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Column: Another president who hated news media – no, not Nixon

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President Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t like the media by making threats and insulting both media outlets and individual journalists, ruminating about reforming libel law, and complaining about coverage of himself and his administration.
But Trump’s diatribes against the “failing media” and “fake news” reached a new pinnacle in the past two weeks, when he wondered via Twitter why the Senate Intelligence Committee isn’t “looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country,” rather than Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He later tweeted, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
The problem, of course, is that Trump’s definition of “fake news” seems to focus not on the veracity of information, but on whether a news report reflects well on himself or his administration, is contrary to his statements or beliefs, or is simply something he does not like.
Virtually every president has at times expressed anger and frustration with the press. But rarely have they seriously threatened to use the power of government – its power to license broadcasters or to prosecute criminal offenders – to retaliate for media coverage. (Although it should be noted that despite his threats, President Trump has actually taken little definitive action against the media.)
But there was one president who took such action, criminally prosecuting his critics in the media. This important yet largely forgotten episode in American history offers lessons for the current president and his threats against the press.
John Adams, the nation’s second president (1797-1801), had been George Washington’s vice president and upon Washington’s retirement was the presidential candidate of the nascent Federalist party in the 1796 election. His opponent and bitter rival was Thomas Jefferson, formerly Washington’s secretary of state, of the rival Democratic-Republican party.
Under the presidential election method at the time – later changed by the Twelfth Amendment – the individual candidate with the highest number of electoral votes became president, with the runner up becoming vice president. Adams won and became president, while his political enemy Jefferson became vice president.
The political conflict between the two parties escalated after the election, particularly over relations with France. This led the Federalist-controlled Congress to pass a bundle of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Adams signed into law. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government, the president, or Congress.
Notably missing from this list was Adams’ political enemy, the vice president. The political nature of the Sedition Act was also revealed in its expiration date. By its own terms, the law expired March 3, 1801: the day that Adams’ term in office was set to expire.
The Adams administration vigorously used the Sedition Act against its critics. Benjamin Franklin Bache – Benjamin Franklin’s grandson – was charged for insulting President Adams by calling the Sedition Act itself an “unconstitutional exercise of power” in his newspaper. After Bache died of yellow fever during trial, his successor, William Duane, was charged for the newspaper’s support of Thomas Jefferson in his rematch against Adams in the 1800 campaign. The charges against Duane were eventually dropped after Jefferson was elected.
A total of 32 people were charged under the law or related crimes. Thirteen either pleaded guilty or were convicted, with punishments that included fines of up to $400 and in many cases prison sentences of up to one year. Most of the prison sentences could be reduced upon payment of bonds of up to $4,000.
After the law expired, however, President Jefferson pardoned all those who had been convicted under the act. In 1840, Congress refunded the fines paid under the law. And more than 150 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in a unanimous 1964 decision that “although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history.”
In the same decision, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment represents “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
This essential role of the First Amendment – and the sorry history of a president who tried to derail it – must be kept in mind today.

Eric P. Robinson is an assistant professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications.