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Did You Know: Media Bias During the Civil War

Media bias is nothing new. Actually, it’s been around for hundreds of years. As long as humans have reported the news (in various formats) – bias in the media has been an issue. To be a smart and savvy citizen, you need to learn how to dig deeper within media and discern bias in the news.

So what is media bias?

Bias is defined as, “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.” More specifically, media bias means that journalists, reporters, news producers and those within the mass media pick and choose what stories are reported and even more so, how they are reported.

Media Bias in the Civil War Era

During the Civil War, if you were to read war coverage in a Northern newspaper, you would get a much different story than if you read about the same events in a Confederate newspaper. For instance, Northern newspapers hailed John Brown as a spotless hero and true abolitionist, while Southern newspapers wrote him as an obsessed lunatic and cold-blooded murder.

Before the war leading up to the 1860s, the job of a newspaper correspondent was less than glamorous. Low wages and uncertain job security kept many from entering the profession. As events accelerated, newspapers and citizens were hungry for any new information they could get about the impending war. And after the war began, the desire for news hit fever pitch levels. To deal with the growing need for news, many new reporters and news outlets popped up overnight, and were often quite inexperienced.

Geography was also a problem for the growing media. Some battles unfolded, quite literally, in a reporter’s backyard while other battles were far away, at least by a few days’ ride. The miles between journalists and the real battlefield led to a great deal of rumors and gossip. It quickly became evident that sensational stories sold newspapers. One such example – just before the outbreak of the war, one newspaper reported a wild and sensational story that armed gangs from Maryland and Virginia were on their way to stop Lincoln’s inauguration.

Blurred Lines

As the war drug on, reporters began to cozy up to those directly involved with the war. These relationships directly impacted how the news was reported – or if it was reported on at all. It was back then as it is today – it’s all about who you know.

The line between the press and the politicians became increasingly blurred. Some news reporters even worked as clerks for House and Senate committees in Washington, D.C. while still earning a paycheck from their newspaper employer. Others took kickbacks from certain groups and repaid them with favorable news coverage.

President Lincoln and the Press

Some folks like to view Abraham Lincoln as a squeaky clean individual. However, his record with the wartime press tells a different story. The Civil War really tested the President’s patience for freedom of speech. He didn’t take criticism lightly. Lincoln often tried to court the press by handing out favorable government jobs to correspondents and newspapers (usually pro-Republican) that portrayed him in a favorable light.

His foes in the media didn’t fare as well. There were many instances of news reporters and critics being arbitrarily arrested or detained at Lincoln’s express request or by others in his administration. Because Lincoln is so widely regarded as an American hero, many historians have avoided tallying the number of citizens that were arbitrarily detained during his administration. But conservative estimates put that number at minimum, around 13,000 people. Obviously these were not all journalists, but journalists were included among the lot detained.

In mid-May of 1864, Lincoln lost all patience with the oppositional “Copperhead” press. (The “copperheads” were those living in the North that disagreed with the war or the North for one reason or another – with state’s rights being the primary reason.) Two newspapers located in New York ran a bogus story stating that Lincoln was about to draft 400,000 men for the war. Infuriated, Lincoln ordered the newspapers closed, arrested their owners, and had them imprisoned. Even the telegraph system that had transmitted the story was halted and seized by the military.

Lessons Learned?

We’ve learned many lessons from the Civil War era in America. However, we’re still fighting the raging battle of media bias, even 150 years later. With the tendency of our modern media to systematically under-report or over-report certain types of events, and to slant and sensationalize the news, we must learn to be wise and discerning citizens.

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