How far a political leader might be willing to go in controlling, circumventing, and punishing media that oppose him.
President Trump continues to attack news media critical of his policies as “enemies of the people” who perpetuate “fake news.” In mid-August of this year, 300 of the nation’s newspapers published editorials decrying his continuing attacks on first amendment rights. “Journalists are not the enemy,” said a Boston Globe editorial. “This reckless assault on the free press has dangerous consequences.”
A few previous presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson have sought to curb newspapers that opposed their policies. But Trump has gone much further, blaming the media for many of his problems. His supporters have proposed empowering the FCC to suspend the licenses of offending broadcast networks and broadening the libel laws to make it easier for office holders to sue the media.
All of this is an assault on the guarantee of freedom of the press under the first amendment to the Constitution. One of the best examples of the potential menace is not a president but rather Huey Long (1893-1935), Democratic governor of Louisiana 1928-1932 and U.S. Senator, 1932-1935.
A Determined Populist Politician
Huey Long, a bombastic, populist politician, was a reform governor who carried out highway and bridge construction, and expanded access to health care and education. But he was a ruthless politician who consolidated power, installed supporters at every level of government, bullied opponents, and corralled votes for his legislative proposals. He attached amendments he wanted to unrelated legislation to ensure passage of his programs and called special sessions of the legislature to ram his initiatives through. He garnered support by appointing legislators or their friends to state government jobs. Long was unrelenting in his attacks on political opponents.
Long often referred to the media, political opponents, and big business as a corrupt alliance that opposed his policies and exploited the people of the state. As his biographer T. Harry Williams notes in his book Huey Long, he had a penchant for claiming that his “opponents and everybody opposed to him were in reality working together, that the whole crowd was controlled by the same corporate interests.” Sometimes, Williams notes, Long “had to act with almost brutal directness. If he had used gentler methods, he would not have been able to achieve his purpose.”
He proposed a tax on oil refinery operators to fund part of his programs. This brought him into conflict with Standard Oil, one of the state’s largest employers. According to the essay on his governorship on the Huey Long website, which presents a balanced view of his work, “Huey was in a hurry to get things done and passed scores of laws that enabled him to enact his programs. A legal genius, Huey used the law to his advantage without breaking it.”
Opponents saw it differently, more in line with the views of another Long biographer, William I. Hair, whose book, The Kingfish and His Realm, portrays Long as a gifted, charismatic character with a dark side who craved power above all else. Long’s critics secured enough votes in the legislature to impeach him for “high crimes and misdemeanors in office, incompetency, corruption, favoritism, oppression in office, and gross misconduct.” But there were not enough votes to convict and remove him.
Coercing the Press
The state’s largest newspapers, particularly the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, opposed many of Long’s proposals, including the oil tax, and denounced him as a scoundrel and potential dictator. Louisiana State University professor Alecia P. Long has documented his campaign to coerce the press.
Huey Long declared war on the big newspapers. “These daily newspapers have been against every progressive step in the state,” he asserted, “and the only way for the people of Louisiana to get ahead is to stomp them flat.” He established a State Printing Board (members appointed by the governor) to select which papers would carry official state notices and which would be eligible to be the “official printer” for government subdivisions in Louisiana. Newspapers that opposed him did not fare well. A number of the state’s small weekly newspapers, reliant on government work for part of their revenue, were cowed and discontinued discussing politics.
He tried to blackmail the owner and editor of the Morning Advocate by threatening to reveal that the editor’s brother was an inmate in a state mental institution. The editor stood firm and exposed Long’s threat.
He threatened to shut down the Louisiana State University newspaper after it published an unfriendly editorial about him.
He founded his own newspaper, the Louisiana Progress, which he used to tout his achievements and attack political opponents. State employees were urged to take out subscriptions to show their fealty to the governor, state agencies took out ads, and state employees, including state police, sometimes helped distribute the paper to all corners of the state.
He floated a proposal to allow the state to seek an injunction to stop the publication of any newspaper deemed “obscene, lewd or lascivious” or “malicious, scandalous, or defamatory.” The proposal died in committee in the legislature, but it was evidence of how far Long was willing to go to coerce the press.
Using Taxing Power to Attack The Press
Long’s main assault was a tax on advertising in large-circulation newspapers, most of which adamantly opposed his policies. Long left the governorship and became a U.S. Senator. But he still dominated Louisiana politics and shepherded the newspaper tax bill through the legislature in 1934. His motivation was clear: the “lying newspapers should have to pay for their lying,” he insisted. “Big Louisiana newspapers tell a lie every time they make a dollar. This tax should be called a tax on lying, two cents a lie.”
It was a blatant attempt to use the power of taxation to intimidate the press and punish Long’s critics.
In Washington, he proposed a “Share-Our-Wealth” scheme that promised heavy taxation of the rich, government subsidies to households, and other initiatives, in the hope of winning the presidency in 1936.
The Supreme Court Draws a Line to Protect Freedom of the Press
The tax proposal passed and newspapers fought back with a lawsuit contending the tax was a violation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which endorsed the newspapers’ argument that one purpose of the First Amendment was to prevent the government from using its power to coerce the press and silence political opponents. In Grosjean v. American Press Company (February 1936) the Court unanimously found the tax unconstitutional.
“The newspapers, magazines and other journals of the country, it is safe to say, have shed and continue to shed, more light on the public and business affairs of the nation than any other instrumentality of publicity, and, since informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment, the suppression or abridgment of the publicity afforded by a free press cannot be regarded otherwise than with grave concern,” wrote Justice George Sutherland in the Court’s opinion.
“The tax here involved is bad not because it takes money from the pockets of the appellees. If that were all, a wholly different question would be presented,” Sutherland continued. “It is bad because, in the light of its history and of its present setting, it is seen to be a deliberate and calculated device in the guise of a tax to limit the circulation of information to which the public is entitled in virtue of the constitutional guaranties.”
“A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people,” Sutherland added, in words that echo today. “To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.”
The Supreme Court’s decision was a milestone in the history of the judicial defense of freedom of the press and, as Adam Winkler explains in his new book We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights, has broad ramifications down to the present time.
By the time the Court’s decision was issued, Long had was gone from the political scene, the victim of an assassination in 1935.
But his example shows how far a political leader might be willing to go in controlling press coverage, circumventing the mainstream media, and punishing media that oppose him.