From left, David Halberstam of The New York Times, Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press, and Neil Sheehan, then a correspondent for U.P.I., in Vietnam in 1963. Credit Associated Press
In his short White House tenure, President Trump has already set a record for histrionic tantrums against the media — whether attacking CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times or MSNBC for revealing his 2005 tax return, as he did last week. He’s actually pursuing a well-worn path of American presidents blaming the press for their problems.
Five decades of reporting have taught me that whenever a president starts screeching about the media, it’s a sure sign he’s in hot water and fearing revelations about some policy disaster, damaging mendacity or political villainy. Even popular presidents with reputations for charming the press occasionally stoop to blaming the press for quagmires of their own making.
John F. Kennedy, for example.
In September 1963, with the Vietnam War escalating and the pro-American authoritarian regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem besieged by popular protests, President Kennedy used a private meeting with The New York Times’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, to charge that David Halberstam, the Times correspondent in Saigon, was undermining the American war effort and to pressure the publisher to pull Mr. Halberstam out of Vietnam. President Kennedy was particularly angered by a stream of front-page articles by Mr. Halberstam graphically describing battlefield defeats and the self-immolations of Buddhist monks.
What the president did not know was that The Times was already planning to replace Mr. Halberstam because the editors feared that Vietnamese secret police had marked him for assassination. Because I covered Vietnam policy in Washington, I had been told to get ready to replace Mr. Halberstam.
But after the meeting, Mr. Sulzberger and Mr. Reston postponed my transfer indefinitely. The Times, they said, could not bow to pressure from a president trying to change our news coverage. Two months later, after the Diem regime was overthrown, I was sent to Saigon to replace Mr. Halberstam.
President Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, intensified this adversarial strategy. He regularly railed against the press for what he and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara condemned as biased news coverage that challenged the administration’s line that we were winning the Vietnam War, which Mr. Johnson had expanded with air attacks on North Vietnam. When in December 1966 the Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury went to Hanoi and began filing dispatches about the civilian casualties and destruction caused by the American bombing, the administration all but accused Mr. Salisbury of treason.
The Pentagon insisted that American attacks were carried out with pinpoint precision, civilian casualties were extremely rare, and Mr. Salisbury had become a tool of Hanoi’s propaganda effort. But within months, Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach admitted privately to several reporters in Washington that American air raids were in fact hitting civilian-populated areas of Hanoi, Haiphong and other cities.
During the administration of the next president, Richard M. Nixon, charge and countercharge against the media escalated still further. The Nixon White House even compiled a political “enemies list” including more than 50 in journalism. To combat leaks over war policy, the White House and the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, ordered the wiretapping of four reporters, including me, and 14 government officials.
In 1971, my colleague Neil Sheehan obtained Secretary McNamara’s secret Pentagon history of the war, documenting chronic deception of the American people by a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations. When The Times published our articles based on the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration went to court to stop publication. The Times was temporarily blocked but other papers picked up the story.
Infuriated, President Nixon insisted that someone “has to go to jail” for the leak. But very quickly, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media, and The Times rolled out a book-length volume of articles over 10 days that would forever alter and deepen our understanding of the Vietnam War.
Today, the issues are different, of course — questions about Mr. Trump’s peculiarly warm embrace of Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin, and Russian intelligence agencies meddling in the 2016 elections on Mr. Trump’s behalf. But the clash of powerful institutions is similar.
Mr. Trump’s attack on the media for publishing leaks from the F.B.I. and domestic intelligence agencies succeeded for a few days in diverting public attention from his Russian connections. He and his White House Rasputin, Stephen K. Bannon, may also reckon that by savaging the press, they can intimidate Congress into softening its investigation into the Trump-Russia link.
But the focus has swung back on the central question: What is the president hiding? If his campaign is innocent of illicit Russian connections, why not welcome the investigation and clear the air? If, as Mr. Trump said last month, his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was simply “doing his job” in talking with the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak about American sanctions against Moscow, why did Mr. Flynn lie about it?
More broadly, why has Mr. Trump evaded reporters’ questions about renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine or the Russian deployment of a new missile in conflict with a 1987 arms agreement? Why, after publication of his 2005 tax returns, does he still refuse to release his most recent returns? Will they reveal something that makes him beholden to Mr. Putin and Moscow?
No matter how much the president seeks to demonize the press, these and other crucial questions will not go away because today’s journalists are just as committed as those who covered past presidents to pursue them to the end.
Hedrick Smith is a former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and executive editor of the website Reclaim the American Dream.