For the 18th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Mark Feldstein about contentious relationships between U.S. presidents and the American press.
Feldstein is a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.
This episode is sponsored by Erika Pribanic-Smith, co-author of Emma Goldman’s No-Conscription League and the First Amendment.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Erika Pribanic-Smith, co-author of Emma Goldman’s No-Conscription League and the First Amendment, now available from Routledge. The book examines the legal atmosphere and rampant xenophobia that contributed to Goldman’s deportation for radical speech in 1919.
From almost the moment he descended the golden escalator in 2016, Donald Trump infused his presidential campaign, and then his presidency with criticism of the news media. He has threatened to open libel laws revoke the press pass of a CNN reporter, and attacked journalists as absolutely dishonest, scum, slime, sleezy, and disgusting. Perhaps no president has had such a fraught relationship with journalists since Richard Nixon, who famously referred to the press as the enemy during a gradual descent to resignation.
In this episode, we discussed the wars on the press waged by these two presidents with Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture. We discussed the extreme measures that Nixon’s administration considered in order to silence Jack Anderson, the most famous investigative journalist of his era. We’re here today with Mark Feldstein. Mark, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Mark Feldstein: Great to be here with you, Nick.
Nick Hirshon: So I want to start discussing the book that brought us today: Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.
And it’s a book you published in 2010 about the battles between then-President Richard Nixon and the syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, who you call the most famous and feared investigative reporter in the nation. I know you have a lot of personal experience here because you were a researcher for Jack Anderson in the summers of 1973 and ’76.
And then you, yourself, as he was, became a professional investigative journalist on-air, places like CNN, ABC, various local television stations in Tempe, Arizona; St. Petersburg, Florida, and Washington, D.C. So I assume that you have some similarities professionally and maybe just in your ethos about what a journalist should do as Jack Anderson did.
Mark Feldstein: Right. Well, when I say he was the most famous and feared investigative reporter in the country back then, that was for that time. And, really, he was, even though he’s sort of been lost to history. Almost nobody still remembers who he was.
But in that era between WWII and the sort of 1960s revival of investigative reporting, Anderson and his mentor and boss, Drew Pearson, who founded the syndicated column The Washington Merry-Go, Washington Merry-Go-Round, they really were about the only investigative reporters in the country who had wide reach. And they were sort of holding up that lonely muckraking banner in those years, and, you know, between the muck, muckrakers of turn of the century, and, and then the rival in 1960s.
Nick Hirshon: How did you first come to research his work?
Mark Feldstein: I – as you say, I had worked for him as an intern a couple of summers in high school and in college. So I knew about him from that, and, of course, he was famous back in the 1970s when I first interned there, but then he faded, and I went onto my own career.
There was some embarrassing moments with Anderson in his career that made people less wanting to work for him or be associated with him in the eighties and nineties when his trajectory went downhill; his success went downhill, and he was involved in some unethical stuff. But I went to grad school and I had to come up with a topic for dissertation, and among the list that I gave to my dissertation advisor, Peggy Blanchard, was Jack Anderson as a topic was the first one on my list of 20 or so. And she said pick that – she didn’t even want to hear the other 19. She said go for that. So I did it as a dissertation and then turned it into a book.
Nick Hirshon: And since you were a reporter, yourself, how did that inform some of your research process? You know, you’ve gone through some of the same things that Jack Anderson did and you obviously, again, have that investigative streak in you. How did that help you while you were researching?
Mark Feldstein: Well, that’s a great question. I think I had just this sort of instinctive sense of how the sausage was made from being an investigative reporter myself that perhaps someone that hadn’t had that experience wouldn’t necessarily know. So, that just sort of instinctive feel helped me with sort of hunches on where to go, what to look for, what to ask, how to, how to write it, but then, again, you know, it still required an exhaustive research to understand Anderson and, and the work he did, and particularly the battle with Nixon.
Nick Hirshon: And this battle was kind of legendary. I was reading some of the snippets from your book, and it seems that at one point, the Nixon White House was so upset at Anderson, they wanted to silence him so badly, they considered really extreme measures that you outline. At one point, they entertained lathering his steering wheel with LSD so that he would absorb it through his skin, lose control of his car and crash.
