Abraham Lincoln as Media Manipulator-in-Chief: The 150 Year History of Corrupt Press

Abraham Lincoln was an astute and deft manipulator of the media, argues Harold Holzer, and frankly, the media in that day deserved it.

offthemedia-1When I try to explain some of the historical precedent for the problems in today’s online media system, people often think I am referencing the era of Yellow Journalism. At the turn of the 20th century, journalism was also quite awful so I usually just let this inference be.

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But what I really want to tell them is that it goes back much further than that. In fact, if you really want to understand the media, its toxic incentives and potential consequences, forget the Spanish American War (which some argue was driven by newspaper competition between Hearst and Pulitzer) and study the Civil War. Because despite what you may have learned in school, the Civil War is a fascinating study of the poisonous effects of the press on politics, on life and on the people.

That’s why I was so excited to read Harold Holzer’s new book Lincoln and the Power of the Press. Because in addition to waging war on the battlefield, in the courts, in Congress, Lincoln was also required to fight and win on the hotly contested front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

If you were to ask the average person what they know about Lincoln and the media, they’d probably say something about him throwing journalists in jail or suspending certain Constitutional rights. That is true and it is interesting.

But what the record actually shows is that Lincoln was an astute and deft manipulator of the media—a manipulator-in-chief has he had been called. He needed to be. And frankly, the media in that day deserved it.

President Lincoln (Photo from Library of Congress)
President Lincoln was an astute and deft manipulator of the press and public sentiment. (Photo from Library of Congress)

Most people don’t know that Lincoln was also the only sitting US President to write a letter to the editor (his famous quote “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that” is from that letter.) They don’t know that Lincoln owned his own newspaper at one point—a German language newspaper no less (and that he managed to hide it from his contemporaries and most biographies). They don’t know the time he spent reviewing and typesetting his famous Cooper Union speech the night before with journalists—knowing how it would launch his political career or more famously, how he designed the Gettysburg address not for the crowd—who was actually quite underwhelmed by it—but to play well for the newswires. They’ve certainly never heard of the jobs, leaks, advertising dollars and access to crucial telegraph lines Lincoln dangled in order to get what he needed.

Never before and never again until now, has America seen the tail wag the dog in the way that newspapers—empowered by technological advancements in the printing press and the telegraph—did in Lincoln’s time.

As Mr. Holzer quotes one British critic at the time, newspapers were “ill-written, ill-printed, ill-arranged, and in fact unreadable. Justice and right judgement, are out of the question with them.” “He lies like a newspaper” was a common mid-19th century expression about people you couldn’t trust. Or as Lincoln once joked to a friend about the “reliability” of newspapers, “they lie and then they re-lie.” It is not for nothing that one could swap out “newspaper” for “blog” in all those cases and be just as accurate now as it was 150 years ago.

The “racket” we see today—was in fact invented and perfected back then. It made a handful of moguls quite rich, and quite influential, as the expense of pretty much everyone else. Like today, it was disruptive technology when combined with a self-interested internal culture that made the media such a difficult beast to be reckoned with.

In addition to the propagation of “Lightning Presses” which made it truly possible and economical for large scale daily newspapers, the newness of telegraph probably had the single largest impact on mid-1800s journalism. As the Richmond Dispatch reported in July 1863 about the impact of the telegraph on reporting:

“It covers us all over with lies, fills the very air we breathe and obscures the very sun; makes us doubt of everything we read, because we know that the chances are ten to one it is false; and leaves us uncertain, at last of our own existence. Men say it brings intelligence quick; yet every event announced by it is always so obfuscated by these quick-coming reports, all destroying one another, that the true story is generally longer in being ascertained than it was before.’

This was a world in which reports and breaking news were spread in real time, but the North remained basically unaware of the whereabouts of the entire Army of the Tennessee until it popped back on the radar in December having captured the city of Savannah.

In other words, unreliable tools and an increasingly large country, combined with malevolence, stupidity, greed, entrenched political beliefs and the very real threat of marching armies and martial law created a media environment like no other.

Generally, few understand the immense amount of energy, strategy and skill with which Lincoln was forced to treat the press if he wished not only to win a Presidential election as an unknown entity from the Midwest but also to preserve the Union and win the Civil War. This is partially because with our nostalgic notions of newspaper objectivity and journalistic integrity, we have trouble envisioning a press that was not only wrestling with newfound technology, but often made up treasonous editors and reporters jockeying for power themselves and patronage for family members, employees and friends.

For instance, Mr. Holzer tells the story of Horace Greely, publisher of the New York World and famous for his “Go West, young man” dictum, who seems to be a man of many contradictions. Just a sample: As an ardent abolitionist he was a vocal anti-slavery advocate in the run-up to the war. Yet, in the aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run (the Union’s first loss) he sent Lincoln an unhinged letter essentially recommending that he throw in the towel. Greely regularly demanded early access to reports and presidential speeches, government jobs for his employees, and broke press embargoes to be first on major political and military moves. As a newspaper editor, led an unsolicited—and I would say treasonous—peace conference with Southern diplomats on behalf of the United State in Niagara Falls that failed spectacularly. And then at the end of the war, he posted bail for Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate President. All this from a man who supported the Union cause.

