As I continue to focus on the role of the newspaper in covering Antebellum politics, the ultimate goal of my research will be to dive in and look at examples of such coverage of specific political events during the 1850s—many of which we brainstormed in class this past week. This week, however, I continued to focus on doing some broader secondary research to help build a foundation on which to look into some more event-specific sources and examples. Using the secondary source that I mentioned last week, the book Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War, I looked a bit more into how the newspapers themselves reflected the larger political and sectional divisions that developed in the United States prior to the War. My posted research this week also includes quotes from two journal articles that offer some more specific examples of the ways in which these pre-war newspapers exemplify these divisions.
The quotes that I selected from Fanatics and Fire-Eaters seem to speak to the ways in which the newspapers of this time period were driven to focus more on reporting and expressing a particular viewpoint or position than they were on offering readers with accurate, unbiased coverage of events. As this secondary source described it, “Newspapermen seldom portrayed key actors responsible for events with the fairness of merely reporting their words and deeds.” (p. 19) As the newspapers grew to become a dominant, wide-spread source of information in the years leading up to the Civil War (see last week’s research), it would seem that such biased reporting would have serious implications in fueling the growing divides taking place across the country, especially on the political front. If readers come to see their views being reinforced and expanded in the newspapers that they read, it would make sense that the newspapers would, as this book described it, be contributing to a situation in which a “war of words helped bring on a war of bullets.” (p. 19)
Much of this seems to have to do with the partisan nature of newspapers at the time. Fanatics and Fire-Eaters suggests that it was often the case that newspapers would become intertwined with political parties as editors and publishers looked to achieve their own goals of holding political office, or the papers became linked with political parties as a means of financial support. In the latter case, I found a journal article titled “Protecting Press Freedom and Access to Government Information in Antebellum South Carolina” that gave a pretty significant example of the extent that these linkages could go. The article shares the story of Robert Gibbes Sr., a newspaper editor in Columbia, South Carolina, who found himself and his paper caught up in such political drama. His paper, which had been under contract by Columbia’s Democratic mayor, found himself on the outs after a Know-Nothing candidate won the 1854 election and banned Gibbes and his paper from covering any city council meetings (giving access instead to the newspaper associated with the Know-Nothings.) The article went on to detail Gibbes’s lawsuit that he took up as a result. The situation is certainly a clear example of the ways in which newspapers and political parties went hand-in-hand—so much so, as this example illustrates, as to prevent papers linked with competing parties from fair and equal access to report news to the public (and therefore giving a pretty clear indication of the content of such papers).
The other article from which I posted quotes this week, titled “Extracting Abolitionist Abstraction: The Sectional Crisis through Virginia and North Carolina Baptist Print-Culture,” brings into the conversation the ways in which newspapers with distinct religious affiliations also fell into these divides. Following two Baptist newspapers from different Southern states, the article gives examples of the ways in which they covered the efforts of Northern abolitionists. Through the various examples that the article presents, the pattern becomes clear: the newspapers and their ‘reporting’ sought largely to defend the South’s practice of slavery without putting forth any meaningful efforts to present the abolitionist movement of the North in a fair or accurate way.
In both cases, be it newspapers with links to a political party or a religious denomination, understanding how these newspapers reported on events—that is, to reflect their party or religion’s interests—seems to be critical in understanding how these newspapers were able to shape public opinion leading into the War. As I proceed in my research and begin to look for primary source examples of media coverage of specific events, I will be interested in seeing how these biased views bleed through into their reporting.