They also think about staging a mugging or breaking into his home and planting a poison pill in his medicine bottle. So this all sounds very outlandish and terrifying. Were you surprised when you read some of this?
Mark Feldstein: Well, no, I mean, because some of this had come out in 1975. Bob Woodward, of all people, was the one that broke that story about the assassination plot. And then Gordon Liddy had written a memoir where he mentioned that as well. So that had sort of trickled out over the years, but it didn’t get a whole lot of attention, mostly, I think, because Anderson had kind of gone downhill as an investigative reporter, wasn’t as well known, certainly wasn’t as respected as he had been, and the country had moved onto other things.
You know, they say history is written by the victors, and, you know, The Washington Post and The New York Times are the victors when it comes to journalism in America, and The Post, in particular with the Watergate. So I knew about that but I was able to dig out, you know, more details about what had happened, and I had sort of wondered if this wasn’t kind of just a, a minor little thing that was hyped for G. Gordon Liddy’s book sales.
He was the White House plumber who was part of a plot to assassinate Nixon that was hatched in the White House, but I found out that, no, actually, this was, this was serious and I was able to get some declassified documents from some congressional hearings that were held. I was able to interview E. Howard Hunt, the other White House Watergate burglar, and part of the conspiracy to kill Nixon when he was – to kill Anderson on behalf of the Nixon White House when he was working there.
And Hunt confirmed this. He had never spoken publicly about this before, and he fleshed it out somewhat that it wasn’t just something they talked about but that Hunt and Liddy had actually surveilled Anderson, tailed him from his office to his home to see what route he drove so that they could, among other techniques, they were considering crashing a car into them so that his auto would flip over and crash and burn, and what would seem like just a regular auto accident. And they plotted out where exactly along the route at a rotary that was kind of notorious for accidents, they would do that. They also staked out his house and looked at entry points where it would be easy to break in if they wanted to administer poison in his aspirin bottle, which was another option that they considered.
And they wrote this all up on a memo, you know, that they provided to Charles Colson, who was Nixon’s right-hand hatchet man.
Nick Hirshon: It just seems so astounding that they would actually consider doing this. In your kind of contextual research to see the way the presidents have interacted with the media in the past, was there anything that kind of approached this level of a president’s administration actively thinking about assassinating a journalist?
Mark Feldstein: No, this was unprecedented. And even Trump, who I’m sure we’ll talk about in a minute, as far as we know, has done nothing that, uh, scary, which is not to minimize Trump, you know, as we can talk about, but that truly was impressive. Now, I should point out that it never happened, and, in fact, you know, Colson told Hunt, you know, to, to forget about the plan, that they had changed their minds.
They had actually something more important and more pressing they needed to do first, and that was to break into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. And so Hunt and Liddy, instead, broke into the Watergate, and of course, they were caught and arrested, and that led to the downfall of the entire administration. But you do have to wonder, if they hadn’t been caught, you know, might they have carried that out? You know, in the future, might they have succeeded and no one would ever know?
Nick Hirshon: That’s just amazing for me to consider that. And when you were talking about some of the sources that you’ve used trying to ask investigative journalists here to reveal some of his sources, although now it’s from the media historian side, I assumed you must have used the Jack Anderson papers at George Washington University where you were professor of media and public affairs before you left for the University of Maryland in 2011. So, also, you probably went to the Nixon Presidential Library. Can you just tell us a little bit about where you got some of your best sources for this book?
Mark Feldstein: Sure, yeah, I mean, I actually got Anderson to donate his papers to G.W. where I was teaching at the time. They had been at BYU, Brigham Young University. He’s a Mormon from Utah so that was where he put them but they had not been made public, and he was irritated about that. And there’s a bizarre story I can tell you about the G.W. archives, uh, maybe later, about how the FBI came and tried to seize them from, from us while I was working on my book. But, anyway, yeah, it was – it’s an interesting thing, and I’m sure, you know, journalism historians knew this long before I did. But in going through the archives, which was something that, you know, journalists generally don’t use much, and they should. But historians do.
