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Yes, Ronald Reagan Would Have Stood For Trump’s Treatment of the Press

Pundits would like you to think Trump's attacks on the press are unprecedented. But previous presidents like Reagan were even worse.

National Archives

In the seemingly never-ending effort to use Donald Trump’s failings to retcon a fictionalized, Norman Rockwellesque political past, we have this weekend op-ed from Patti Davis about Trump’s shabby treatment of the press: “My father, Ronald Reagan, would never have stood for this.”

By way of illustration, Davis recounts an anecdote in which, while on holiday, her late father the president played a light-hearted prank on a group of hidden paparazzi who were violating his personal space. Although they had crossed the line, Reagan deftly gave the photographers the shot they were after while hinting they weren’t wanted there. As Davis explained, it stood in stark contrast to Trump’s bullying attitude towards the press.

“There was never vitriol, there was never name-calling, and if anyone had attacked a journalist, my father would have been the first to stand in the way,” writes Davis.

This is a nice story, but it has precisely zero connection to the reality of Reagan’s attitude to both the press and the First Amendment.

Here’s what Reagan actually did as president. When he launched an invasion of Grenada in 1983, Reagan imposed an unprecedented media blackout on the war, barring reporters from entering the country until it was deemed supposedly safe enough. Some reporters resorted to hiring fishing boats to reach the island, which were intercepted and turned back, and in some cases shot at, by the US Navy (“I know how to stop those press boats. We’ve been shooting at them,” one admiral told reporters). Some were detained for hours and prevented from filing stories. When the press was eventually let onto the island, their movements were strictly controlled, and they often had to rely on government press releases for information.

Meanwhile, the administration constantly fed the press misleading information about the war . When CBS reporters, going off a tip, asked multiple officials if an invasion of Grenada was imminent, they were told the idea was “preposterous,” only for Reagan to launch the war the next morning. During the war, the government exaggerated the size of Cuba’s military presence (helpful for bolstering Reagan’s public rationale for the war), and failed to divulge incidents where Grenadians and American troops had been killed, including one case in which the Navy had accidentally bombed a mental hospital, killing seventeen people.

Here’s another thing Reagan did as president: threaten to prosecute news outlets over their reporting — repeatedly. In 1985, Reagan’s CIA director and former campaign manager William Casey threatened Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee with prosecution over an intelligence story the Post was planning to run; meanwhile, Reagan personally phoned Post publisher Katharine Graham to warn her against it. A year later, Casey threatened NBC, the Post and four other media outlets (New York Times, Washington Times, Time, Newsweek) with prosecution over another intelligence story, a threat that was backed by Reagan’s press secretary and, more obliquely, his secretary of state. The White House did back away from the proposal, as did, eventually, Casey himself. But the threats worked, and the Post never published the offending details of the story (though they were available in court records).

This was neither the first nor the last time Reagan’s CIA would display its hostility to the press. In 1984, Casey had authored a secret memo outlining a possible method by which journalists could be forced by the government to reveal their sources, as well as suggesting the criminalization of “the unauthorized possession of classified material.” Reagan’s NSA director wrote Casey, telling him that the idea that “leakers and the media are costing the taxpayers millions” was one that “needs careful long-term cultivation.” The CIA took the “unprecedented” step of filing an FCC complaint against a news organization, charging ABC with “engaging in deliberate news distortion” over a story reporting connections between the agency and a Hawaiian investment banker indicted for fraud.

Reagan loved the free press so much, he also embarked on what was then an unprecedented campaign to stifle public knowledge of the goings-on of government. He forced more than 100,000 government officials to sign lifetime non-disclosure agreements. He expanded the government’s powers to keep documents classified and added broad exemptions for national security and more under the Freedom of Information Act. He used immigration restrictions to bar various foreign critics from touching US soil, including journalists. He tried to ban the public release of the tape of his Iran-Contra testimony. And it was Reagan who first successfully applied the Espionage Act to a press leak, in the case of Samuel L. Morrison.

Journalists and others at the time were unsparing in their criticisms over these measures.

“Acting with full presidential approval, [Casey] has succeeded in creating an aura of vague, amorphous menace to the discussion of intelligence subjects,” wrote journalist and former Nixon enemies-list target Daniel Schorr.

Sam Donaldson of ABC’s Nightline accused the administration of “a deliberate effort” to “mislead the press, not because of secrecy of a military operation but because of the need they feel to protect the political hide of the president.”

“This administration is possibly the most restrictive in recent memory in terms of the free dissemination of information,” complained the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Still, Reagan’s repressive actions never faced the kind of concerted pushback that has greeted the current president’s rhetoric.

“Certainly there has not been any strong editorial outcry, maybe with some papers but not many,” said Jack Nelson, then the LA Times’ Washington bureau chief. “Why? For the same reason that people like the president but oppose his policies. The economy is not bad, there is little inflation, people are fairly happy. That feeling permeates the news media.”

That seeming indifference to Reagan’s repression has now morphed into amnesia, when people and organizations — including, in this case, the firmly anti-Trump Washington Post — feel the need to highlight Trump’s failings by constructing a mythical past whitewashing the sins of earlier presidents. In Trump’s America, Reagan is held up as a model of tolerance and anti-bigotry, even though he and his political platform were endorsed (twice) by the Ku Klux Klan, and even though Trump has functionally governed as an extension of Reagan. George Bush has now been turned into a sober, kindly statesman, even though his administration attacked journalists both figuratively and literally. Does anyone even remember at this point that Obama carried on Reagan’s anti-leak legacy while spying on multiple journalists and trying to jail a reporter for not revealing his source?

The media’s across-the-board solidarity in the face of Trump’s verbal attacks is more than justified and should be encouraged. But one can’t help but wonder whether the mood of resistance will last once similar attacks on journalists start coming from someone whom the mainstream press doesn’t find personally distasteful or who makes the occasional speech paying tribute to the press.

In fact, it’s a question worth asking about Trump’s whole agenda.