Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias: Civil War, Scandal and the AP
Not until the rise of the internet would technology have as great an impact on news as the telegraph.
This is the seventh part in a Citizen Truth series on media bias and the history of the press, read the first parts below.
The telegraph brought a previously unprecedented level of objectivity to newspapers by forcing the partisan press to compete with the short, concise reporting provided by news wire services.
Even with government funding and support, the telegraph had nearly failed. Under government sponsorship, the telegraph became another tool of the elite ruling class. It transmitted its first message on May 1, 1844, at a time when the line extended only to Annapolis Junction. The first ever telegraph, sent to Washington D.C., declared that Henry Clay had won the nomination for president. As Clay had been the expected presidential nominee, this could hardly be called news so the announcement of Theodore Frelinghuysen’s nomination for vice president became the first genuine news ever transmitted via telegraph.
Ultimately, the press became an important source of both capital and demand for the telegraph. For entrepreneurial newspapermen, the telegraph represented both risk and opportunity, in that it could transmit news more quickly than newspapers could, but it could also potentially help them to sell more newspapers. With their investment and support, they aimed to create a relationship built around partnership, rather than a rivalry between the two mediums.
The prohibitive cost of the telegraph pushed publishers toward two solutions. First, wire services and newspapers required reporters transmitting stories to pare down their reports to the bare bones — reporting only essential facts via the wires — signifying the birth of fact-based journalism in the U.S. The second solution laid in the creation of alliances between various newspapers across the U.S., in what would become known as the Associated Press.
Press Cooperatives Form
By the late 1840s, newspapers began entering into agreements in which they shared the expense of telegraph reports, as well as all news gathered from ships arriving in New York’s harbor. Their partnership enabled them to avoid the wasted expense of duplicating wire transmissions and gave them a competitive advantage over newspapers not included in their partnership. One such newspaper, forced to shoulder the costs of the telegraph wholly by itself, was first referred to the group by a name most would recognize today, the “Associated Press.”
By the early 1850s, the New York Associated Press (NYAP) provided two columns of news to its dailies throughout the U.S. Crucial to its dominance and success was the NYAP’s control of news from Europe, which it transmitted from eastern Canadian seaports. The NYAP shared news it obtained not through its own reporters, but rather through a system of agents around the U.S. who rewrote stories found in local newspapers and transmitted them to New York via the telegraph. In New York, the AP consolidated the stories into a single report that also contained foreign news and sent it to member newspapers — also by telegraph. Newspapers outside of this alliance found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, incapable of offering a product that could even remotely compete with NYAP.
Then, in 1856, NYAP entered into exclusive contracts with American Telegraph in the east and Western Union in the west and required its member newspapers to exclusively utilize their wire service. This marked the beginning of the first bilateral monopoly in the U.S. — a monopoly telegraph in close partnership with a monopoly news wire service. Prior to this time, Americans had traditionally perceived monopolies as possessing political partiality and legal privilege. By the time they gave thought to monopolies in a corporate sense, the telephone had taken hold as a preferred communication medium and it had already begun chipping away at the telegraph’s monopoly position.
As parties to the cartel, AP member newspapers agreed not to challenge the monopoly Western Union held over the telegraph, while also pledging not to criticize the AP. Members risked the loss of their membership if they openly challenged the AP.
For its part, the AP protected its membership by prohibiting any newspapers from joining the partnership without full agreement of all existing members in a prospective newspaper’s region. AP membership became such a coveted amenity that the 1884 Census report estimated the value of an Associated Press franchise in New York to be around $250,000. Media mogul Joseph Pulitzer built his empire around the acquisition of AP franchises, paying a hefty price for Gould’s money-losing New York World for the sole purpose of acquiring its AP membership.
By the 1860s, the telegraph had established itself as the preferred medium for time-sensitive communication, and cheap telegraph news became associated with the rise of penny newspapers whose primary audience laid in the working class.
1869 brought about a cooperative agreement between the three major state-sponsored wire services — Havas, Wolff and Reuters — that formed a sort of de facto news cartel and divided up international news into regions in which each company held exclusive rights. At its inception, the alliance lacked an American partner, and so rights to the region fell to Reuters. When the AP joined the group in 1893, it became the official U.S. based wire service and gained the exclusive rights to the region.
In 1874, railroad tycoon Jay Gould took control of Union Pacific Railroad and, with it, the associated but small Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph that operated telegraph lines along the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad rights-of-way. Over the following few years, Gould installed telegraph lines along the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad among others, and it became the primary competitor to Western Union. In 1877 with its stock prices in the toilet, Western Union agreed to buy out Gould’s telegraph holdings at a large profit. This lucrative buyout emboldened Gould who, a few years later, attempted to replicate his success.
Controlling 8,168 miles of railroad in 1880, Gould built a new opponent to Western Union — American Union Telegraph — which again walloped Western Union in terms of profits. Rather than again turning to Western Union to buy him out, this time Gould took advantage of Western Union’s low stock prices and bought up a majority share in the company. From his position as Western Union’s largest shareholder, Gould arranged the purchase of American Union Telegraph as well as the surrender of Western Union to his control.
