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When New York Became the U.S. Media Capital
Maury Klein
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When did newspapers become "the press," capable of not only reporting events but shaping them as well? That development could not occur without an advance in technology—the invention of the telegraph—and it also required the emergence of cheap newspapers capable of reaching a mass readership. The "penny papers" made their appearance during the 1830s, the telegraph a decade later. The symbiotic relationship of these two elements created "the press," and their convergence in New York made that city the media capital of the nation.

Even before the Civil War, the major New York dailies, notably the Tribune, the Times, and the Herald, already dominated the national news. The Philadelphia Inquirer complained sourly that this trio "literally carries New York over every railway, sets it down at every station, and extends it everywhere." Gotham-based Harper's Weekly boasted accurately, if smugly, that the citizens of Washington "actually look to the New York papers for news of their own city." During the secession crisis of 1860–61, when the South despised things Yankee, even the Charleston Mercury grumbled that "we have to go to the New York papers for news of our own affairs."

Closer to home, Samuel Wilkeson sold his share of the prestigious Albany Evening Journal in 1859 because he feared that "the three great dailies of New York would ultimately destroy the newspaper business in the interior of the state." Wilkeson was smart enough to cast his lot with the future—he joined the staff of the Tribune. In distant Cincinnati, Murat Halstead remembered waiting to pluck the New York papers off the 1 AM train and rush them to the office to carve their pages up for insertion into the hometown Commercial. None of the nation’s 372 daily and 2,971 weekly papers in 1860 even remotely rivaled the influence of the New York dailies, and few even in large cities went to press without a lead "From the Tribune" or "From the Herald."

At first glance the idea of three daily newspapers in New York exerting so profound an influence over the nation’s news supply at so early a date seems absurd. The United States in 1860 was a republic of 33 states sprawling across a vast continental expanse and coming apart at the seams from internal stresses that were about to explode into civil war. California and Oregon on the West Coast had no physical connection to the rest of the Union. The telegraph wires extended only 250 miles west of St. Louis and would not reach San Francisco until October of 1861.

But 30 years earlier neither this revolutionary new technology nor the New York dailies had even existed; both had evolved with surprising speed in an era accustomed to change at a slow pace. Prior to 1830 news was a local commodity, and information on events from distant places came slowly to towns and villages. Copy was written by hand, set by hand, printed by hand, and delivered on foot or horseback. Most city newspapers were specialty sheets dealing in partisan politics or business and mercantile news. They devoted half or, in the case of mercantile papers, as much as 80 or 90 percent of their space to advertisements. And they were small: the New York Courier and Enquirer’s circulation of 4,500 in 1833 surpassed that of any other paper in the nation.

The news revolution—and it was truly a revolution, with momentous consequences—had its roots squarely in New York with the rise of the penny papers during the 1830s. It began with Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, a neat, four-page paper emphasizing not partisan politics or mercantile news but human interest sagas (especially those involving crime and sex) and exposés of financial, political, social, even religious, improprieties—all presented in a fresh, flippant manner for the price of one cent. Local reporters, a novelty in themselves, aroused a new appetite for city happenings with such innovations as the police beat, society reports, and scandal sniffing.

George W. Wisner, an unemployed young printer turned Sun reporter, invented the newspaper police report. He rose early to attend court and recounted the proceedings with a wry twist. His September 2, 1833, report was typical: "William Luvoy got drunk because yesterday was devilish warm. Drank 9 glasses of brandy and water and said he would be cursed if he wouldn’t drink 9 more as quick as [he] could raise the money to buy it with. He would like to know what right the magistrate had to interfere with his private affairs. Fined $1—forgot his pocketbook, and was sent over to bridewell.

"Patrick Ludwick was sent up by his wife, who testified that she had supported him for several years in idleness and drunkenness. Abandoning all hopes of a reformation in her husband, she bought him a suit of clothes a fortnight since and told him to go about his business, for she would not live with him any longer. Last night he came home in a state of intoxication, broke into his wife’s bedroom, pulled her out of bed, pulled her hair, and stamped on her. She called a watchman and sent him up. Pat exerted all his powers of eloquence in endeavoring to excite his wife’s sympathy, but to no purpose. As every sensible woman ought to do who is cursed with a drunken husband, she refused to have anything to do with him hereafter—and he was sent to the penitentiary."

