, Nixon personally handpicked the list, rewarding friends and punishing those who had been tough on him. In 1969, he also had his staff prepare a 26-page list of White House reporters in two categories—“Those We Can Count On” and, much longer, “Those We Can Never Count On.”

For all his fuming in private, Nixon in public could display a subtlety certainly missing in the current actions by the Trump White House.

Stuart Loory of the Los Angeles Times saw that in September 1970. One of Nixon’s least favorite reporters because he asked so many tough questions, Loory had been banned from White House pools, the smaller press contingent used on trips and in the Oval Office when the whole press corps could not practically cover something. Loory bristled at the exclusion but soon learned to be careful what you wish for. In an interview before his death with author Richard Reeves, Loory recalled his surprise when he was named to the pool covering the president’s visit to the carrier Saratoga in the Mediterranean. When he asked press secretary Ron Ziegler what happened, Ziegler responded, “I told him you get terribly seasick.”

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