I really hadn’t had any idea about how that would work and was surprised to see that a) there were a whole lot of different archives available, but b) you never know which ones are gonna have stuff that’s useful and which aren’t. So, for example, the Anderson papers that were donated to G.W., there really wasn’t that much that was in there that was useful.
Partly, that was because I had already gone to Anderson first and had been extensively interviewing him over several years so I had managed to persuade him to give me a bunch of stuff, so I think I got a lot of the best stuff already.
But the most useful archives, for me, the most useful, you know, sources, archival and otherwise, were the Nixon tapes were the single best source because that was real-time recording of, of what happened, not some reconstruction that people make after the fact to make themselves look good or have convenient amnesia about things or just genuinely forget.
But that happens in letters – even in letters and diaries and stuff that’s written contemporaneously, let alone memos or memoirs, which often are crafted to make the author look good. So that’s where a lot of the most outrageous stuff in my book came from was the Nixon tapes because Nixon said outrageous things all the time. I wasn’t able to find, by the way, on the tapes anything about the plot to assassinate Anderson. But there is still some of that stuff that’s sealed and not made public.
So it’s conceivable maybe someday that will come out.
Nick Hirshon: I was gonna talk to you about the Nixon Presidential Library a little bit because this whole concept of a presidential library may be foreign to a lot of our listeners, and I wanna just get some of your thoughts from your experiences there. The presidential library system, as we know, is composed of 14 presidential libraries overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives.
And there are archives and museums that are supposed to bring together documents and artifacts of a president and his administration, present them to the public for study and discussion. But one of the things that’s on the government website about this, it says this is supposed to be available, quote/unquote, “without regard for political consideration or affiliations.”
Sometimes, in practice, however, I’ve heard that presidential libraries do become very politicized. They are, in some ways, controlled by the families of the presidents who have an invested interest in making sure that this person is presented in some sort of – some might say fair, others might say, you know, overly a pleasant biased way.
And so when you’re dealing with the presidential library of somebody like Richard Nixon, who was almost impeached and resigned in disgrace, I’m wondering whether you feel they were holding back things or how was the archive giving you information? Were they a little bit suspicious of this sort of research?
Mark Feldstein: Well, that’s another great question, Nick, because you put your thumb on it. And no president, that I know of, has been quite so manipulative or attempted to manipulate his legacy in the archives as Nixon did. In many ways, the Watergate cover-up continued even after he left office in his attempts to control tapes and his archives.
And, in fact, Congress was so concerned that Nixon would, you know, had apparently – had, indeed, covered up, orchestrated to cover up of the Watergate scandal, and was widely presumed to have been behind a mysterious 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the tapes that, that experts found was actually deliberately done. They didn’t trust him. So they passed – Congress passed legislation to take the Nixon library and remove it from the control of Nixon and his family, and to house it at the National Archives in College Park rather than in California where Nixon was from and where he was building a library, and so that protected those, uh, those documents, which otherwise might have been destroyed.
Eventually, they were turned over after enough decades had gone by and a lot of the leadership there had died or moved on. They, they moved the records to California. But I remember when I visited it, being kind of astounded even at that late date, which was early – the early odds that it was still an utterly hagiographic museum and archive.
The museum, in particular, their exhibit on Patricia Nixon’s dresses, first lady’s dresses took up as much space as the Watergate exhibit. So, you know, Watergate was just one little part of this otherwise hagiographic museum collection, so, and, you know, and the archives, uh, were also, for a very long time, tightly-controlled like some kind of Soviet system.
In fact, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not allowed to go in and use the archives that they actually had something in writing, something that limited, you know, unfair reporters. I forget exactly how that phrased it. So it was designed to burnish the reputation of, of, of, of Nixon, not for historical truth.
Nick Hirshon: And of course as you’re mentioning, there’s always the prospect that a president, such as Nixon who probably infamously did this, would destroy certain papers that they don’t want to fall into public view years later even though the White House tapes did come to light, there might be some untold documents that you never do see in a presidential library or anybody’s archive because we’re all contributing to them and making sure that they’re sort of tailored to our best interest.
