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.
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.
The publisher with the greatest enmity for Roosevelt was Frank Gannett, who was really a regional press baron. In 1936, he joined the presidential ticket of Sen. William Borah in the Ohio primary, Shesol writes. (Borah got drubbed by Robert Taft.) Gannett organized opposition to the Roosevelt administration, spending $49,000 from his own pocket to fight the court-packing plan through an organization called the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, Allan J. Lichtman writes in White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.
The Roosevelt administration accepted Gannett's challenge and fought back in public. In January 1939, Gannett tangled with Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes in a New York debate before an audience of 2,000, broadcast on NBC radio and covered at length in the New York Times (subscription required).
The topic was "Do We Have a Free Press?" to which Ickes declared no. The press was controlled by advertisers, and their coverage was biased against workers, he held. Out-winging by several country miles anything Glenn Beck has ever said on his Fox show, Gannett claimed that Roosevelt eventually intended to censor or prosecute newspapers that resisted the administration.
Ickes, who spoke favorably of the New York Times and several other papers,countered with claims of his own. Newspapers never published stories about elevator accidents in department stores that advertised; they took orders from advertising agencies that sought to kill the amended Pure Food and Drug Act. They refused to review or accept ads for George Seldes' indictment of the newspaper industry, Lords of the Press. They blacked-out coverage of strikes and other labor news.
Gannett charged Ickes with tarring the press because it stood in the way of Roosevelt's ambitions to legislate his way to a dictatorship. Gannett continued:
I have in my hand … a photostat copy of that original secret and amazing document, which came hot from the White House to the Senate. Here is the provision, Title V, Section 501, authorizing the President to abolish or change the name and functions of the Presidency.
By year's end, the debate had degenerated into a name-calling contest as the Times (subscription required) reported that Ickes had called Gannett the "little Fritz Thyssen of Rochester" in a speech. Thyssen was a German industrialist who had given financial aid to Adolf Hitler and then been forced to leave Germany.
"[Gannett] would like, with the contributions of other people, to finance the destruction of American democracy," said Ickes.
So until Rahm Emanuel and Rupert Murdoch—or even Fox News boss Roger Ailes—face off to trade insults in a live debate like the Ickes-Gannett one, please spare me any more stories about the war on Fox. This ain't war. This ain't even a decent war game.
Alternatively, Joe Biden vs. Glenn Beck. Or how about Hillary Clinton vs. Greta Van Susteren? Maybe a winner-takes-all Ultimate Fighting Championship match between Jon Favreau and Shep Smith? I'd put my money on Shep because he scares me! Whom would you toss into the ring? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org. I wage media war against the state daily on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)