People are amazed or disgusted, or both, at today’s “power of the media.” The punch is in that plural, “media”—the twenty-four-hour flow of intermingled news and opinion not only from print but also from TV channels, radio stations, Twitter, e-mails, and other electronic “feeds.” This storm of information from many sources may make us underestimate the power of the press in the nineteenth century when it had just one medium—the newspaper. That also came at people from many directions—in multiple editions from multiple papers in every big city, from “extras” hawked constantly in the streets, from telegraphed reprints in other papers, from articles put out as pamphlets.
Every bit of that information was blatantly biased in ways that would make today’s Fox News blush. Editors ran their own candidates—in fact they ran for office themselves, and often continued in their post at the paper while holding office. Politicians, knowing this, cultivated their own party’s papers, both the owners and the editors, shared staff with them, released news to them early or exclusively to keep them loyal, rewarded them with state or federal appointments when they won.
It was a dirty game by later standards, and no one played it better than Abraham Lincoln. He developed new stratagems as he rose from citizen to candidate to officeholder. Without abandoning his old methods, he developed new ones, more effective if no more scrupulous, as he got better himself (and better situated), for controlling what was written about him, his policies, and his adversaries. Harold Holzer, who has been a press advocate for candidates (Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo) and institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art and various Lincoln organizations), knows the publicity game from the inside, and he is awed by Lincoln’s skills as a self-publicist, that necessary trait of his time. Holzer is also a respected and influential Lincoln scholar who does not come to bury Lincoln with this new information but to wonder how a man could swim so well through the sewer and come out (relatively) clean.
Lincoln’s arena broadened as he climbed the ladder of power. He went from local venues in his own state—rival papers in Springfield and Chicago—to the newspaper power center in New York, with three main papers and the pioneering syndicate the Associated Press. Then, in Washington, he had to deal with the concentration there of many papers’ bureaus. He developed different skills for each widening stage of his career. In roughly chronological but overlapping order, there were five main stages.
Lincoln early followed the axiom, If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. As a beginner with no party standing, he lacked the common coin of exchange in the political…
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