Presidents have also been prone to use “rough elbows” against the press—hardball tactics that fall short of systematic suppression, but nevertheless have a chilling effect. In 1908, the New York World accused President Theodore Roosevelt of “deliberate misstatements of facts” regarding the purchase of the Panama Canal, based on reports from the Indianapolis News. Roosevelt responded by accusing the papers of “a string of infamous libels,” and the World was charged in a New York district court in 1909, though the indictment was eventually quashed.
Lyndon Johnson’s administration lied to the press so often about the progress in Vietnam that the phrase “credibility gap” was coined to characterize the disconnect between what the White House said and what really was happening. Richard Nixon confided privately to Henry Kissinger that journalists “are the enemy, and we’re just gonna continue to use them, and never let them think that we think they’re the enemy.” His administration famously sought a court injunction to stop the release of the Pentagon Papers; it got one, but the Supreme Court eventually overturned the decision. More recently, Barack Obama’s Justice Department investigated Fox News’s James Rosen as a potential criminal co-conspirator for seeking classified information. In December 2016, James Risen of the New York Times blasted the administration for its “criminalization of the press” and said that Obama’s was “the most anti-press administration since the Nixon administration.”
Trump’s “war” on the media is substantially different from all these examples, at least so far. No news outlet has been prosecuted. No journalistic endeavor has been enjoined. Nobody has been put in jail. Trump’s assaults have been strictly rhetorical in nature and political in purpose. The president is calling the press the enemy in the same sense that Barack Obama encouraged liberals to “punish” their “enemies” at the ballot box and Hillary Clinton called Republicans her “enemies.” This is American factionalism at work—the difference being that rather than calling out the other party, Trump has turned his voting coalition’s ire against the press.