The Obama-Fox press war can't hold a flame to the one FDR waged in the 1930s.

Media criticism.
Oct. 26 2009 6:35 PM

This Obama-Fox War Ain't Nothin'

For a genuine presidential war on the press, see the one FDR waged in the 1930s.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Click image to expand.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

How touchy can you get?

The White House fires a few pop-guns in the direction of Fox News Channel, and suddenly everybody from Louis Menand in The New Yorker to Michael Scherer in Time to Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post is heralding the Obama administration's declaration of war on Rupert Murdoch's cable station.

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The direct declaration came not from Barack Obama, but underlings Anita Dunn, who called Fox the communications arm of the GOP; David Axelrod, who said Fox isn't really a news station; and Rahm Emanuel, who invoked the president's views to say, "It's not a news organization so much as it has a perspective." The closest His Obamaness has come to criticizing Fox on the record was in June, when he complained of "one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration."

Where I come from, these observations would barely count as basketball-court trash talk, let alone words of war. The blame for upgrading low-level bickering to all-out combat has got to go to the press, which loves nothing better than to talk about itself. (That includes me, of course.)

To get a genuine picture of what a war on the press looks like, you can't fan the pages of Nexis for grouchy things George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or even Richard Nixon said about reporters, newspapers, and networks. You've got to go back to the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt raged against the press like noisy clockwork.

Roosevelt's fury couldn't have been more displaced, in part because newspapers and reporters received him like a conquering hero after his 1932 election, reports Graham J. White in his 1979 book, FDR and the Press:

The initial victory of Franklin Roosevelt over the Washington press was swift and glorious. Demonstrating a virtuosity that amazed them, the new president took the Capital correspondents by storm, winning, from the outset, their affection and admiration; securing, over the crucial early stages of the New Deal, their allegiance and support.

In June 1934, Raymond Clapper, one of the president's top acolytes in the Washington press corps, published a piece in the well-respected magazine Review of Reviews titled "Why Reporters Like Roosevelt." But the big love between the president and the press didn't last much longer. Although Roosevelt charmed reporters in hope of gaining their approval, feeding his favorites in the press corps "exclusives" and access, he thought poorly of many of them, regarding them undereducated fools.

Roosevelt especially disliked "interpretive reporting," which Time and Newsweek were popularizing, writes Betty Houchin Winfield in her 1990 book, FDR and the News Media. Roosevelt recoiled when a reporter asked him what interpretive angle the president would take if he were to write a piece about the Democratic Party's 1934 landslide victory. "I think it is a mistake for newspapers to go over into that field in the news stories," Roosevelt said. His prescription for what reporters should do for readers: "Give them the facts and nothing else." (One can almost see Dunn and Axelrod giving Fox the same advice.)

The president reserved his greatest disdain for press proprietors, whom he blamed for what he considered unfair and distorted coverage. "It is not the reporter" who is responsible for "colored news stories and the failure on the part of some papers to print the news," Roosevelt said in December 1935. "It goes back to the owner of the paper."

Such press barons as William Randolph Hearst, Robert R. McCormick, and Frank Gannett originally swooned for Roosevelt, but as the new president began expanding state power, they reconsidered. In his forthcoming book Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, Jeff Shesol isolates the Roosevelt initiatives that earned the press barons' ire. For instance, they seethed over the "newspaper code" portions of Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in June 1933. Publishers viewed the act—which covered work, wages, and fair practices common in other industries—as an attack on press freedom. Publishers were also horrified by Roosevelt's 1937 court-packing plan, designed to neutralize the Supreme Court that had been striking down his New Deal programs, viewing it as a power grab.

When one of McCormick's reporters from the Chicago Tribune asked Roosevelt at a press conference about the dangers implicit in the newspaper code, Roosevelt said, "tell Bert McCormick he is seeing things under the bed." According to FDR and the Press, McCormick's Tribune maintained a "virulent and raucous opposition" to the New Deal thereafter, a sentiment that was reciprocated by the White House.