Nothing the Sun did exceeded its moon hoax of 1835. Late in August the paper printed a brief paragraph about "astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description" made with a new telescope by the son of Sir William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, at his observatory in South Africa. A few days later the front page announced that the new telescope had found planets in other solar systems and had viewed the moon as closely as the naked eye could see objects a hundred yards distant. The next day’s paper brought facts on the flora and fauna of the moon, including "a strange amphibious creature of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach." A third article described the moon’s topography, and the fourth delineated in detail the man-bat creatures that inhabited the place.

The whole country blazed with excitement and curiosity; Yale sent a delegation to look into the first article. Other papers, furious at being scooped, reprinted the stories. "No article has appeared for years that will command so general a perusal and publication," declared the Daily Advertiser solemnly. After the Sun’s circulation soared past 19,000, a final article announced mournfully that the new telescope had been damaged and would have to suspend observation. However, not until the perpetrator, Richard Adams Locke, admitted to a Journal of Commerce reporter over a drink that he had made the whole thing up was the hoax exposed. Other papers righteously condemned the Sun, but the public took it all as good fun.

An innovator on the business side as well, Day borrowed the English practice of sending young boys out on the street to hawk his new paper, thereby giving the city one of its most poignant and familiar figures. The Sun first appeared in September 1833 and by January 1834 claimed a circulation of 5,000. By mid-1835 that figure had tripled, putting the Sun far ahead of every paper in the world except for London’s Times and Morning Herald. It was followed in 1835 by James Gordon Bennett’s Herald and by Horace Greeley’s Tribune in 1841, both of which soon outstripped the Sun in every respect. Within a short time both Bennett and Greeley became legends to all New Yorkers.

Bennett was a tough, gritty Scot who came to America at 24 and took up journalism after a turn at schoolteaching. Wiry and energetic, he found himself at 40 out of work, with only $500 to his name. He used the money to start the Herald, employing his shrewd eye and keen mind to tilt the penny-paper format in a new direction, with more varied local coverage, more foreign news, sharp-edged editorials with no party connection, and savvy dispatches from Wall Street written by himself—reports that prefigured the modern financial page. A superb, if flowery, writer, with a knack for stirring personal controversies, Bennett was assaulted four times on the street by smarting victims of his sharp pen. Each time, he picked himself up and went to the office to make capital of the attack in the paper.

Bennett first gained public attention for the Herald with a sensational account of the murder of a prostitute, which he kept on the front page for weeks. When a fire consumed the plant that did his printing six months after the paper started, he returned with an even brasher format. "We are again in the field," he brayed, "larger, livelier, better, prettier, saucier, and more independent than ever." More personal as well: Bennett turned what had always been private into grist for the public mill. His coverage of social doings grew more sensationalized and reckless, giving birth to what became the modern society page, with stories of lavish parties by wealthy old families and the use of teasing initials to suggest the names of prominent people—such as P——p H——e for auction magnate Philip Hone, later New York’s mayor. Bennett announced his own marriage in a florid outburst of love on page one. He endured abuse from enemies, rival papers, even the Catholic archbishop, and gave back as good as he got.

Where Bennett cultivated notoriety, Horace Greeley was legendary for his idealism and his eccentricities. A frail, moonfaced figure with mild blue eyes and a high-pitched whine of a voice, he left a hardscrabble farm in New Hampshire at 20 to seek work in a printing office. So odd-looking was he that when he finally found a job on the Evening Post, the editor spotted him in the composing room and barked, "For God’s sake, fire him; let's have decent-looking men around here, at least!" Thus ended the country boy’s first fling at journalism.

