Dems Once Thought It Cool to Call Out Journalists, Even Threaten Them
The media, the Democrats, and a few NeverTrumps are in a tizzy these past few days because President Trump dared to call NBC's Chuck Todd "a sleeping son of a b‑‑‑‑" and The New York Times' Maggie Haberman a "Hillary flunky."
Said NeverTrump Erick Erickson, "The fact is @MaggieNYTand @chucktoddhave better character, better morals, and are more honest than the President who is attacking them."
"@MaggieNYTand @chucktodd are not only great journalists, they are good people. This crass name-calling is beneath the office of the presidency," tweeted Jake Tapper.
Tweets like these ran in the thousands. A common theme was one that Tapper raised – namely, that name-calling is "beneath the office." A secondary theme raised by Politico's Susan Glasser in an interview with Todd is that Trump's "rhetorical assault" on the media was "unprecedented."
Whether Trump's comments are beneath the office is surely in the eyes of the beholder, but they are not at all unprecedented. There was a time not too long ago when Democrats in and out of the media celebrated "plain speaking" and at least one president who made speaking plainly a virtue.
That president was Harry Truman. In his fine 1998 book, Harry S. Truman and the News Media: Contentious Relations, Belated Respect, Franklin Mitchell traces the media's evolving response to what at the time many considered the "ill chosen words and threats by the president."
Truman was not at all shy about insulting journalists in private and in public. He referred to columnist Westbrook Pegler as "a guttersnipe." He called Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson "gutter columnists" as well. The Alsop brothers, Stewart and Joseph, he called the "All Slops." In private, he called columnist Frank Kent a "prostitute of the mind." In public, he called him "intellectually dishonest."
As with Trump, Truman's war with the press led many in the media to accuse him of suppressing press freedom, an argument he had no use for. In an unpublished missive, he wrote, "The old Moslem assinsins [sic] of Mesopotamia have a much better chance of a considered judgment in the end than have these paid mental whores of the controlers [sic] of our so-called 'free press.'"
Truman continued, "This so-called 'free press' is about as free as Stalin's press. The only difference is that the Stalin frankly controlled his and the owners and publishers of our press are always yapping about the Constitution and suppressing a free press."
Like Trump, too, he accused the press of conflating news and editorial. "News should be reported as it happened," he wrote, and editorials should be stated exclusively as "the opinions of the owners & publishers." During his presidency, Truman thought the New York Times the only nationally circulated paper that confined editorial opinion to the editorial page.
The press protected Truman, however, in ways that it would never protect Trump. Washington Post journalist Marquis Childs was once dispatched to the White House to ask Truman if he would present an award at a gathering of black journalists. Said Truman to Childs, "I get along pretty well with the burr heads ... until sooner or later I say nigger." Childs, who was white, reported this only years after Truman had left the White House.
Truman not only insulted journalists, but also threatened at least one of them with bodily harm. That journalist threatened was Paul Hume, the Washington Post's music critic. In 1950, Hume reviewed a concert by Truman's daughter less than charitably.
"She is flat a good deal of the time," Hume wrote, "more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years. There are few moments during her recital when one can relax and feel confident that she will make her goal, which is the end of the song[.] ... Miss Truman has not improved in the years we have heard her."
The president was not pleased. "It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful," wrote Truman in a letter to Hume the day he read the review." When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work."
The letter quickly turned threatening. "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!" Some of his letters Truman never sent. This one he did. The Post did not publish it, but the Washington Daily News did.
In a February 2017 article, the Washington Post reviewed the responses to Truman's letter. Like the responses to Trump's tweets, they varied dramatically.
One reader the Post quoted captured what many on the right feel about Donald Trump's tweets. Yes, the reader conceded, Truman's letter showed signs of an "ungoverned temper" and "over-quick tongue."
The same reader, however, saw in Truman's "gutter vocabulary" evidence of his "personal honesty." The writer concluded: "At best, tact is a mild form of insincerity which is hard to find consistent with complete integrity."
There is no excuse for journalists, especially those at the Post, for not knowing their own history.