microphones set up on a lectern for a press conference

Stanford experts offer historical and communication perspectives on the new president’s relationship with the media. (Image credit: wellphoto / Getty Images)

Stanford professors Jack Rakove, Theodore Glasser and James Hamilton weigh in on President Donald Trump’s gag orders on federal employees and how his style of communication differs from previous U.S. presidents. Stanford experts will be discussing how journalists should cover the new administration during a panel Wednesday evening on campus.

Rakove is a professor of history and of political science and an expert on American politics and elections.

Glasser is a professor of communication whose research focus includes the topics of press responsibility and accountability.

Hamilton is a professor of communication and director of the Stanford Journalism Program.


How does President Trump’s communication style differ from that of previous U.S. presidents?

Glasser: Trump’s style is different in several ways. He exhibits a kind of anti-intellectualism, both in his tone and in his vocabulary. He’s unpredictable and contradictory. He has no commitment to “facts” or “truth” or any other concept having to do with the reliability and validity of what he says. He has done more damage to the quality of public discourse than any president I can remember.

Rakove: Not every president has been superbly articulate. Historians still joke about former President “Silent Cal” Coolidge, and those of us who are old enough to remember Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency recall that he was never regarded as a potential rival to famous ancient orators Cicero or Demosthenes. But Trump again seems to be in his own class. Because he appears to be most comfortable reliving his campaign appearances before worshipful audiences, he retreats to his campaign rhetoric even though the election is now almost three months behind us. He is highly repetitive, free associates while he speaks, and finds it difficult to stay on topic. At his age, and given his temperament, it is unlikely he will improve, unless sheer discipline works to keep him glued to his prompter, as was the case during the inauguration.

Hamilton: The type of disdain that former President Richard Nixon expressed in private conversations and notes is exactly the type of vitriol that Trump uses in public. On his first full day in office, President Trump said at an appearance at the CIA, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, declared [last] week, “The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence and no hard work.” He also said, “The media’s the opposition party.” The belief that the media are an enemy, that everyone violates the rules and that anything goes in the service of the president ultimately proved to be the undoing of Nixon. The danger for the Trump administration is that a similarly callous view of democratic institutions can ultimately lead to violations of laws, including those governing conflicts of interest.


Some people became worried after President Trump’s administration instituted media bans on the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. Are gag orders constitutional and what is the history of their use by presidents?

Glasser: Trump’s effort to restrict and otherwise control communication coming from various federal agencies – “barring external communication,” as the Associated Press put it – is bad policy, but it isn’t a constitutional issue; the First Amendment doesn’t protect access to information. There are statutory limits, however, to what Trump can do. Under the Freedom of Information Act, for example, federal agencies must provide, with some exceptions, access to information requested by any citizen. But the bigger issue here is Trump’s disdain for the press and his contempt for the people, including the people who voted for him. How do we reconcile Trump’s claim, in his inaugural address, that he was “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back” to the “American people” with his utter disregard for the importance of knowing what’s going on in Washington, D.C.? It’s difficult to imagine what self-governance – the ideal of popular sovereignty – means without the news that independent and uninhibited journalism provides.

Hamilton: Presidential administrations often try to increase or decrease attention to environmental data depending on their policy preferences. Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986, the EPA must collect data on pollution releases and make it available to the public via a computerized database. Bill Clinton’s administration highlighted this information through the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) to focus scrutiny on firms with the hope that this would lead to reductions. The EPA released annual reports and held press conferences to celebrate the TRI reports, which included an appearance by Vice President Al Gore to tout gains in pollution reduction. Under President George W. Bush, the EPA stopped having an annual TRI report published and did not host high-profile events upon the data’s release. When I was writing a book about the TRI program [Regulation Through Revelation], an EPA official involved in TRI was so reluctant to be seen cooperating with my research that he asked me to send a Freedom of Information Act request to him for TRI budget figures so that he would not be viewed by the Bush administration as willingly working with an academic.


The news of gag orders led some people to fear for the right of freedom of speech in the U.S. What can you say to those people and about the history of that constitutional right?

Glasser: We should be concerned about the power of any president to influence the scope and purpose of First Amendment rights. Presidents get to appoint the people who interpret and administer the law. In addition to appointing at least one Supreme Court justice, Trump gets to appoint the leaders of any number of commissions and other entities that deal with communication policy, including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Formally and informally, Trump could do considerable damage to several rights – not just freedom of speech – protected by the First Amendment.


How should media outlets approach covering the new administration in a social media-driven world we have today?

Glasser: News media have recently been – and should continue to be – aggressive in their coverage of the Trump presidency. Trump and his staff regard the press as the opposition. And they’re right. An oppositional press – an adversarial press – is a vitally important tradition in American politics. Public officials often dislike that role as it applies to them but at the same time they appreciate its importance. Not Trump. He’d prefer a press that simply republishes his tweets. The new media landscape, brought about by the rapid computerization of communication in the 1990s, makes it easy for public officials, like Trump, to communicate directly with the public. But that in no way diminishes the job of the journalist, which is to create and sustain the public conversations democracy demands. More than ever before, we need free and feisty journalism.

Hamilton: Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, did have succinct advice for the media earlier this week in an interview with the New York Times: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” I think that’s exactly wrong. I titled my new book on investigative reporting Democracy’s Detectives because the media are the force in civil society who try to hold democratic institutions accountable. That type of work is costly, because it takes resources to discover and tell stories that can change public policy. And it is difficult because the government tries to make it hard to observe what actions are taken and what information is known by government officials. But if you look at the stories that have won the Pulitzer Prize for public service over the years, the media’s job right now should be clear: Give people an accurate picture of government actions, show your work and make it transparent about how you verified your facts, and be willing to risk ridicule and censure and surveillance and arrest by public officials who prefer supremacy to scrutiny.


What do transitions between U.S. presidents of different parties usually look like?

Rakove: For much of American history, presidential transitions were drawn-out affairs. Before the adoption of the 20th Amendment in 1933, five months passed between the appointment of electors and the inauguration of the president, and a full year separated the election of members of Congress from the convening of their first session. That long interval gave everyone ample time to form a government and manage whatever transition needed to take place. Amid the turbulence of the Depression, that leisurely pace seemed badly out of date, especially when Franklin Roosevelt, the incoming president, planned on altering many of the policies of his predecessor Herbert Hoover. The 20th Amendment was adopted relatively quickly to transform that situation. Since then, presidential transitions between parties have gone reasonably smoothly. Outgoing officials understand the difficulty of the tasks the newcomers have to assume, from day one, and incoming officials need all the assistance they can get. There have been occasional anecdotes about pranks and the like, but there is little real evidence of any serious problems or disruptions.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: ashashkevich@stanford.edu, (650) 497-4419