Mark Feldstein: Well, that’s right. And that’s true of other libraries, too, by the way. Kennedy Library, I went to for research on this book, and there was this key figure who acted in an early part of my book, who is essentially a bagman for the Kennedy’s. He was Joseph P. Kennedy’s lawyer. And he was involved in leaking some documents to Anderson that helped cost Nixon the presidency in 1960. I write about this in my book.
And this guy had been a, an assistant attorney general, and when I went to the Kennedy Library, there was no mention whatsoever of this man. It was as if he had never existed.
They had clearly sanitized all remnants of any track he might have left because they would have been embarrassing to the Kennedys.
Nick Hirshon: And so you brought up this prospect earlier of the many comparisons that journalists have been making lately between President Nixon and President Donald Trump. So a lot of those comparisons are based on their rhetoric, their vindictive attitude towards reporters, and now the chatter about potential impeachment that has clouded both of their presidencies.
You wrote a column for The Washington Post during the 2016 presidential campaign in June titled: “Trump’s War on the Media Carries Chilling Echoes of Nixon.” You pointed out in that column that both men were obsessive in seeking to manipulate news coverage and use intimidation if they thought it would help them.
So I’m wondering as somebody who knew so much about Nixon’s presidency and the way he dealt with the press, at what point in Trump’s presidential campaign did you start to make that comparison?
Mark Feldstein: Well, that’s a great question. I honestly don’t remember exactly when it was. You know, they say that to a hammer, everything is a nail. So perhaps I saw more Nixonian echoes earlier than were warranted. But, you know, Donald Trump has succeeded in some ways in surpassing Richard Nixon in terms of his hatred of the press. I mean, Nixon despised the press, which was ironic because actually they helped his rise to fame, the Alger Hiss case, it brought Nixon so much attention as an obscure congressman and really launched him, got him elected to the Senate and then picked as vice president all within a few years. That, that case was furthered by the news media, and Nixon himself was a big leaker and received very sympathetic coverage, but he didn’t view it that way, and even the little criticism he got, he took, took badly.
So, anyway, to answer your question, I’m not sure when, when that, that exact comparison hit me but it was striking and, and Trump would prove it, you know, to prove to out, out hate even Nixon.
Nick Hirshon: Do you think as someone who, again, was an insider, you know so much about this topic that there’s some misconceptions there, that it’s a little too easy to make the comparison between Nixon and Trump, and are there some nuances that people miss when they make that comparison?
Mark Feldstein: Yes, there are, and I’m glad you asked that. You know, in some, in some ways better, in some ways worse. You know, whatever Nixon’s flaws, he was fundamentally a serious man, serious about policy and politics in a way that Trump is not. Nixon would demagogue issues, including the press, but he largely did so in private, in terms of the press. The plotting he did against them, he conducted in the shadows. Whereas, Trump’s been deliberately doing it in public.
You know, and, and he’s been an ongoing theme almost every day, every week, Trump does something that attempts to indignity not just individual journalists, but the news media as an institution. Um, and Nixon, too, did a little bit in public. He sent Spiro Agnew out to attack the press and said a couple of things over the course of his presidency. But most of, most of his attempts at revenge were done in private, threatening to have Dan Rather fired when he was doing critical reporting.
Having his justice department, which is normally pro-business, start anti-trust proceedings against the television networks. So, and, you know, his enemies list some tax audits that targeted journalists. Jack Anderson was on that list. I think he was first on the list, actually.
So, but most of that was done in secret and only came out later.
Nick Hirshon: Well, so here’s what really interests me as you’re talking about how you research Nixon and the availability of those tapes, and if you’ll indulge me with a bit of a long question here. We don’t hear much from the historians’ perspective about the similarities in researching or in the future how you might research Donald Trump.