Despite this setback and some other early failures, Greeley persisted long enough to scrounge sufficient capital to found the Tribune in 1841. Like Bennett, he soon raised the price to two cents. But he was more interested in issues than profits—unlike Bennett, who signaled his own preference by sneering of Greeley that "the Tribune would rather be right than be popular." Although the Tribune ran behind the Herald and the Sun in circulation, its weekly edition (also launched in 1841) soared past them all, until by 1860 it reached 200,000 and made Greeley a household name throughout the nation as well as in New York. Nor did his influence stop there: Greeley’s first editorial assistant was Henry J. Raymond, who went on to found the Times in 1851.

From the first, Greeley’s Tribune occupied the high moral ground amid the mire of penny papers. It was more literary, featured more fiction and poetry, and assembled the finest staff of writers on any paper, including Margaret Fuller and Bayard Taylor. It ignored the police reports, "loathsome details" of murder trials, and other sensational devices in favor of crusades against slavery or for whatever cause Greeley espoused at the moment—and few causes or social fads eluded him. "We cannot afford to reject," he intoned in 1845, "any idea which proposes to improve the Moral, Intellectual, or Social condition of mankind." Greeley also immersed himself in partisan politics; his anti-slavery sentiments led him into the Republican Party soon after its creation in 1854. His editorials on every current reform that caught his attention, anti-slavery above all, exerted more influence on public opinion than any other editor’s.

No one exceeded his zeal in seeking ways to improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden. During the depression years of 1837 and 1838, Greeley visited the city’s slums to observe the conditions of the poor. The experience turned him into a socialist for a time and led him to organize the Tribune as a joint-stock company in which several employees received shares. He waged fierce war against liquor, bitterly opposed the Mexican War, and tilted always against the windmill of political corruption. To critics he was an incorrigible idealist, eager to embrace any damn fool scheme so long as it promised human betterment. For that he made no apology.

The penny papers, the more high-minded Tribune included, reached a vast class of readers who could not afford the upscale six-cent dailies like the Commercial Advertiser and the Courier and Enquirer and had little interest in them. As the nation’s population grew, and grew more literate as well, the penny papers enticed ever more middle- and lower-middle-class readers. In New York and Brooklyn, observed a Philadelphia penny paper, "These papers are to be found in every street, lane, and alley; in every hotel, tavern, counting-house, shop, etc. Almost every porter and dray-man . . . may be seen with a paper in his hands."

While the new penny press gave lower-class readers interesting and affordable news, it provided the amorphous middle class with the core of a coherent civic culture. This sense of identity and place was familiar in rural towns but lacking in the teeming streets of New York. More than anyone else, the Herald’s James Gordon Bennett sensed the hunger of this large, emerging middle class for touchstones of identity. The penny papers, noted author Richard Schwarzlose, "lent intellectual and self-conscious identity to the growing army of clerks and mechanics, a physical manifestation of their collective existence."

Most of them had come from the country and felt lost in the vortex of the big city. As historian Gunther Barth observed, they "needed to know about the new forms of economic activities and political behavior, of housing, food, dress, leisure, and etiquette that residents of the modern city pioneered, because their acceptance as city people depended upon the successful adoption of these innovations." Bennett understood that the city was for them a mystery, which he proceeded to unfold like a well-wrought tale in never-ending episodes. He grasped too that people would, in Barth’s words, "read almost anything as long as it was presented as news, as reports about events that had just happened."

Like other industries, newspaper publishing could not have tapped this new mass audience without striking technological changes that permitted the mass production of newspapers. The old single-cylinder, flatbed presses turned by manual cranks, which could produce about 2,000 sheets an hour, gave way first to double-cylinder models and then in 1847 to Richard M. Hoe’s "lightning press," a rotary model that increased output to 8,000 sheets an hour and later to 20,000 an hour. To run its presses, the Sun installed steam power in 1835. Its competitors soon followed.

