Susan Walsh/AP
President Donald Trump speaks at his "Make America Great Again Rally" at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

Did the ‘dishonest media’ really take on Lincoln, Jefferson, and Jackson?

In a recent speech, President Trump continued his criticism of the press, citing combative relationships between the media and three historic US presidents.

President Trump’s latest speech, delivered before a crowd of approximately 9,000 people, included further offensive against what he sees as “the dishonest media.”

Trump's remarks were made in a Florida airplane hanger following a tumultuous week in which his national security adviser was forced to step down amid allegations that he had communicated inappropriately with the Russian ambassador and then deliberately misled senior White House staff about that conversation.

The president took the opportunity to direct the blame away from government officials, and towards members of the mainstream media – which he says purposefully misleads the public to further an agenda.

“They have their own agenda. And their agenda is not your agenda,” President Trump said Saturday in Melbourne, Florida.

“The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don't want to report the truth and they've been calling us wrong now for two years,” said the president, echoing a consistent theme of declaring news coverage either inaccurate or consciously deceptive. 

He continued, “Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it.”

Trump went on to quote Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, who, in a correspondence with John Norvell, a future newspaper editor, wrote that “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself,” Jefferson continued, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Jefferson’s letter did indeed include those lines, as well as several other scathing critiques of the newspaper industry which had been divided in that era, siding with politicians from each party and each side using its influence and readership in order to promote its own candidates. 

During his campaign against John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and his opponent waged a vicious war against one another in the nation’s newspapers, spreading ugly and demeaning information in what was the first such smear campaign in the country’s history.

However, Jefferson's critiques of and experience with the press did not mean that he did not favor a robust independent press that he hoped would be widely read by US citizens.

Several years earlier Jefferson had written to Edward Carrington – an American soldier and statesmen – from Paris, saying “the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Andrew Jackson, who Trump and his team have previously likened to the current president, won the 1828 election campaigning as a "man of the people" who used the media for his own benefit and against his opponent, John Quincy Adams, whose father had campaigned so aggressively against Jefferson years earlier.

Later in US history, Abraham Lincoln faced a similarly motivated and combative press during his own political career. However, rather than responding combatively himself, Lincoln took to using the papers to promote his own agenda, playing their game in order to control his own publicity.

Trump, a man who has had a tremendous amount of success self-publicizing, having utilized Twitter to garner attention for any issue at the forefront of the president’s agenda, has lately further increased his vehement anti-media message.

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Trump tweeted on February 17th.

Such comments have drawn criticism from media figures and politicians alike who oppose such consistent and contentious rhetoric. Most recently, Republican Senator and one-time presidential nominee John McCain took exception to President Trump’s anti-press message on an interview with NBC.

"I hate the press. I hate you especially," McCain joked to his NBC host, Chuck Todd. "But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital."

"If you want to preserve – I'm very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press," McCain said. "And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started.”

McCain – who spoke to Todd from Munich where he was attending the Munich Security Conference – clarified that he was not indicating that Trump was trying to become a dictator.

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