March 29th, 2017

Presidents and the press

You think the press is bad now? And you think relations between the press and presidents have never been worse on both sides? Don’t be too sure.

The following quote is taken from an article by Ryan Holiday about a book by Harold Holzer called Lincoln and the Power of the Press:

In addition to waging war on the battlefield, in the courts, in Congress, Lincoln was also required to fight and win on the hotly contested front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

If you were to ask the average person what they know about Lincoln and the media, they’d probably say something about him throwing journalists in jail or suspending certain Constitutional rights. That is true and it is interesting.

Actually, I disagree about what the “average person” would say. I don’t know what circles the author of that article moves in, but I’d estimate that maybe—maybe—about 10% of the population knows about those things. And I actually think that’s being generous.

More from Holiday:

“He lies like a newspaper” was a common mid-19th century expression about people you couldn’t trust. Or as Lincoln once joked to a friend about the “reliability” of newspapers, “they lie and then they re-lie.”

And was the telegraph the Twitter of its day?

In addition to the propagation of “Lightning Presses” which made it truly possible and economical for large scale daily newspapers, the newness of telegraph probably had the single largest impact on mid-1800s journalism. As the Richmond Dispatch reported in July 1863 about the impact of the telegraph on reporting:

“It covers us all over with lies, fills the very air we breathe and obscures the very sun; makes us doubt of everything we read, because we know that the chances are ten to one it is false; and leaves us uncertain, at last of our own existence. Men say it brings intelligence quick; yet every event announced by it is always so obfuscated by these quick-coming reports, all destroying one another, that the true story is generally longer in being ascertained than it was before.’

And “fake news”? Here’s an entire article about the charges and counter-charges concerning fake news swirling around the perennial populist candidate William Jennings Bryan (circa 1896):

In an era before the internet, television, or radio, the best way to reach the masses is with newsprint. So, without the option of tweeting his grievances after losing the election to William McKinley, what does Bryan do? He starts his own newspaper. And he uses it to rail against “fake news.”…

“There seems to be an epidemic of fake news from the city of Lincoln, [Nebraska], and it all comes from Mr. Bryan’s ‘friends’—names not given,” Bryan’s newspaper, The Commoner, wrote in 1907. “It would seem unnecessary to deny reports sent out to which no name was attached, and yet it has been necessary to send a number of telegrams to notify other papers that the report was unauthorized…

I’ll close with three quotes from Thomas Jefferson, from an even earlier era:

Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.

I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

10 Responses to “Presidents and the press”

  1. Paul in Boston Says:

    If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.
    –General William Tecumsah Sherman

    If you don’t read the newspapers you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.
    — Mark Twain

  2. DNW Says:

    “Actually, I disagree about what the “average person” would say. I don’t know what circles the author of that article moves in, but I’d estimate that maybe—maybe—about 10% of the population knows about those things. And I actually think that’s being generous.”

    You are right. That is being generous. Way too generous.

    And of the probably 2 percent of the college educated and politically involved who might be able to kind of place ex parte Merryman, Milligan, or Vallandigham, not half would care.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=70018

    I’ve made a study of this, and even I have to refresh my memory and look things up after several years.

  3. DNW Says:

    Handy FYI. All Lincoln’s general orders; by drop-down box year.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/executive_orders.php?year=1861&Submit=DISPLAY

    Had not seen this before I just searched a bit ago.

  4. Wooly Bully Says:

    But Jefferson also wrote:

    “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

    https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0047

  5. Mark30339 Says:

    A really outstanding post. Most bloggers point to one article and move on, this one excels with scholarship.

  6. charles Says:

    “they lie and then they re-lie.”

    OMG! That is such a great truthful saying!

  7. AesopFan Says:

    Wooly Bully Says:
    March 29th, 2017 at 1:29 pm
    But Jefferson also wrote:

    “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

    https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0047
    * *
    Perhaps the contradiction is removed by presuming that somewhere among the partisanship, hysteria, and fake news one can actually find REAL news with which the populace can confront an abusive government; with no newspapers, even that slim possibility disappears.

    Or if, as Jefferson believed, we can dispense with newspapers, then we can also dispense with (most) government.

  8. groundhog Says:

    The most reliable information is when you miss the nail and hit your thumb.

  9. DNW Says:

    Well now, I guess I should have clicked on Neo’s links before spouting off what was nothing more than a repeat of the already noted.

    Sorry Neo.

  10. Julia Says:

    Unfortunately, the media is so saturated in our culture now they are impossible to avoid. We’re being hit with propaganda 24/7. And if not us, certainly those around us.

    And it’s seeped into the general culture – everything is political now.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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