Why you should care
Because U.S. presidents have always battled with the press — what should matter are the reasons for it.
Millions of schoolchildren today may learn Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but at the time it was given, Americans’ response to the iconic piece of oratory largely depended on which newspaper they read about it in. The pro-Republican Philadelphia Press hailed it as “immortal,” and the Chicago Tribune said it would “live among the annals of man,” while the pro-Democrat Chicago Times labeled it a series of “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” that would make “the cheek of every American … tingle with shame.” The New York Times and several other prominent papers ignored the Republican president’s brief remarks almost entirely.
So when America’s current Republican president, Donald Trump, who has invoked his predecessor in justifying his own wars with the press, recently argued at a rally that Lincoln was “excoriated” and “ridiculed” by the news media for his famous speech, he was actually making a claim that had some basis in historical reality. Lincoln, like Trump, was an avid consumer of the news, and an aggressive manipulator of it. In Lincoln’s case, he had little choice: An existential crisis like no other before it faced the nation, and the “fake news” being disseminated in some circles about the Civil War was only making things worse.
Lincoln had to deal with some very real “fake news.”
Those worried about the “unprecedented” partisanship and coarseness of public debate in the Trump era would feel right at home in the 1860s. Like today, advances in technology, including faster printing presses and the telegraph, were revolutionizing journalism during the mid-19th century, leading to a rapid rise in the number and circulation of newspapers and magazines. This helped foster a “hyper-literate environment during the Civil War,” says David Bulla, interim chair of the department of communication at Augusta University and author of Lincoln Mediated: The President and the Press Through Nineteenth-Century Media, as Americans diligently scanned the news for every scrap of information they could find about the ongoing conflict. At the dawn of the war, there were around 4,000 newspapers and periodicals in the country, and about 80 percent of them were political in nature (most having originally been started by political parties), many trafficking in all manner of misinformation (“He lies like a newspaper” was a common expression at the time).
Navigating such a partisan, prevaricating news minefield required a leader of incredible patience and skill — and perhaps no one was better at it than the man that the Chicago Times once called an “irresolute, vacillating imbecile.” Lincoln recognized that “public sentiment is everything” and he did his best throughout his political career to marshal it to his advantage through the vehicle of the press. In his home state of Illinois, he had written numerous editorials and even co-owned a German-language newspaper at one point. With his famous Cooper Union speech, which would help win him the presidency in 1860, Lincoln successfully crafted a speech designed to appeal to the press and to the reading public more than to his immediate audience.
But when civil war erupted not long after he was inaugurated, Lincoln faced a news media environment that few leaders have confronted. “Public discourse was brutal in the Civil War,” says Bulla. “No president has ever received as much vitriol in print as Lincoln.” As Harold Holzer chronicles in Lincoln and the Power of the Press, Lincoln used a combination of strong-arm and soft-power tactics to woo, cajole and influence the news media interests aligned with him and against him.
Lincoln spent long hours courting newspaper editors in the White House, growing goodwill and even enlisting friendly ones to help prepare the ground for controversial administration decisions. He had aides prepare anonymous editorials defending the president’s position. Lincoln also had to deal with some very real “fake news” threats, from the New York World’s claim that the president planned to encourage interracial marriage to the famous “Civil War gold hoax” in 1864 in which two New York reporters, in the hopes of profiting in the gold market, propagated the false story that Lincoln was drafting another 400,000 men into the Union Army. Lincoln imprisoned those responsible for publishing the hoax, and his administration, constantly trying to navigate the line between reasonable dissent and treason damaging to the Union cause, shut down several newspapers during the Civil War.
Like Trump, Lincoln kept close tabs on the media, including a file of “villainous articles.” He was even carrying news clippings praising his accomplishments in his pocket when he was assassinated. And much as Trump bypasses the press through the medium of Twitter, Lincoln also found ways to speak directly to the people, including through public letters (and private letters that he knew would be leaked). Still, Lincoln’s battles with the press were driven far more by the strategic concerns of winning a war and unifying a nation than by his personal political needs or grievances. “If anything,” says Bulla, “I think Lincoln would tell President Trump to stop being a president who craves media attention and to focus on achieving his policy initiatives.”