President Donald Trump is on the rampage again, tweeting outrageous attacks on the media but this time with an authoritarian edge. It's as if Bob Dylan actually wrote, "The First Amendment will later be last, for the times they are a-changin" under Trump.
Weeks ago Trump charged that the media did not like America, and was an "enemy of the American people." Now he has taken it a dangerous step further, tweeting last week, "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?" He added: "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked." Then he said, "It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write."
There is little doubt that if Trump had the power of an autocrat/dictator he would use it to quash network and cable news coverage that disturbs him. What Trump can only dream about (and he probably does) a former, far more beloved, occupant of the White House, John F. Kennedy, halfway accomplished.
JFK, with the aid of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, killed a major Cold War era news report by Daniel Schorr for CBS. Then, fifty-five years ago this month, he got NBC---Trump's favorite target—-to suppress what would later become a landmark in the history of television. One wonders if Trump could accomplish the same, if only he was less impulsive and inept.
Kennedy may have been the first matinee idol in the White House but he had the usual presidential love-hate relationship with the press and was obsessed with leaks, even ordering the FBI to tap the phone of a leading New York Times reporter. Years before Nixon took office, he illegally induced the CIA to form a panel to investigate leaks to reporters. He was as thin-skinned as most of his predecessors and received plenty of media criticism, especially after fumbling a summit meeting with Soviet leader Khrushchev and ordering the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. He sensed, therefore, that any military confrontation in a divided Berlin, after the East Germans, with the help of the Soviets, erected the Wall, had the potential to sink his presidency (this was before he stood up to the Soviets over missiles in Cuba).
So in August, 1962, when the State Department learned that CBS's Schorr was filming at an escape tunnel under the Berlin Wall, set to carry refugees from the East to freedom, Kennedy approved moves by Rusk to bully the network into ordering Schorr off the story. The explanation would be: National security. Dramatic escapes at the border, especially with any U.S. links, official or otherwise, raised tensions with the Soviets which could escalate to war.
JFK's friend Blair Clark happened to be CBS news chief, and Clark caved just hours before the escape operation began on August 7, 1962. Recently declassified State Department cables fully document the episode. Schorr would remain angry about this until he died.
One can easily imagine Trump trying to suppress a Fox News special today--and perhaps succeeding--especially if Roger Ailes was still at the helm. But Trump has few other friends in high places (besides Steve Bannon) at major news outlets. Fox is unlikely to challenge him anyway.
While this was transpiring, NBC was secretly filming another tunnel project in Berlin. It would be completed in September 1962 before the State Department or CIA found out about it. Twenty-nine East Germans escaped and NBC soon completed a 90-minute prime time special. Before it could air, the Kennedy administration again exerted pressure, citing the broadcast as a national security risk likely to provoke the Soviets. Rusk summoned NBC executives and the show's producer, Reuven Frank, to his office to make his case.
And he succeeded. NBC decided to postpone the October airing. When it seemed ready to kill it entirely, Frank wrote out his resignation. That December, however, NBC suddenly put it on its schedule at short notice and then held it breath. (See recently declassified documents for both the CBS and NBC suppression used in my book, The Tunnels.)
To its delight, the NBC film, The Tunnel, would earn high ratings (even against popular sitcoms starring Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith) and critical raves. The following spring it would become the first non-fiction show to win the Emmy for "Program of the Year" along with two other Emmys. Frank, who had decided to stay at the network after its decision to air his program, blasted the State Department in an acceptance speech (he would later become president of NBC News). Piers Anderton, the chief correspondent for the film, however, would later toss his Emmy in the trash. You can watch the film here.
Other presidents would later succeed in convincing network executives and newspaper editors to delay or even cancel a sensitive probe, citing national security, usually on much firmer ground than the vague JFK/Rusk arguments. President Trump could play that card today if a showdown with, say, North Korea develops. But unlike Kennedy, he has so compromised his credibility with his almost daily attacks on the press--over largely trivial matters--that it would be surprising if he found any success. Trump is the boy who tweeted "Wolf" too often for his own, and possibly the country's, good.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books including his latest The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown), just published in a paperback edition.