One of the advantages that you’ve mentioned about researching Nixon is that there’s a wealth of archival material, not only many letters but the infamous White House tapes that he secretly used to record conversations with his family, staff administration officials between ’71 and ’73. A lot of those tapes where he’s talking about journalists, and these are available through the Nixon Library, the National Archives, so many different outlets.
But for future historians, they’re probably not gonna have that kind of benefit for several reasons. There’s the simple fact that letter writing is less common today than it was in the seventies, so President Trump and those around him are not maybe writing letters. Those are being communicated more in e-mails that are gonna be difficult to track down years from now.
Or just in conversations that are not being recorded because we have no reason to believe, necessarily, that Trump is recording conversations the way Nixon did in the White House. So there are, of course, Donald Trump’s tweets, and he’s kind of prolific on Twitter so there’s a lot of that information, and there’s gonna be a lot of spontaneous photos and videos that people on social media post. There’s gonna be all these tell-all books that are coming out.
But do you ever think about the difficulty years from now if someone is trying to do the research you did on Jack Anderson and Nixon, and they’re writing a book about Trump and his war on the media, how difficult it’s gonna be to piece that together because of the lack of available sources?
Mark Feldstein: Well, this is an issue for all, all, you know, all historians, really. Yes, it’s, it’s an issue. Nixon was really unique in terms of not taping himself surreptitiously. That, in fact, was done on a much lesser basis by, by Kennedy and Johnson, and, and Eisenhower even, but – or FDR.
But what was unusual about Nixon taping system was that it was voice-activated, that is to say it had, you know, hundreds of hours that were recorded, not just, you know, a few hours. It wasn’t just – the other presidents were smart enough to control the on/off switch, so they didn’t record the bad stuff they did. Only Nixon did. And the reason Nixon did was actually kind of silly, but he was very mechanically inept, and he had trouble using the on/off switch.
So they finally decided to make it voice-activated, which recorded everything, including his felonies. So it’s, it’s too much to expect that for any other president. They all learned a lesson after Nixon about taping, and so you’re right, there is a, a – there won’t be as much as Nixon had. And – but I think there really will be a wealth with Trump; again, that’s unusual.
I think, I think Bush, and, and Obama, for example, there’s gonna be a real black hole there. Cheney, in particular, was very, pretty Machiavellian about making sure stuff was not put in writing. He knew, as a veteran of previous – of the Nixon administration, what could happen, but you’re right. The tell-all books, the fact that all these prosecutions, that, you know, brings out testimony under oath, and, you know, also the fact that Trump does not engender the same type of loyalty among his staff that most presidents do. So all of that, I think, will lead us to, you know, knowing a lot more about the Trump White House than the ones that preceded it.
Nick Hirshon: So what do you make about availability of presidential tweets under Trump because, in one sense, it’s great you get to see his mind at work at all hours of the day, early in the morning, late at night, immediate reactions. We don’t have to guess at what he was thinking. We know what he was thinking at that moment because he impulsively seems to be tweeting about it. But then from the historian’s perspective, that’s so easily available, it’s accessible for everybody so it’s not really special when we then include it in a book years later. So what’s the value, or lack thereof, of social media in reconstructing history?
Mark Feldstein: Well, I think, in Trump’s case, it’s very valuable because he’s so prolific and because he – it seems that his id, you know, has no check on himself when he’s tweeting. So I think that actually provides a lot of insight. Yes, it will be known more at the time, and that’s, I think, a good thing in a democracy, but, or for the public, but there’ll still be lots to analyze for historians. In terms of social media a whole, I mean, this has been a – you know, there’s always been these issues, as the technology changes, it’s just like media, right?
We – and journalism technology changes as we, as we develop, and, and that is kind of fundamental to have journalism changes, with, you know, live, live, live TV and cable and all that stuff. Internet. So social media is really changing how, how historians and all the technology changes have historians research things.
There was a lot of concern when e-mail first came along that we would lose paper as a, as a sort of document that would last, and that the e-mails would disappear into the ether, and that’s a concern, but there are also benefits. If you preserve the e-mail, it’s, it’s easier to search, right, so, and the same with social media. So there’s, there’s kind of pluses and minuses, but I think, you know, it’s always gonna be this game, kind of cat and mouse game between the people who want to hide stuff, whether it’s current or in the future as for – and the journalists or historians who are trying to unearth it.
