Stanford scholar draws historical parallels between the press and presidencies

Stanford communication scholar James Hamilton looks at how presidents – past and present – have navigated relationships with the White House press corps.

Last week, the White House suspended a reporter’s press credential after a tense exchange during a news conference. While some have called it an unprecedented move, Stanford communication scholar James Hamilton sees parallels to another U.S. president: Richard Nixon.

James Hamilton

Stanford Professor James Hamilton compares President Trump’s treatment of the media with Richard Nixon’s performance. (Image credit: Vignesh Ramachandran)

In an interview with the Stanford News Service, Hamilton talks about the historical dynamic between the press and presidencies.

Hamilton is the Hearst Professor of Communication in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and chair of the Department of Communication. His most recent book, Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, chronicles the impact of accountability reporting in the United States.

Hamilton is also the director of the Stanford Journalism Program, co-founder of the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He recently co-launched the Stanford Journalism and Democracy Initiative, a data-driven effort to help journalists find stories at a lower cost, to support local newsrooms explore public interest issues and fight against misinformation.


How would you describe the relationship between the press, the president and the White House in historical terms?

Few leaders readily invite scrutiny and welcome criticism. In the modern era, two presidents – Richard Nixon and Donald Trump – stand out for conscious efforts to undermine the accountability function of the media. As president-elect, Nixon admonished his Cabinet: “Always remember, the men and women of the news media approach this as an adversary relationship. The time will come when they will run lies about you.” He later wrote to aides: “If we treat the press with a little more contempt we’ll probably get better treatment” and “It is very important in terms of the final [1972] campaign that the media be effectively discredited.”

As president-elect, Donald Trump shared a very similar strategic view with journalist Lesley Stahl. When she asked him why he continuously attacked the media, she reported that he said he did it to “discredit” journalists.

While Trump’s public rhetoric about journalists matches Nixon’s private conversations in the Oval Office, Nixon’s efforts to subvert the media’s watchdog role went beyond words. He ordered illegal wiretaps on the phones of journalists, instructed then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to assemble information on homosexuals in the Capitol press corps and instructed aides to develop and distribute damaging stories about reporters to “just kill the sons of bitches.” The Nixon Department of Justice brought antitrust charges against the three broadcast networks and the Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory process became a vehicle to attack the Washington Post’s holdings of a local television station license.


Presidential press conferences began being televised in 1955. How have they evolved over the years?

The evolution of presidential press conferences offers a microcosm of media history. When there were few viewing options on television, presidential press conferences drew significant audiences. When Nixon had a prime-time press conference in March 1969, all three major networks carried it live and 59 percent of all television households tuned in. Through the 1970s, presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter could secure a 9 p.m. slot for their presidential addresses or press conferences. As cable television subscriptions and channels increased, the ability of viewers to flee politics for entertainment meant networks were less likely to grant presidents in the 1980s automatic coverage at 9 p.m. When Bill Clinton asserted in a 1995 prime-time press conference, “The president is not irrelevant here,” only 6.5 percent of television households were tuned in. Cable channels now offer places for partisan audiences to watch presidential press conferences and rallies live and social media platforms offer distribution for greatest-hits clips with high entertainment value from these events.

“A president may try to control who can enter ‘the People’s House,’ but that does not mean he can control what’s covered.”

—James Hamilton

Hearst Professor of Communication, School of Humanities and Sciences

The tone of presidential press conferences generally remained civil, even in contentious times such as Watergate. Exceptions were notable enough to generate news coverage. In 1971, White House domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman spoke with the president of CBS News about CBS White House correspondent Dan Rather, criticizing his coverage as slanted and musing about a transfer away from the White House. When Dan Rather began to ask a question at a press conference in March 1974, Nixon asked him, “Are you running for something?” after the crowd greeted him with both applause and boos. When Rather replied, “No sir, Mr. President, are you?,” the response raised questions about whether he’d been appropriately respectful of the office of the presidency. When John Ehrlichman quoted Nixon as saying press conference reporters pose “a lot of flabby and fairly dumb questions,” that also generated coverage.


The White House recently banned a broadcaster from the White House after a particularly sharp exchange at a presidential news conference. Is there historic precedence for that type of action, and what exactly does that mean for the broadcaster and other media outlets?

After a critical article in May 1969, President Nixon directed that “our people” should not talk with reporters from the New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Washington Post. Aides simply ignored or gradually evaded these instructions not to interact with the press. When papers wrote accurately that the Sunday church services in the Nixon White House were being used to reward Republican donors, candidates and supporters, chief of staff Bob Haldeman circulated a memo noting, “The New York Times and New York Post must never be invited to these services. No one from either of these papers – at any time.” When it came time for his historic trip to China, Nixon personally edited the list of journalists allowed on the trip. He vetoed the participation of one reporter because of an article he’d written after Nixon’s 1962 gubernatorial race loss.

A president may try to control who can enter “the People’s House,” but that does not mean he can control what’s covered. When journalist Bob Woodward spoke at Stanford’s McClatchy Symposium last week, he noted that in covering nine U.S. presidents he had never attended a White House briefing or a presidential news conference because he was skeptical of what he’d really learn. He said that to get answers to larger questions about policy and politics, you need to work from the outside in.


What does your research tell us about the current and future function of journalists in a democracy?

Investigative reporting involves original work about substantive issues that someone wants to keep secret. In Democracy’s Detectives, I show that a dollar invested in this type of reporting can generate several hundred dollars in net policy benefits to society. But the accountability reporting essential to democracy is underprovided in the marketplace because when a news outlet’s efforts change laws and lives these benefits spill over onto people who are not subscribers or viewers. Prize-winning public affairs journalism is increasingly concentrated in a few national outlets and watchdog efforts such as Freedom of Information Act requests at federal agencies by local newspapers have dropped by 50 percent. I remain optimistic, though, for three reasons. The first is while advertising support for local media has declined, subscriptions, memberships and donations are becoming more viable revenue streams. Second, researchers across many disciplines at Stanford are trying to turn unstructured information into structured data to analyze how institutions operate. The Stanford Journalism and Democracy Initiative is one example of efforts here to use the power of data and algorithms to lower the costs of discovering accountability stories. Third, Stanford alums daily are on the accountability beat, reporting on politics and government policies for top news outlets. Stanford’s founding charter stresses education for citizenship and training the next generation of accountability reporters is central to that mission.