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Gotham’s Newspapers Go to War

By Eric Ethier
6/4/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

A long with the war news of October 8, 1861, the New York Herald readers got an industry update from the newspaper’s founder and editor, James Gordon Bennett. Besides having perfected a new “stereotyping process” to improve legibility, the Herald machinery was also churning out issues “at the unparalleled rate of forty-six thousand impressions for every hour of running time.” Bennett added a note for one of his New York competitors: “It may be a drop of consolation to our impecunious and complaining neighbors of the Tribune to know that our advertising keeps pace with our increasing circulation.”

Americans had always been voracious newspaper readers, but the momentous events of the Civil War era intensified their hunger for news. By 1861, determined publishers were working harder than ever to feed readers’ appetites, and nowhere with more tenacity— and pugnacity—than in bustling New York City. Home to the Herald, the Times, the Tribune, and many other publications (including the illustrated papers Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and New York Illustrated News), New York boasted the nation’s most influential editors (including famed poet William Cullen Bryant of the reserved Evening Post). Keeping one eye on their own political agendas and the other on sales, these select newsmen waged a four-year battle for sales supremacy and the president’s ear.

News reporting was a relatively new profession, but by 1861 each of New York’s big three papers had established a semi-national network of correspondents. And the flood of war news swelled the ranks of each outlet’s special correspondents (called “specials”)— hungry, educated newsmen who were dispatched to cover campaigns and scoop the competition. The specials reflected the styles and personalities of their employers: “The reporters for one paper,” it was said, “are remarkable for audacity, enterprise and independence; those of another paper for eccentricity of dress, style and opinion; those of a third paper for their gentlemanly and reserved deportment….”

Recognizing the affiliation of each was easy enough. James Bennett’s Herald—for 25 years the object of bitter scorn for its scurrilous content—was nevertheless a remarkable news gathering machine. Bennett, a slight Scot who twice had been attacked in the streets by the volatile Courier and Enquirer editor James Watson Webb, dispatched his 60-plus war correspondents with a simple admonition: “In no instance, and under no circumstances, must you be beaten.”

With a steady circulation of nearly 80,000, Bennett’s Democratic Herald led in sales throughout the war, a fact that galled the New York Tribune’s untidy founder, editor and Republican nag, Horace Greeley. Each was being challenged, meanwhile, by the staunchly Republican Times, founded in 1851 by Greeley’s one-time protégé, Henry J. Raymond. Raymond had earned the enmity of both: Bennett, for his condescending high-mindedness, and Greeley, from whom he had poached numerous reporters and other staff members.

The newspaper business was cutthroat and personal; when not scribbling two-columned editorials for or against Union war policy, the three editors (and others) fought amongst themselves— much to the delight of readers.

Greeley’s Tribune called Bennett “the low-mouthed, blatant, witless, brutal” manager of a “sewer-sheet.” After the Battle of Antietam, Bennett suggested that Greeley and “the whole ungodly crew of political rogues and fanatics who have assailed General McClellan” should be exiled. Dubbed the “Little Villain” by his former employer, Raymond turned on “Uncle Horace” with mockery: “He was once [a] member of Congress for three months—and the amount of wisdom which he imbibed during that brief period has sufficed for all subsequent emergencies, and bids fair to supply his necessities for the whole of his natural life.”

For four years, Abraham Lincoln suffered the nonstop badgering and uninformed criticism of these powerful New York editors, especially from the would-be politician Greeley (who would receive his political comeuppance at the hands of Ulysses S. Grant a few years later). Challenged to take them to task, however, the wily Illinoisan replied: “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, unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”

 

Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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