Nick Hirshon: And you become a very public historian. You are out there giving lectures. You’re on TV, making podcast appearances like this. I wonder what you think about your role there and whether you try to restrict yourself, be more objective in a sense. Because we had a previous Journalism History podcast interview with William David Sloan, the author of The Media in America, and he was talking about the history of that.
But he also said how he would make – if he ever made a media appearance, he’d be very reluctant to talk in political ways. He didn’t want to maybe restrict his audience or just get too involved in the currency. It seems like a lot of other historians are willing to weigh into that, an author perspective. I’m kind of curious where you fall on that? Are you sometimes concerned that you’ll say something that makes people think, oh, he’s just anti-Trump so I’m not going to read his book or really take his research seriously, or do you think that there’s value in making it seem relevant because you’re talking about why Nixon is still relevant today because we see some of those same similarities with Trump?
Mark Feldstein: Well, as you can probably tell [laughter] from my comments, I, you know, I’m, I’m fairly open about what my opinions are. You know, when I left journalism for academia, one of, one of the advantages to me was that I didn’t have to necessarily hide my views under a, a, a basket. You know, that said, I try to be objective. I try to be fair.
Certainly my classes, I leave that stuff out because I want students to, to feel welcome to, to speak no matter what their views are. But, you know, I’m not gonna pretend that Trump is, you know, something he’s not, and he is kind of an aberration, I think, as a president.
And certainly his attitudes towards the news media have been pretty savage, and I don’t see a reason to pull those punches. That’s all part of a larger question of where on the continuum do historians go? And some are very private and don’t like doing media interviews. I mean, I was on television as a correspondent at CNN and ABC so I’m kind of used to being out there public.
And I think it’s a good thing to be able to educate the public. You know, you have to be careful about the lack of rigor that can come with being too popular in what you do. And I’m still often rather appalled at what passes for history by journalist who don’t have academic background or education in history, the kind of popularizing the – that leads to the elevation of the individual, above all else.
And a great man in history that can, can miss sort of larger forces and currents that really are what shapes history in the long run, the social, economic, political, cultural forces, the institutional forces, but, you know, we all, we all, we all, you know, go where our personalities lead us and that’s where it’s led me.
Nick Hirshon: Well, there is also a concern in this Trump era where there is so much news happening so fast, and all of it seems so important that maybe we’re overstating the importance, sometimes, of these events. It’s hard to say. Often, in history, we discuss this idea of having to wait maybe a few decades, at least, to really know how things are gonna play out, how significant was it really that Donald Trump did this or has this war with the media?
So how do you kind of balance that where you’re trying to comment in real-time on this, but you’re also aware that maybe ten years from now, we’re like, oh, that was a blip on the radar and it means nothing compared to whoever succeeds Trump in the White House, or whatever else happened after that.
Mark Feldstein: Well, I certainly try to be mindful of an historical long view, and I think, I think you’re right. Journalism, in particular, has an incentive, really, to hype what’s going on. It’ll boost ratings. It, you know, increases clicks. And the historian’s obligation, as all academics have, is to something bigger and larger and more nuanced than that. You know, news, the first, you know, news is new, right. It’s built into the word.
And so there’s always this emphasis. And, again, I’m often surprised when I see journalists sort of often saying it’s the biggest, or the best, or the worst, or, or the smallest, whatever, it’s, it’s these large adjectives that may not actually be historically accurate.
Nick Hirshon: So then one thing when we were talking about presidential libraries that interests me is the prospect of a future Donald J. Trump presidential library. And there’s been a lot of discussion about where that might be located and what it might include. As somebody who does this sort of research, had been at the Nixon Library, what do you think a future Donald Trump presidential library might look like in terms of the materials it might house, the kind of access it might afford?