Abraham Lincoln was serving his sole term in Congress back in August 1847. Newspapers, like the New-York Observer were different then. Or were they?
Abraham Lincoln was serving his sole term in Congress back in August 1847. Newspapers, like the New-York Observer, were different then. Or were they? Screen of 1847 Observer

Imagine trying to lead in this environment—let alone get a fair shake. We think that Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner and Roger Ailes are unusual. Greely, though seemingly a good man, sounds insane.

In a way, he embodied the chaos that was American politics at the time. It wasn’t just that there were two competing, contentious sides as “secession” would apply. In fact, there were multitudes. Republicans, Radical Republicans, Democrats, Copperheads, Abolitionists, Black Abolitionists, Occupied States, Neutral States—I mean, New York toyed with seceding from both the North and the South. And each one of these sides had its own newspapers and their own way of stoking the engine to create additional conflict.

What Lincoln managed to do was astutely manage this landscape to maneuver. Could he have sunk Greely early on by leaking his embarrassing letter? Of course—and in fact, that’s what his aides advised him to do. Instead, he managed to turn the unpredictable man to advance his agenda on several occasions (the obstacle is the way, right?). Could he have gotten away with even more oppressive restraints on free speech? Probably.

What he ultimately got very good at was using the press against itself—the art of a well-timed letter, a key leak to the right reporter, even knowing when to let outrage outdo and undermine itself. To see and understand this is to observe a master politician and communicator at work.


In my eyes, one can look at the 19th century media and Lincoln and only be appalled at the needless cost and real damage that was inflicted on the country by bands of partisan, attention and patronage hungry editors and reporters.

For instance, General William Tecumseh Sherman—before he went on to become the country’s most brilliant general—was nearly hounded out of the service by exaggerated and libelous newspaper reports of his decaying mental state in retribution for having expelled a New York Tribune’s reporter from his camp. (The claim? For saying that the Union would need far more troops and require years of fighting to win the war).

In 1864, two major New York newspapers fell for and published a fake presidential proclamation that very easily could have set off a second round of deadly draft riots. The source of the fake reporter? A former New York Times correspondent and Brooklyn Eagle editor who falsified the document in an attempt to game the stock market. And for the entirety of the war, the Confederate press deliberately prolonged the war by regularly distorting and suppressing news in order to bolster morale at home and undermine it in the North where reports were often reprinted (in some ways requiring a response as bloody and total as the March to the Sea in order to break the will to fight).

Was their punishment for incidents like these with deadly consequences and high stakes? Of course not.

When former Gawker editor John Cook laments that ethics and standards seem designed to “keep the Hoi Polloi out of journalism” he is right. We tried it that way once and it was devastating. There is a famous line from Sherman: Vox populi? Vox humbug. It was impossible to trust the voice of the people when the voice of the people was being used and incited for personal gain.

In fact, we developed many of the institutions so critical to a reliable, trustworthy press in response to the violations and damages of the press in that era. It was Adolph Ochs who bought the fledgling New York Times and re-built it by modeling himself against papers like the World and the Herald. “All the News That’s Fit To Print” was a reaction against the Civil War-era slogan of “Print Literally Anything—and Damn The Consequences” (Oh, and can I have a cushy government commission too?) That his family still controls the paper to this day is a testament to the importance of that turning point.

Lincoln Book PHOTO: Emily Assiran/New York Observer
Mr. Holzer’s book recounts Lincoln’s lesser known battles with the nation’s newspapers. (Photo by Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

What Lincoln showed then and now is a path forward—how politicians can lead and overcome a toxic media environment. As Mr. Holzer relates, as the war progressed Lincoln broke his lifelong addiction to newspapers. He realized that his duty required him to see a larger picture than biased, misguided and small-minded reporters could ever capture.

Though Greely once admonished Lincoln for clinging to the “delusion that forbearance, and patience and moderation and soft words would yet obviate all necessity for deadly strife,” in fact Lincoln was correct. As Mr. Holzer tells it, only after the Emancipation Proclamation did Lincoln begin to “look beyond ephemeral journalism to validate his place in history.” He began to delegate his media diet to subordinates and opted for real interactions with real people (soldiers, letters, office hours and ironically interviews with reporters directly back from the front) in what he terms “public opinion baths.” Lincoln’s homespun language and stories—these were not for reporters and editors, who in fact, looked upon them condescendingly but for the people who loved it—who got it.

In a way, Lincoln was temporarily able to transcend the everyday squabbles of the media in light of a larger goal. He was the right man, at the right time who did the right things, the right way. How long this would have lasted, though, we have no idea. Had he not been assassinated Lincoln may have been almost immediately pulled back into the swamp (recommended read: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter is a great fictional look at this idea). How he would have responded, we cannot say, but Mr. Holzer’s book makes it safe to assume that it would have been impressive and masterful.

Abraham Lincoln as Media Manipulator-in-Chief: The 150 Year History of Corrupt Press