The ability to deliver large numbers of papers into the hands of a mass readership paralleled a revolution in the news delivered. Penny papers needed more news to fill their insatiable pages, and they needed it faster—especially national and international news, which arrived with glacial slowness despite the frantic efforts of penny papers to greet incoming steamers with dispatch boats and other competitive ploys. The Sun stole a march by using carrier pigeons, but no major change in the speed of news gathering occurred until the advent of the electric telegraph in the 1840s.

A landmark in technological development, the telegraph raised the curtain on the media age. For the first time in history, messages could routinely travel enormous distances faster than man or beast could carry them. Some information arrived the same day as the events it described, a profound change from past ages, when news took weeks, even months, to reach distant places. In 1814 Andrew Jackson fought the battle of New Orleans because news of the Treaty of Ghent, signed two weeks earlier, had not yet reached him. Thirty years later Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated the power of his new instrument by receiving in Baltimore the ticket of the Whig Party only minutes after the nominations had been made in Washington.

This first form of electric communication exploded onto the sensibilities of a people who had absolutely no frame of reference for it and rarely had even a vague notion of what electricity was. The telegraph was a technical leap of stupendous magnitude—and the penny-paper editors were among the first to grasp its potential.

Before the telegraph, editors procured their news through a simple system of mutual exchange with their counterparts elsewhere in the country. News flowed sedately through the channels of the post office from one paper to another, without the interposition of reporters. Reporter Charles Congdon of the Tribune once skimmed a volume of early nineteenth-century newspapers he had delivered as a boy in a New England town and was surprised at how little content they held. "The news from Europe, when there was any, was usually about six weeks old, or even older," he observed. "Of editorial comment upon men and things, there was a plentiful lack."

In these earlier, simpler times, Congdon recalled, "a good bit of news lasted a long time." Any major occurrence, like an earthquake, was a godsend soon "paragraphed and articled to death." Local news commanded little place in the paper, because in those days it circulated through word of mouth. Human interest stories did not yet exist, and items from other regions came from papers there that had gathered them. So starved were local editors for a story that one editor in a small western town, who found the hanged body of a neighbor on a Monday, reportedly left it under lock and key until his competitor's weekly appeared on Wednesday, in order to report it in his own Thursday weekly. "Do you think," he explained, "I was going to say anything about the suicide and let the scoundrel have the paragraph?"

The telegraph transformed this leisurely system into a dynamic one, where field agents gathered news and transmitted it at once to the home paper. Transmission costs ran high, so reporters had to be not just fast but selective in their choice of dispatches. "The greater the speed with which intelligence can be transmitted from point to point," proclaimed Samuel F. B. Morse, "the greater is the benefit derived to the whole community." But the new system did something quite unintended by Morse: it transformed news gathering from a cooperative to a competitive process, escalating the battle for circulation.

The telegraph orchestrated the pace of events, enabling editors to tantalize readers by feeding them pieces of an unfolding story in episodes. This technique gave readers a sense of being participants in remote events that only a short time earlier had reached them long after the fact. Thousands shared the same experience, giving their diverse lives common reference points. With telegraphic news, claimed Bennett, who took the lead in using the new instrument, "the whole nation is impressed with the same idea at the same moment. One feeling and one impulse are thus created and maintained from the center of the land to its uttermost extremities."

The Mexican War, which broke out in May 1846, was the first event to reach most Americans by wire. Since New Orleans was the chief supply base for the invading army, other papers relied on the nine New Orleans papers for war news, sent north via horse and telegraph. Even then it took two to four weeks for news from the battlefield to reach the northern states, since the telegraph lines ran only as far south as Richmond, and dispatches had to be carried there on horseback from New Orleans. By contrast, coverage of the Fort Sumter crisis of 1860–61 put the latest developments into the major papers within hours. In both cases a newly emerging pattern prevailed of news flowing from its source to a distant center for distribution across the land.

The harnessing of the penny-papers with the telegraph made New York the logical center from which news flowed. It was Moses Y. Beach who ensured New York’s supremacy. Beach, who had acquired the Sun from his brother-in-law Benjamin Day, was an early booster of Morse’s telegraph and one of the first to yoke its power to journalism's cart. His foresight enabled the Sun to scoop its rivals on telegraph dispatches when the Mexican War broke out. Unexpectedly, his initiative also led to his pioneering the first cooperative news agreement among the bitterly competitive New York dailies.