There’s been some concern that maybe Donald Trump, unlike previous presidents, doesn’t care as much about documenting his legacy. Maybe he doesn’t have a lot of high-powered, wealthy friends who are going to help preserve some of these materials, and things going on like his boyhood home or other sorts of historic sites that are often done by family members or donors who really have an interest in saving this. So what do you think, in the future, that presidential library might be?
Mark Feldstein: Well, um, [laughter] I hadn’t really thought about that before but it’s an interesting thing to ponder, isn’t it?
First of all, I guess I would say that I suspect most of the valuable information about the Trump presidency and the Trump White House probably won’t be housed in his library, wherever it is and whatever – whoever funds it that, you know, I suspect most of the really interesting stuff is gonna be what comes out of these federal prosecutions that are under way; the Mueller investigation and the other sort of investigations
When they have subpoena power, when they can, you know, get people to testify under oath, they’re probably more apt to produce useful stuff. And then, ultimately, the memos and private stuff that get declassified eventually. You know, even with, even with, you know, more typical presidents, there often isn’t that much, that’s in there that’s surprising.
So much of it is kind of boilerplate stuff, and, and stuff that is preserved because it makes the presidents look good. In Trump’s case, I think we can absolutely expect that to the extent that he has a library, you know, it will be – he’s a marketer, right, by, by design, and by background, and it will be marketing his presidency as best he can or best his acolytes can.
But the other thing about Trump is, you know, he’s not a reader to put it politely, and I don’t think he’s gonna have much that’s in writing that’s preserved. I don’t know how much the people around him preserve in writing, but there are many e-mails and texts which, if they’re preserved, would be interesting, and they’re more likely to be preserved because of all of these, uh, prosecute – you know, federal investigations that are going on that are gonna subpoena this stuff and get hold of this stuff.
And so, you know, to the extent it’s under the control of others beyond the Trump White House, it’s probably more likely to be kept rather than destroyed if it’s embarrassing to Trump.
Nick Hirshon: Do you think that someday, you would be interested in writing that sort of a book about Trump and his war on the media since you already have that knowledge about what happened with Anderson and Nixon?
Mark Feldstein: You know, probably not just because I’m a little sick of the topic [laughter] for one thing, and I’ve got other stuff I want to write about. So, maybe, maybe eventually but I suspect, you know, there’ll be a new generation of historians that come along, and, uh, perhaps have, have more zeal for it.
Nick Hirshon: Well, then if you want to help that new generation when they’re trying to identify who were the journalists who were kind of the top foils for Trump, it seems like there were so many because maybe unlike Nixon, he didn’t have only a few people. It’s kind of just everybody who’s at a presidential press conference, at some point, it seems like he’s criticized or been curt with. There’s Jim Ascosta. There’s Abby Phillip. There’s a lot.
But have you seen one or two journalists, in particular, who you think have that Jack Anderson-like foil-ability towards Trump in this sense?
Mark Feldstein: There’s nobody really of Anderson’s stature in the press that I think who will assume the role of public energy number one as Anderson was for Nixon, although Nixon hated a lot of other reporters, too. But I would imagine, you know, for the historian where it will be,most fertile is not much in the Jim Acostas, the CNN reporter, who’s, you know, dueled with, with Trump rather publicly. He was, you know, he reminds me of Dan Rather with Nixon.
And they had, you know, kind of colossal battles. And, in fact, it turned out later, we didn’t know from the Nixon tape that Nixon tried to, you know, retaliate against Rather by having these phony letters sent in by the Republican National Committee and their people attacking – or rather calling for him to be fired, and, you know, disguising the fingerprints of the White House on it. So there may be something like that with Trump’s people, but I doubt even that. I think Trump, you know, is more, you know, using Twitter. There might be other stuff, tax audits and other things that come out.
But I, I think what might really be the most interesting is the reporters who are really breaking the biggest stories, you know, particularly with The Washington Post and The New York Times. They’re not famous, at this point, the way Woodward and Bernstein were, or Seymour Hersh of The New York Times was during Nixon’s era.
But where they’re getting their information, who their sources are, what their motives are for, for leaking it, that’s gonna be a fascinating story to unravel. And, actually, as I, as I start thinking about it, that, that’s something I might be interested in doing, in researching.
