A newspaper accused the president's family of profiting from a foreign deal. The president sued.
The president was furious over "scurrilous and libelous" newspaper articles alleging wrongdoing by men linked to his administration. Somebody should sue the newspapers for libel, he suggested. Maybe even the federal government should do it.
The president was Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1908 was stirred to anti-press rhetoric that foreshadowed the anger of President Trump about what he calls the fake-news media. That anger has ramped up as Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and their associates have come under scrutiny for an alleged foreign influence campaign of their own.
But back in 1908, Roosevelt campaigned for fellow Republican William Howard Taft to be his successor. A month before Election Day, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World disclosed charges that a secret American "syndicate" made "huge profits" from the U.S. purchase of the Panama Canal property from France for $40 million. Those involved allegedly included relatives of both Roosevelt and Taft.
The day before the election, the Indianapolis News published an editorial asking, "Who Got the Money?" The result was the biggest presidential attack on the press since John Adams jailed journalists under the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which barred criticism of the president.
In contrast to Trump, Roosevelt generally enjoyed friendly relations with the press after the former vice president succeeded President William McKinley, who was assassinated in September 1901. On returning from McKinley's funeral, the 42-year-old Roosevelt met in the White House with reporters from three major news services. "I shall be accessible" to you for information, Roosevelt said. But he added, "If you even hint where you got it, I'll say you are a damned liar."
Roosevelt installed a press room inside the White House. He often leaked stories to reporters while getting his daily shave, but always anonymously. "Newspaper readers who at any time see what purports to be an interview with the president may be reasonably certain that is a fake," one Washington Star journalist told readers in 1902.
The president "went so far on more than one occasion to write out with his own hand what he wanted sent over the wires," reporter David Barry said later. One day newspapers revealed that Standard Oil Co. had sent telegrams urging some senators to vote against a railroad bill that Roosevelt supported, Barry said. The man who "wrote the preliminary news item that was sent to the afternoon papers was the President himself."
Then, on Oct. 3, 1908, the World reported that the lawyer for the Panama Canal company, William Nelson Cromwell, had complained to the New York district attorney that he was being blackmailed for money. Cromwell informed the World that political opponents had threatened to claim that he was involved with financiers who had profited from Roosevelt's pet project, the purchase of the Panama Canal being built in Panama between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The syndicate allegedly included Roosevelt's brother-in-law Douglas Robinson and Taft's brother Charles Taft, the publisher of the Cincinnati Times-Star. Cromwell said the claim was false. Taft and Robinson later also denied it. The World published five more articles raising questions about the administration's purchase of the Panama Canal.
Roosevelt ignored the World articles as a political attack. But after the editorial by the Indianapolis News, a Republican newspaper, he sent a message to the Associated Press that assertions "that any American had profited from the sale of the Panama Canal is a slander." He called the editor of the Indianapolis News "a conspicuous offender against the laws of honesty and truthfulness."
After the election, which Taft won, Congress began an investigation into the allegations. In a message to Congress in mid-December, Roosevelt declared that the news articles were a "libel upon the United States government." He singled out Pulitzer as "the real offender," adding: "It is therefore a high national duty to bring to justice this villifier of the American people, this man who wantonly and wickedly and without one shadow of justification seeks to blacken the character of reputable private citizens and to convict the federal government of his own country."
At this point, the 61-year-old Pulitzer was in such poor health that he no longer was involved in the World's day-to-day operations. He spent most of his time on his yacht, the Liberty, docked in Charleston, South Carolina. Pulitzer didn't even know about the paper's Panama Canal articles until early December, according to author Denis Brian in his book "Pulitzer: A Life." After Roosevelt's message to Congress, the publisher met with one of his editors in Manhattan. He asked what proof the paper had that Roosevelt's brother-in-law and Taft's brother were involved.
"None at all," the editor replied. "My god. No proof? You print such stories without proof?" Pulitzer said.
Pulitzer responded to Roosevelt in an editorial titled "The Persecution of the Press." The president "can't muzzle the World," he wrote. "The persecution, if it succeeds, will place every newspaper in the country ... completely at the mercy of any autocratic, vainglorious president who is willing to prostitute his authority for the gratification of his personal malice." Pulitzer said regardless of the ultimate truth of the specific charges, the paper was "letting in the light" on a public controversy.
In February 1909, Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (the great-nephew of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) obtained federal grand jury indictments in Washington charging officials of the World and the Indianapolis News with criminal libel against six individuals, including Roosevelt, under an 1825 law. A judge issued arrest warrants. Roosevelt then went off to Africa for some big-game hunting. Pulitzer stayed on his yacht outside the international three-mile limit in the Gulf of Mexico.
Eight months later, federal judge A.B. Anderson in Indiana threw out the case against the Indianapolis News. "Here is a matter of great public concern," Anderson said. "Here was a newspaper printing the news, or trying to." Roosevelt called the judge "a crook and a jackass."
The suit against the World came to an abrupt end in January 1910 when a federal court in New York City quashed the indictments, saying there isn't any federal authority to sue for libel.
Despite its victory, the World pressed the government to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to get a definitive ruling. At the last minute, the Taft administration filed the appeal. On Jan. 4, 1911, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, unanimously upheld the lower-court ruling that there isn't any federal law against libel. Newspapers across the country hailed the ruling as a "Great Victory for Freedom of the Press."
"The decision of the Supreme Court is so sweeping," wrote Pulitzer, "that no other president will be tempted to follow the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt no matter how greedy he may be for power, no matter how resentful of opposition."