The most despised man in America at the time, Gould’s coup of Western Union raised serious concerns about the threat he might pose to America’s hitherto free press. Indeed, under Gould’s direction, Western Union gave a hefty advantage to the AP in that it provided service exclusively to its members and refused to carry any other wire services. In this way, it helped stronger newspapers continue to prevail over weaker ones.
Not until 1894 would the Supreme Court rule that telegraph companies must serve all customers without discrimination, but even then, it fell short of declaring them “common carriers” in kind with railroads. Not until 1910, with the Interstate Commerce Act, did Congress categorize telegraph and telephone companies as common carriers and require them to accept messages from any customer willing and able to pay.
AP Faces Competition
In 1866, AP members received about 750,000 words per year from AP reports, but within 16 short years, that number had ballooned to more than 7 million words. At that point, AP reporting accounted for 80 to 100 percent of news copy for small-town Midwest newspapers. Leasing Western Union’s private lines overnight enabled the AP to cut costs while simultaneously increasing the rate and size of its reports.
Sometime around 1869, competitors to AP began sprouting up, offering their services to the disenfranchised newspapers traditionally excluded from AP’s membership. Most notably, the United Press (UP) gathered news from AP’s early edition papers and distributed it to their members.
In 1885, the UP and AP entered into a collusive agreement that provided for information sharing between the two entities. In this agreement, the UP agreed not to offer wire services to newspapers at a cost lower than what the AP offered, and top AP officials acquired stock in UP. When exposed in 1892, it forced the reorganization of the AP, which rebuilt itself under new leadership without significant differences in membership and thus regained its position as the industry leader. Meanwhile the UP declined, faltered and finally collapsed in bankruptcy in 1897.
Not until the turn of the 20th century would any form of viable competition to the AP again rise. At that time, media magnate E.W. Scripps — who controlled a string of newspapers — built a new and more enduring news service under the name United Press.
As the reigning leader of news wire service in the late nineteenth century, the AP had established a strong membership base beneath it, as well as a solid monopoly on which news stories were told and how. Just as fake news and partisan journalism of the contemporary era have roots in the newspapers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concepts of media consolidation and control find their roots in the partnership of the AP.
The Civil War Prompts Objectivity
After 1850, journalists moved to a more fact-driven form of journalism, relying more on objective details than value-laden journalism. This transition accelerated throughout the Civil War, during which casualties, troop movements and battlefield results became the most commonly reported topics from field reporters. Reporting on the war increasingly forced journalists to exclude their opinions as readers cared less for flowery details than whether their friends’ and families’ legions had seen battle. And more so, readers wanted to know whether those friends or relatives had survived the battles.
President Lincoln noted that in terms of war news, the AP’s coverage — with its bare bones style of writing and omission of editorial commentary and unnecessary wording — garnered him more public support than editorialized versions. However, as previously stated, it was not due to pressure from the administration that the AP adopted its policy of minimalist reporting, rather the policy existed to mitigate the high cost of sending telegraphs. The short, concise reporting of “stringers” kept telegraph charges down.
While AP’s motivation for a short concise style of journalism can’t be linked to political pressure, the superintendent of the Press Association of the Confederate States — John Thrasher — did set such a requirement for his association’s reporters. He instructed his correspondents to “see where you can use one word to express what you have put in two or three.”
Not surprisingly, when, in 1862, the government sought to censor Civil War news coverage, it did so by providing war-related news stories exclusively to the AP, which in turn suppressed and modified its reports in accordance with the administration’s instructions. Though the AP’s “just the facts” directive didn’t come from the administration, the AP did allow the administration to dictate which facts they reported.
Even though the New York Herald had more reporters on the front lines of the war than the AP, the administration’s decision to give stories solely to the AP allowed the government to control the image of the war in the eyes of northern citizens.
Following the Civil War, former Republican politician William Henry Smith, acting as general agent for the AP, helped Rutherford B. Hayes secure not only the Republican presidential nomination but the general election as well. When a special Congressional Electoral Commission subsequently investigated the election, Western Union covertly shared telegrams between committee Democrats with Smith, allowing him to keep Hayes informed of the committee’s upcoming actions. The AP further contributed to the effort by distributing legal opinions in support of the Republican party while simultaneously failing to report on Democratic protests. The collusion between the AP and the Republican party ran so deep that Democrats dubbed the AP the “Hayesociated Press.”
Even as Western Union fed Democratic telegrams to the AP’s general agent, it assured its customers that it kept all messages private and confidential. When fighting began during the Civil War, the government violated telegram privacy by taking possession of telegram copies Western Union kept from the previous twelve months. As Congress moved toward the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, again they seized Western Union telegrams. But when Congress subpoenaed telegrams related to the contested 1876 electoral cycle during which Hayes had been elected, Western Union refused to comply.
Eventually, in 1877, Western Union acquiesced and turned over close to 30,000 telegrams to the Republican led investigation. However, Western Union continued to deny Democrats access to the telegrams pertaining to the electoral investigation, and not surprisingly, the only excerpts to see the light of day implicated Democratic candidate Tilden in a scandal. Congress retained the subpoenaed telegrams for two months prior to returning them to Western Union, who destroyed them.
Taken together, collusion between the AP and Western Union combined with the source consolidation made possible through the AP nudged the U.S. news industry toward an era of unprecedented objectivity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The next article will address the journalistic ethics and objectivity movement.