Nick Hirshon: It also strikes me that the fragmentation of the media in the years after Nixon because in the seventies, you still had very strong newspapers like The Washington Post, where Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was able to carry a lot of weight and reach a very big audience. But in this age where there is so much politicized media and just blogs and social media, and it becomes like a cacophony of voices where there’s not one centralized person who everybody is really listening to.
It might be a little bit difficult for one entity or one journalist to take on a president and have that kind of impact the way that Anderson did on Nixon. Do you think that’s part of what we’re seeing with the way the media is set up right now?
Mark Feldstein: I think it’s absolutely right. It’s much more decentralized and fragmented, and so, you know, and that kind of keeps there being stars rise to get the kind of attention that Anderson got from Nixon. But then, again, you know, Anderson was also important because there were – there was no place else to go if you had dirt, you know, back through much of his career.
And it was really Watergate that, that let – help lead of this explosion of investigative reporting and all of these outlets doing it. And I think, ultimately, that’s better for a democracy, for the citizenry to have lots of different outlets competing to, to, to hold public officials accountable.
Nick Hirshon: So as we start to wrap up the conversation, a few questions just to kind of peek behind the curtain here to kind of understand how you’ve become such a great public scholar. You’ve gotten your work out in front of so many audiences. And a lot of journalism historians are a little bit reluctant to do what you’ve done, but obviously, you have that great background as a journalist so you know how to get yourself out there.
I think a lot of us, in this field, sometimes, become a little bit shy and we feel more comfortable around dusty archives, and away from people and the public. But you’ve had a lot of success making appearances on the likes of CNN and MSNBC, and so many other places you’ve been on, C-SPAN, Book TV.
What is your advice on how to publicize one’s work?
Mark Feldstein: Well, I mean, some of that just comes with if you start doing it, then other people read your quotes and call you, or, you know, it kind of builds on itself. So there’s really not that much you, you know, one does except decide yes or no to, to respond. I mean, I think if you write op-eds and submit op-eds, that helps raise your, your visibility or visibility of the scholarship that you’re engaged in.
If you return reporters’ phone calls and return them quickly because they’re on deadline, you know, that’s, that’s a good way if you wanna also, to, to get more attention for it if that’s what you want. I think, I think it helps to write in a way that’s – and speak in a way, that’s accessible, that, you know, the average person might understand more readily than the kind of, you know, scholarly style that we use in our peer-reviewed journal articles.
Nick Hirshon: I think that’s what helps. Your background is so good there because you’ve had so many years as a reporter learning how to speak to the masses. But then you also have a Ph.D. so you have the research credentials to back it up. And you know the differences between producing a work of journalism and a work of history and be able to bring that into all of those media appearances.
And that kind of folds into this final question that we ask all of our guest on this podcast, quite simply, why do you think journalism history matters? You’ve done a lot work in this. Obviously, you’ve kind of had this career change where you went from being a reporter to now being a media historian. A lot of success in this field. Why do you think the history of journalism matters?
Mark Feldstein: Well, I think journalists, for most of American history, were kind of neglected as a topic of study, and particularly when it comes to politics in Washington, which is my particular research interest.
Journalists are, are important, and, sometimes, invisible players in how policy and politics are shaped. And they’re often eyewitnesses to history and know more about things that often don’t get recorded and don’t get passed on, than, than anyone realizes. That’s less true in the recent past. Reporters write more memoirs and there no longer is so much self-censorship about what they put in their articles or their broadcasts.
But you know, they’re – it’s, it’s a cliché. Phil Graham’s famous quote about, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But they do have a front seat at the table, and they are an integral part in, in how politics and policy happen in, in this country. And understanding that helps us understand how things happen and, ultimately, who we are.
Nick Hirshon: Well, thank you so much for your contributions and that conversation, and for being a guest here on the Journalism History podcast.
Mark Feldstein: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast. And additional thanks to our sponsor, Erika Pribanic-Smith, co-author of Emma Goldman’s No Conscription Lead in the First Amendment. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: good night, and good luck.