The telegraph posed an obvious technical limitation in having only one line to send news for which competing papers clamored. Beach proposed that the dailies join forces to share both the dispatches and the cost. Six papers—the Tribune, the Herald, the Sun, the Express, the Courier and Enquirer, and the Journal of Commerce—combined to form the seminal arrangement that gave rise to the New York Associated Press. By one estimate, these six papers controlled 85 percent of New York’s total circulation of 105,060 in 1848. When the Times was founded in 1851, it too joined the group.

As the nation’s telegraph lines expanded and linked up into a system, the cooperative agreements among the six papers also grew. Gradually, the bitter rivalries and byzantine maneuvering among competing telegraph companies and newspapers subsided, giving way to monopoly and cartel. Two separate but overlapping battles took place during the 1840s and 1850s. In one, rival telegraph interests fought one another for dominance; in the other, the New York dailies strove to establish a monopoly over news as a commodity delivered by wire.

From these wars emerged two organizations that came to control their industries for most of the century. The Western Union Telegraph Company was born in 1855 and quickly signed agreements that provided the Associated Press with low rates in return for a Western Union monopoly of the newspaper business. A year later the New York Associated Press, until then an informal alliance, created a formal organization called the General News Association of the City of New York. Nobody knew it by that name; it would always be the Associated Press, or AP. By 1860 it had come, in the words of historian Frank L. Mott, "to dominate and almost monopolize the chief news-gathering and news-transmitting agencies of the country."

With this 1856 agreement dawned the modern age of news gathering. The rules that formalized the AP’s existence did much to centralize the telegraphic news business in New York. The member papers agreed to share all dispatches sent over the wires, with some key exceptions. Their correspondents could use the telegraph to send exclusive reports from Washington and Albany, from political conventions, and from a few carefully defined events such as trials, executions, sports, and public dinners. For the large number of papers across the nation that were not members of the AP but were clients, buying AP dispatches, the rules were much stricter: they could receive national or international news over the telegraph only from the AP. If client papers had their own reporters send in dispatches from the field, they had to send them by mail, not by telegraph. Readers showed a clear preference for the "latest news by magnetic telegraph" over older, staler items.

"From the inception of the New York Associated Press to this time," wrote Omaha editor Victor Rosewater in 1930, "the six or seven big dailies of the metropolis were in absolute control of the news-gathering of the country." No other New York paper could join the AP without the consent of all seven members, or even get an AP dispatch without approval from six of them. Such a system made the nation more dependent than ever upon New York for news: the telegraph provided the news, the AP dominated the telegraph dispatches, and the New York press controlled the AP.

The fledgling media center of America occupied a modest area near City Hall Park. The drab, unassuming offices of the Tribune at Spruce and Nassau, the Herald at Fulton and Nassau, the Sun at Frankfort and Nassau, and the Times at Beekman and Nassau lay only a few blocks from the small, dingy building at the corner of Broad and Wall streets that housed the Associated Press. By 1860 the AP had bureaus in Washington and Albany, a handful of full-time reporters, and 50 agents around the country culling local papers for news to be sent back to New York. In May 1861 the AP moved into the five-story brownstone at 175 Broadway that also housed Western Union.

Little at the AP office hinted at the dawn of a media revolution. Beneath the staccato chorus of clacking telegraph instruments sat a row of clerks at worn desks copying dispatches in longhand for the member papers, while a second row of clerks combed the incoming wires and local papers for news to put into the releases furnished twice a day to client papers throughout the country. Amid a litter of apple cores, crumpled papers, tobacco, and ink stains, the clerks toiled in even more anonymity than the reporters who ferreted out the news in New York and elsewhere.

