Lincoln teams up with journalists

Quick reviews of Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion and The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom

Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion
By Harold Holzer
Simon & Schuster
768 pages; $35

The Lincoln portrayed in Harold Holzer’s painstakingly detailed study, Lincoln and the Power of the Press, will seem familiar to those who’ve read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals or seen the film Lincoln (2012), based in part on that book: Lincoln the president is shown to be more skilled, tenacious, patient, and wise in facing the Union’s supreme crisis than any of his political adversaries and doubters.

But Holzer also shows another side of Lincoln’s skills—his ability to form alliances with the party-oriented newspapers and journalists of that day, and to manipulate or counteract them when necessary. Holzer tracks Lincoln from his days as a small-time Illinois politician seeking the support of tiny downstate newspapers through his bargaining for the support of major national newspapers as a Republican candidate to, finally, his need to press support for a war that developed into a deadly, costly struggle to eliminate slavery.

Lincoln eventually eased back on censorship in favor of bargaining and conciliation, or even bribery.

In this last role, Lincoln had to deal with the most formidable figures in American journalism, New York City’s press lords of that day—James Gordon Bennett of the Herald, Horace Greeley of the Tribune, and the newcomer, Henry J. Raymond of the Times. Each one presented distinct problems. Bennett, initially hostile to the war and pro-Southern, was persuaded by a mob to fly the national flag, but Lincoln had to keep him neutralized throughout. Greeley, a voluble eccentric of many opinions, was in his way a worse problem; he swung between calls for peace and for waging war to the death against slavery. Lincoln, wearying at last of Greeley, was quoted as saying: “No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper, and escape destruction . . . .” Raymond of the Times was more steadfast in his support than the other two. But he was allied with the old political boss Thurlow Weed and the two of them pestered the president constantly about jobs and patronage.

The New York triumvirate represented only a part of Lincoln’s problems with the press. For a time he permitted the military to shut down hostile newspapers and threaten correspondents. He authorized temporary closing of the New York World and Journal of Commerce for printing a fake presidential proclamation. Eventually he eased back on censorship in favor of bargaining and conciliation, or even bribery. (He offered Bennett a choice ambassadorship, which Bennett declined.)

Holzer richly captures an era when journalism was practiced in ways that we can now scarcely recognize. Certainly there were talented, even brilliant, reporters and war correspondents who would have stood out in any era, but the newspapers lived for party politics, a mode that began to fade only with the deaths of the New York opinion-makers soon after Lincoln’s own death. Eventually, news triumphed and the flaunting of opinion passed to newer media. A British commentator quoted by Holzer observed that he looked upon the American press of that day “as a vast engine of national education, not overdelicate in its machinery, but still working out its object.” He added: “As such, it is, indeed, the press of a great and free people.”

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom
By Joel Simon
Columbia Journalism Review Books, Columbia University Press
240 pages; $27.95, ebook: $26.99

In its 33 years, the tasks of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have grown ever more complex. There was a time when CPJ devoted the bulk of its attention to recording and investigating harm done to individual journalists around the world—suppression, imprisonment, individual injury, and, too frequently, murder. This survey of the past decade by the organization’s executive director, Joel Simon, still deals with CPJ’s traditional concerns—after all, there has been no decline in murders, committed with impunity. But CPJ has been obliged to move as well into the complex realms of internet freedom and government interference with all types of non-governmental communication. Moreover, CPJ has had to take an interest in those practitioners who work beyond the traditional definitions of journalism, to encompass all those who engage in imperiled free expression. Among the goals that Simon lists are keeping the internet open and free, limiting government surveillance of individuals, ending censorship, and building an international coalition to protect free expression. CPJ has never lacked for energy or ambition, and it is encouraging that it has set its goals high.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor. This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Brief encounters."