Wilson, War, and the Press

When I started on my journey to learn more about the presidents, I assumed Woodrow Wilson would be one of my favorites. I had an image of him as an educated progressive whose values would surely align with my own. 

Instead, I found a man so sure of his own righteousness that he feels impossible to like. This is a man who felt that God had sent him to become president and save the nation. Not exactly a relatable guy! 

I recently read a piece about Wilson's relationship with the press during WWI that further solidified my discomfort with his presidency. Appearing on the Smithsonian website, Christopher Daly's essay explains how Wilson sought, and in many ways received, complete control of the press. 

Daly writes, "In its crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” the Wilson administration took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy – press freedom – by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history." 

I encourage you read the whole piece, but these two sections struck me as especially shocking: 

"The whole operation took advantage of a fact of journalistic life. In times of war, readers hunger for news and newspapers attempt to meet that demand. But at the same time, the government was taking other steps to restrict reporters’ access to soldiers, generals, munitions-makers and others involved in the struggle. So, after stimulating the demand for news while artificially restraining the supply, the government stepped into the resulting vacuum and provided a vast number of official stories that looked like news."

"The CPI News Division then went a step further, creating something new in the American experience: a daily newspaper published by the government itself. Unlike the “partisan press” of the 19th century, the Wilson-era Official Bulletin was entirely a governmental publication, sent out each day and posted in every military installation and post office as well as in many other government offices. In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily." 

As part of my ongoing project to better understand the presidency, I'll be returning to Wilson in the future. But for now, stories like Daly's confirm my already negative perception of a man I once thought would rank with one of the greats.