The reporters were mostly young men come from the country in search of excitement. To many of them, news gathering was less a career than a grand adventure. In New York they liked to gather at Pfaff’s Cave on Broadway, where the huge, genial host presided over the bar and purveyed an endless stream of sweetbreads, sausages, German pancakes, and oysters, along with his celebrated lager. At a long table beneath the low ceiling of the inner vault, the regulars smoked their pipes and traded lies and laughter. "There was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world," claimed Walt Whitman, who once served as an editor for the Brooklyn Eagle.

Besides Whitman, regulars included Thomas Bailey Aldrich, William Dean Howells, Charles F. Browne (better known as "Artemus Ward"), and the witty Henry Clapp Jr., who presided at the table’s head. Once asked his opinion of Horace Greeley, Clapp replied, "He is a self-made man who worships his creator." Clapp had started the Saturday Press and edited it largely from Pfaff’s before suspending it in December 1860. Later he announced its revival by saying, "This paper was stopped in 1860 for want of means. It is now started again, for the same reason."

Reporters dwelled at the edge of a society largely ignorant of their function and the power they wielded. They garnered no more respect than actors. Edmund Clarence Stedman, a reporter turned Wall Street broker and later poet, said of his newspaper days, "It is shameful to earn a living in this way." Some reporters had already begun to show the habits of a later generation. They took themselves more seriously than they took most of what they saw, and could laugh at anyone but themselves. They lavished detail on a scene to swell its importance and often saw what they wanted to see, misleading readers and themselves.

While many reporters took immense pride in their work, it remained for most of them a peculiar form of play. But a few shrewd observers already sensed the power wielded by them and by the overworked minions at AP. "The reports of the associated press find their way into every newspaper from Maine to Texas and California," noted an upstate paper. "It is the most potent engine for affecting public opinion the world ever saw."

Suddenly, it was easier to boil up a crisis on a national scale. The very speed of telegraphic dispatches inflamed a crisis by giving people more news, often incomplete, in alarmist language, slanted, and laced with sectional stereotypes. Public figures increasingly learned the power of the press. "The great men of the country," complained an editor in Iowa, "are greater slaves than the negroes of the South; they are slaves to every newspaper, telegraph operator or correspondent in the country. . . . The newspaper press rules everything from a quack doctor to the President."

This was power for ill as well as for good. Frederic Hudson, the managing editor of the Herald, conceded that, thanks to the telegraph, "village gossips are magnified into world gossips." A Philadelphia editor, alarmed at the press’s new might, warned that "unless it is shorn of its strength, by unbelief in all it says and does, it can bring upon us a war at pleasure; it can cry down the good and elevate the bad; it can achieve the success of any party; it can elect any man, almost, President of the United States; and it can . . . play, as with a football, with the great interests of labor and industry." Some reporters relished this newfound power. "I had been writing about Washington all my life," gloated Charles Congdon, "sticking large pins into distinguished people who sometimes howled at the infliction in a somewhat undignified way. . . . I do not much like public men who whine."

In all respects, New York pulled the levers of this vast new power. The New York dailies not only supplied news to the rest of the nation but also provided the model for newspaper format and content. Papers across the country followed the New York pattern of laying out editorials, features, literary pieces, financial news, local reports, and other news into separate sections, where readers could quickly find them.

More important, the New York papers become players in the events they had once been content to observe, no longer merely reporting the news but influencing it as well. Political figures courted their favor and feared their wrath. True, the owner-editors of major papers had always wielded personal influence in politics; what changed was the degree to which the papers began to shape and orchestrate opinion on most major issues and events. They were, after all, the primary source of information for everyone, from the president to the lowliest servant.

Many thought the press created as much news as it reported. "It is a pitiful dodge on the part of leading papers," clucked an Erie, Pennsylvania, editor, "this modern system of manufacturing news; and it has done . . . more to destroy public confidence in the veracity or reliability of the American press than any or all other causes combined." But even those people who were fond of saying that the newspapers couldn't be trusted read them avidly.

