The Media vs. Trump: Echoes of Nixon’s Battles With the Press Resonate Today

Forty years ago Raymond Price wrote a story for the Washingtonian titled “The Dirty Dozen,” with the deck “No Surprise: Nixon Aide Attacks Media. Surprise: He Makes Some Sense.” Much of what Price wrote about Nixon is echoed in today’s coverage of President Trump.

Price had worked as a journalist at Collier’s magazine and Life before joining the New York Herald Tribune. At the Herald-Tribune, he was a reporter from 1957 to 1964 and editor of the editorial page from 1964 to 1966. He then became the chief speechwriter for Richard Nixon. He worked on both of President Nixon’s inaugural addresses and Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974. In 1977 he wrote a book, With Nixon, and his Washingtonian article was drawn from that.

Here’s how Price’s 1977 story began:

Of all the running wars Richard Nixon was engaged in throughout his presidency, the one I found personally most painful was that with the media. Most of my working life had been spent as one of “them.” I felt a bit like a member of one of those families torn by the Civil War, with one side fighting under the Union flag, and another in the uniform of the Confederacy. Many of our bitterest “enemies” in the press were people I liked personally, and some were people with whom I had worked professionally….

He then listed the Dirty Dozen of his concerns about the media. Here are shortened versions of each:

1. They have acquired a power out of proportion to their accountability, and out of proportion to the ability—or inclination—they have yet shown to use that power responsibly. When I was a newsman, I viewed that power as a good thing.

2. They pretend to far greater accuracy than they deliver, to far great authority than their reports really have, and to a high-minded pursuit of truth even when they really are maneuvering to keep the facts from getting in the way of a good story….Newsmen routinely pass public judgment on matters they understand only dimly or not at all.

3. They display too much bias, and bias too much to one side. Every newsman worth his salt knows perfectly well that his colleagues, as a group, stand substantially to the left of the general public….One reason for this imbalance, I think, is that the kinds of people drawn to journalism tend to be the kinds who flock to liberal causes: activists, reformers, those who identify emotionally with the underdog, those who are skeptical or cynical about establishment institutions and see journalism as a vehicle for “exposing” the sins of those institutions. They like to think of themselves as being on the cutting edge of social change.

4. They are too self-righteous. The media regularly exempts themselves from the moral standards they impose on everyone else, piously condemning the sins of others while practicing the same sins themselves….They shade, embroider, and distort the truth for their own purposes, while demanding truth from everyone else….Too often, getting away with it goes to their heads, and they begin to believe their own notices.

5. Competitive pressure to get the story first translates into a pattern of scrambling to report the news before it happens, and as a result reporting it wrong, often grossly distorting it. Newpapers and networks rush to get out ahead of one another with what will happen, rather then what has happened. Because they seldom know what will happen, they guess, they grasp at clues, they let themselves be manipulated by sources with an ax to grind.

6. The mirror they hold up to society is a distorting mirror, and therefore they should stop pretending that what it shows “reflects” reality. It reflects those portions of reality that are sufficiently atypical, sufficiently unusual, to be news, or that have an uncommon enough element of human interest or drama to be exciting.

7. A sort of cultural and professional insularity creates a sameness among the constituent elements of the media monolith which almost totally dominates national news coverage….Those who see a “conspiracy” among the national media miss the point. There is no conspiracy, no sinister plot, but they all do view the world through essentially the same prism.

8. The media display an excessively defensive, even paranoiac reaction to criticism. An institution that prides itself on its ability to dish out criticism ought to learn to take it.

9. A misperception of the role of the media has badly distorted a lot of recent coverage. The currently fashionable doctrine that the role of the media is to “challenge” government is as wrong-headed as would be its opposite, that the role of the media is to support government. The role of the media is to inform the public as fully and fairly and truthfully as possible.

10. Even when violent, the youthful antiwar, antiestablishment protestors were almost always portrayed in a heroic, or at least sympathetic, light—they were in fashion.

11. Like surgeons, newsmen bury their mistakes….Both editors and reporters fiercely resist setting the record straight except when absolutely necessary.

12. A right brain/left brain phenomenon has developed over the years, and I have often puzzled over the ways in which it helps shape the strange and often contradictory folkways of the journalistic tribe. They seem pulled in two directions. Verbal skills are left-brain skills and many journalists take particular pride in their analytic reasoning, their capacity to marshal facts and process information in a classically linear manner. But much more than most journalists would admit, the presentation of the news tends to be governed by right-brain perceptions, by emotional triggers, by a “romantic” cast of mind. The romance of journalism attracts the romantic into it, with a self-perception of knight-errantry and derring-do, of dragon-slaying and maiden-saving….The important thing is not to confuse romantic truth with empirical truth.


After President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Nixon aide John Dean said Price might have been the Deep Throat who had helped the Washington Post uncover the Watergate break-in and cover-up. (Deep Throat was Mark Felt of the FBI.) After writing the With Nixon book, Price, a Yale graduate, went on to become a Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard. He then was president of the New York Economic Club for 19 years.

Comments

  1. Timothy Hays says:

    At 86, he could write a wonderful new book on the contrasts between 37 and 45. His 12 points were succinct, and remain true today.

    • Richard Mattersdorff says:

      “One reason for this imbalance, I think, is that the kinds of people drawn to journalism tend to be the kinds who flock to liberal causes: activists, reformers, those who identify emotionally with the underdog, those who are skeptical or cynical about establishment institutions and see journalism as a vehicle for “exposing” the sins of those institutions.”

      I think, at least now, that many conservatives would see themselves in most of #3 above

  2. Donald Smith says:

    I doubt that many journalists who’ve been around for any length of time, and who are willing to be honest, would disagree with much of what he says.

  3. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Dear Jack,

    “MILITARY COUP” IN NO LONGER UNSPEAKABLE IN USA

    This is a sincere and urgent request to all interested civilian writers and editors everywhere to pay emergency observational and evaluative attention to the United States military and associated militarized “private” armed forces, including private ones.

    Will they one day thwart American democracy in an attempt to save it from traitors, tyrannical frauds, and hacked electoral systems?

    Except for obligatory overuse of the word “hero,” American media almost ignores the realities of military life, military philosophy, military schools, military chains of command, military spying, military courts, the militaryindustrial complex, military theorists, military psychology, “military journalism”, military secrecy, and military effects on the civilian population. Pentagon media coverage by independent civilian journalists is feeble to comatose.

    Congressional committees that deal with major military matters are too seldom heard from in public. The American military is a mystery to most American voters and its powers are vastly misunderstood.
    The myth that a military takeover cannot happen in the USA is cynically perpetuated by
    Yet in numerous Gallup public opinion polls going back 40 years, the American military enjoys upwards of 70% respect and honor while the Congress and politicians get south of 10% and its members are widely disrespected and dishonored as pimps and whores.

    In troubled times of chaos, fogs of falsities, straight-arm salutes, hideous hubris and absence of honor, who are the men and women who the American citizenry so much admire, and what would the military do if civilians make decisions that may thwart their obligations and missions.

    It is now time, in my opinion, for professional writers and editors to point their best efforts toward knowing and understanding the officers and troops of America’s volunteer military services.

    Just in case the unthinkable happens one morning, at least some journalists and their audiences will get a glimpse of the people who may feel forced by civilian misrule and misfeasance to rescue America’s honor and esteem in the nation and the world. #

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