Donald Trump declared in a tweet on February 17 that the mainstream press is “the enemy of the American People.” This inflammatory remark was greeted by outrage mixed with anxiety. Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press spoke for many journalists when he responded, “This is not a laughing matter. I’m sorry, delegitimizing the press is un-American.”
Of course, it was just a tweet, thus far unaccompanied by any state-sponsored efforts to suppress the liberties of the media. Without excusing the president’s choice of words, it is important to understand the larger historical and political context. As uncouth as Trump’s rhetoric was, the fact remains that the government and journalists have long had an uneasy relationship, and prior presidents have, unlike Trump to date, used the power of the state to censor the press and even criminalize free speech.
The first and most egregious example of this pattern came in the early years of the republic. During the presidency of John Adams, the opposition had coalesced behind James Madison and Thomas Jefferson under the banner of the “Republican” party (different from the modern GOP).