I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of people complaining online in recent months about media bias. Regardless of whether they’re on the political left, right, or middle, I hear from so many people convinced that the biased media is trying to trick them, brainwash them, fleece them, lie to them, or promote a liberal/right-wing agenda—and not just “promote,” actually, but “cram it down their throats” or “sneak it in.”
By implication, the accusations of media bias suggest that, somehow, the media should be giving it to us straight. They should give us, in the words of Sgt. Friday, “just the facts, ma’am”—which is nearly impossible in an age when we can’t even seem to agree on objective facts to begin with.
But anyone who’s read a newspaper from the 1860s knows this is hardly a new phenomenon.
“[I]n the age of Lincoln,” writes Harold Holzer in his excellent book Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion, “the press and politics often functioned in tandem to win power and to promote—or, alternatively, resist—political and social change.” For political parties, partisan journalism became “an integral cog in their political machines.” Holzer adds that newspapers and politicians “became mutually dependent and totally inseparable—weapons in the same arsenal.”
The rise of the partisan press happened as far back as George Washington’s first term and blossomed into full-blown crazy for the election of 1796 when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—and their competing visions of the American Revolution—squared off for the first time. Media bias became so bitter that John Adams, as president, signed the Alien & Sedition Acts, in part, to silence the growing cacophony of trash-talk. (The sacrosanct nature of the First Amendment, remember, had not really crystalized by that point.) Adams’ counterpart, Jefferson, had no love of the press either, and claimed to read only the advertisements because he said the ads contained the only truth in an entire paper.
Adams’ son, John Quincy, served as patron of a newspaper, as did his political rival, Andrew Jackson. By the 1840s, partisan papers outsold nonpartisan papers, and the rise of the abolitionist press added an extra dimension of politicization to the media.
A young Horace Greeley, who would eventually be a titan in the partisan newspaper world, marveled as a young journalist at America’s “intense addictions to partisan strife.”
My intent is not to give you a run-down of the history of partisan media. Instead, I want to invite people to ease back the throttle a little bit on their outrage over media bias. Rather than get indignant, look at all media coverage critically. There’s bias everywhere, including in the media YOU read and watch, too. Often, the media outlets we prefer don’t seem biased to us because of a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” We choose to read the papers and watch the channels we do because those outlets confirm the world as we want to see it—thus confirming our on biases. So, it’s not just the media that have them! 😉
As a final note, I want to follow up on my mention of the press during the Civil War era by recommending three excellent books that will give you more background. There are other great books, too, but these are my favorites:
The first is the aforementioned Harold Holzer’s Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014). This is an outstanding book that demonstrates how savvy Lincoln was as a PR man, and it offers a piercing look at the media dynamics of the day.
The Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War by Brayton Harris (Brassey’s, 1999) provides a solid survey of the newspaper business, written for a general audience. It casts such editorial rogues as Horace Greeley, James Gordon Bennet, Henry Raymond, and Charles Dana in leading roles. This is also where I first read about Thomas Morris Chester, a black correspondent who wrote from the Virginia front (and whose dispatches are now available).
A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready by James Perry (Wiley, 2000) is an engaging romp of a book because its cast of characters is as colorful as any bunch of Civil War people you’ll meet. This book, which focuses primarily on reporters in the field, is one of my favorite Civil War books.
For an honorable mention, I’ll toss in Henry Mayer’s All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (Norton, 2008), a National Book Award finalist that profiles the prolific publisher of The Liberator. This journalism story narrows its scope to the Abolitionist press and Garrison’s place in it, but boy, what a character!
For an added bonus, check out this NY Times “Opinionator” piece about the black press during the war.