The press first exhibited its new power by inflaming the sectional conflict that boiled up during the 1850s and overflowed in the secession crisis of 1860–61. That struggle became the nation’s first media event. During the six months between the election of Lincoln and the firing on Fort Sumter, the New York papers and the Associated Press dispatched correspondents everywhere, even to Charleston, the hotbed of secession, some openly and others undercover, sending back dispatches in elaborate codes to blind addresses. They stalked Lincoln in Springfield, recording the parade of visitors and speculating over cabinet selections. They shadowed him on his train trip east to Washington in February.

"Newspapers and Telegraphs have ruined the country," warned the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Herald in January 1860. "Suppress both and the country could be saved now." But they could not be suppressed, despite a growing feeling that they were deepening the crisis dangerously. "Our people are governed very much by the newspapers they read," growled a Virginian in 1861, during the convention the State had called to consider secession. A North Carolinian complained that "the outside pressure to drag us out of the Union is terrible. All sorts of lies are circulated by telegraph and every bad report . . . constantly paraded in extras from the disunion press to excite, intimidate and over-awe us."

By then, the press was well entrenched in Washington. Larry Gobright, an AP man, had been a fixture in the city since the 1840s. Every New York daily had one or more reporters in Washington to supplement the AP bureau there. They were diligent in finding sources of information within the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations. The Herald alone had three men in Washington who knew Lincoln, and on occasion the president gave them choice items he wanted circulated. Officials like Secretary of State William H. Seward, too, did not hesitate to use the reporters for their own purposes in shaping news. All papers commented freely on personalities and performances, but no one excoriated Buchanan’s feeble approach to the crisis more unsparingly than the Tribune’s correspondents.

This was something new in American life: reporters on the scene of a national crisis, sending descriptions and drawings back within days, sometimes hours, to readers hundreds of miles distant, giving them an unprecedented sense of immediacy. In the process the reporters and editors shaped their readers’ vision of the events by what they reported, how they phrased it, and what they omitted from the story. Their work alone elevated Major Robert Anderson, the luckless commander of the garrison at Fort Sumter, from obscurity to a national hero known familiarly to people all over the North as "our Bob." "The papers are making so much of my position here," wrote the astonished major. "I receive nearly by every mail, letters of sympathy, and many of them from strangers." Reporters interviewed his wife in New York, and Harper’s Weekly printed woodcuts of his cot, his candlestick, and every other bit of furnishing in his spartan quarters. For the first time, the newspapers revealed a power they would employ with great relish in later years: the ability to turn any person into a celebrity overnight.

The outbreak of civil war sent reporters into the field along with the troops, and their dispatches, shaping public opinion, powerfully influenced the policies of both governments. Within weeks after the fall of Sumter, the Tribune and its newly appointed correspondent, Fitz Henry Warren, opened a nagging campaign to move against the rebels. "On to Richmond, then, is the voice of the people," the paper chanted. "Again, we repeat, On to Richmond! To Richmond! To Richmond!" Warren’s dogged badgering prompted the administration to move against the Confederates before the hastily organized army was ready for action. The result was the embarrassing debacle at Bull Run.

Through four years of the bloodiest war in American history, the New York papers confirmed their growing role as a force in the life of the nation. Their dispatches, often in the form of "extras," enabled the entire nation to follow the war, master its new vocabulary, discuss its nuances with neighbors, and cling to the hope that, however bleak the news, tomorrow’s might be better. "That word extra has been a word of power all through these four years," marveled diarist George Templeton Strong, a New York blueblood who served as a member of the United States Sanitary Commission during the war. "How many scores or hundreds of times has the suspicion of its distant sound started me up from this very desk."

When the smoke of battle cleared, the New York dailies emerged as towering institutions in American life. They would rule unchallenged as the bastion of national media until the age of radio and slick magazines dawned in the 1920s. New technologies would undermine their dominance with the same impartial finality that in an earlier age had elevated them to supremacy. Their presence imposed upon the nation a set of common reference points: for the first time information flowed from every corner of the country to every other corner, all orchestrated by the dailies. No one described their impact more succinctly than P. T. Barnum: "He who is without a newspaper is cut off from his species."

 

 


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