Understanding the relationship that Abraham Lincoln had with the press, which was then limited entirely to newspapers, helps put our current obsession with the news media in historical context. From MSNBC to Fox News, it can feel as though media outlets supersaturate our desire for information, blunting rather than aiding our participation in the democracy. But the newspapers of Lincoln’s day were no less dominant in their control over public thought, and they were awash with opaque political influence.
Lincoln himself, along with his fiancee Mary Todd, wrote scandalous letters under the pen name “Rebecca” that derided the character of a rising politician in the Democratic party, James Shields. And as Lincoln approached his run for the White House, he became a self-publisher by financing the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, a newspaper created to carry the German vote for Lincoln. The paper also published glowing reports on the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, increasing Lincoln’s national profile substantially.
During the Civil War, Lincoln was skilled at manipulating press outlets he thought were compromising the Union position by printing troop locations. He also subverted the press by leaking personal letters to the public, which were then picked up and published widely.
In his Big Think interview, Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, argues that leading voices in today’s elite press have little effect on political decision making:
Read more at the New York Review of Books
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