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Newspaper Writers Whipping Each Other in the Street? Just Another Day for the Media in Lincoln's Time

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"He who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions." - Abraham Lincoln, August 21, 1858

Many journalists today may think they are dedicated to the profession and pursuit of their craft, but any would be hard pressed to top the stick to-it-tiveness of Elijah Lovejoy.

The unabashedly Abolitionist publisher twice had his entire newspaper operation and offices destroyed and sacked by angry mobs. When he moved his business across the river to another state with purportedly more liberal leanings in 1837, another mob formed. They then set the offices on fire, shoved the printing press out the window into a river, and then killed Lovejoy with a shotgun blast to the chest.

The culture of journalism and the wild ride news of the times - and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln - is the subject of Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer's exhaustive history Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (768 pp., $37.50, Simon & Schuster).

Holzer portrays a vivid time when newspapers were the lifeline of information for most of the country, thriving in numbers (with many cities large and small having multiple dailies), and influential in public and social policy. The phrase "objective journalism" was more the exception than the norm.

Papers - along with their editors and writers - unabashedly colored their coverage, aligning themselves with a particular political party, train of thought, or individual candidates. That many published "anonymous" editorials - often written by the editors or politicians themselves and passed off as Man on the Street thought - was widespread.

Through the mid-19th century, rivalries between papers and their staff were of such proportion that fistfights, cane fights and whippings in the street between rival scribes were commonplace.

As was the fairly-new practice of extensive coverage of political speeches. In the days before every journalist had a recording device, advance written copy, or film footage to capture a politician's words, imagine trying to frantically write down the words of a speech while hearing only the speaker's unamplified voice. And then vying for accuracy against crowd noise, the wind, fellow journalists and even the positioning of the writer's bullpen behind the podium.

In addition to chronicling Lincoln's alternate pursuit, flattery, and power moves with newspapers both before and during his Presidency, Holzer also adds a colorful cast of characters at papers in Lincoln's native Illinois, Washington, D.C. and - most importantly - New York City.

The Big Three Editors: Henry Raymond, James Gordon Bennett, and Horace Greeley would battle for subscribers, influence, and access to the government corridors of power.

Greeley in particular was alternately vexing and pleasing Lincoln, his pale visage, long white hair, and dandy white coat a frequent subject for political cartoonists of the time. That he also longed to hold political office himself further muddied his mission.

Less burnishing to Lincoln's legacy is his administrations - with his outward or subtle influence - suppressing or outright shutting down of newspapers and jailing of staff who wrote against many of his policies throughout the Civil War. Though, to be fair, Confederate leaders often did the same.

In 1861, 200 papers in the country on both sides of the conflict - including the Chicago Times - went through this process. And coverage of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (which Holzer categorizes as a "thunderbolt that was burning a hole in [Lincoln's] desk drawer"), further inflamed public sentiment and reporters alike.

Before he was commander of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant took part in shutting down newspaper offices. One New York paper printed a blatantly false story about New York Republicans holding a "Miscegenation Ball" where blacks and whites attended together and - gasp - frolicked and danced!

While at times too scholarly-written, Lincoln and the Power of the Press is an illuminating and gripping snapshot of a period when relations between the politicians and the press exhibited tendencies both unthinkable today as well as all too current.

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