Today, the press and media cause rampant swaying of the vote through their own opinions and reports. People are often misled with half-truths and believable rumors that can aid or ruin an election. Journalists and the newspapers often print things too hastily, without first investigating the truth or at least both sides of a story. Candidates abuse the media, using money as a pass to publicly slander and deface the character of their opposition, his ideals, and even the innocent people related to him.
These concepts did not start recently, or even in our century. The press and media’s views affected he early presidencies too. Let’s start with the first president elected by vote, John Adams. John Adams took the office of president in the year 1797. He was a close admirer of Washington and was sometimes said to be Washington’s shadow (Presidency of John Adams, Ralph Adams Brown 1975). He and the Federalists believed that nothing the Anti-federalists and their supporting press could say would be enough to shake their control.
Yet it was Adams who, in spite of his undoubted intelligence, made a mistake of such proportions that it brought about his own downfall and the party’s (Press and the Presidency, John Tebbel 1985). This mistake would be the Sedition Act, which tested the first amendment and the freedoms of the press. This obviously did not please the press and its opinions were generally shifted to that of the Anti-Federalist. This was a deadly blow to John Adams’ presidency and the Federalist party.
He himself was no stranger to the press, he worked together with the Sons of Liberty and “cooked up paragraphs” while “working the political engine” in the Boston Gazette (Brown 1975). Adams experience with the press had convinced him that it was a primary source of political persuasion, and the thought was intriguing to him. He is quoted as saying in response to mudslinging between the two parties “There is nothing that the people dislike that they do not attack” (Tebbel 1985). When the press was being used in his favor, or against the crown of England, he seemed to be proud of the individuality and freedoms of the American press.
However, when it was used against him for negative purposes, he wanted it stopped. Adams had obstacles from the beginning of his presidency. The new president had to establish his own identity among these men of his own party, and at the same time he was compelled to defend himself as best he could against he virulent Anti-Federalist press, which had simply resumed its campaign against him where it left off with Washington (Brown 1975). After debates on the topic, Adams and the Federalists were for censorship as the Sedition Act called for.
William B Giles of Virginia asserted that opinion whether founded in truth or error is a property, which every individual possesses, and which in this country he is at liberty to address to the public through the medium of the press… It should not be forgotten that in the United States the rights of every man and of every society are popular–the rights of pinion, or of thinking and speaking and publishing are sacred. (Tebbel 1985) The Federalists continually lost the following of the people through the press and its opinions of them.
Despite the rejection by the general populous, they continued on and passed treason bills, forbidding true freedom of the press and public opinion. Adams and the Federalists were sweeped out of office after one term, leaving with a bad image due to the persistent press. Thomas Jefferson was then elected into office by popular vote. He had distinctly opposing views to that of the now ousted Federalist party, but still e too had some obstacles due to the press and media. He truly believed in the rights of the people, and he held the freedom of the press in high regard.
He believed that in order to make democracy function as it should, there must be an absolutely free press (Tebbel 1985). He did occasionally speak out against the press, but this was usually when the press did not match the enthusiasm or truly match his ideals. His problems with the press had its origins for similar reasons that had made Washington and Adams enemies of the press– that is, the newspapers remained primarily political organs. No matter how rapidly they were advancing in their news coverage, they were still in the hands of politicians who used printers as tools for their own adgendas.
He too, tried to use the press to his advantage, but when they smote him, he turned the other cheek publicly and tried to turn it around proclaiming to be the champion for a free press. His views to the press slowly began to change, however he always was for a free press. He believed that it must be free, but that its purpose in a democratic society was to inform, to circulate information among all classes of eople, not simply the political aristocracy to which he himself belonged. The press informed the people, and they, in possession of real facts and the truth, would make democracy work.
At the time almost everyone did agree on that fact, except for the extremist Britain loyalists. Jefferson’s views, after increasing attack and slander became a bit more loose. He still thought the presses should be free, but also free of lies and libel. Thus Jefferson came to the presidency with a clear record of absolute support for press freedom, now with the single limitation of the libel laws. The Federalist’s press and their scurrilous attacks on him were at their savage height, and the control slipped away. This caused a paradoxical situation for Jefferson that could not lead to a positive outcome.
He wanted to restore the credibility of the press– that is, stop the oppositions lying attacks on him–by a few judicious, selected libel actions brought in the states where they are most likely to succeed, which if successful would put the fear of the law into other papers so that they may unfreely restrain themselves (Tebbel 1985). He did not bring about the libel uits (a wise move) that would have made him seem like a hypocrite and a backstabber to the press which he frequently claimed to be the champion of, so ultimately the press was allowed to continue the attacks against him which hurt his character.
The Evening Post newspaper came about and it too was not exactly full of pro-Jefferson sentiment. But in another smart move by Jefferson he turned the other cheek and continued to be proud of the freedom used to slander him. Jefferson was quoted as saying this about the press though I determine never to put a sentence into any newspaper. I will religiously adhere o this resolution through the rest of my life and have great reason to be contented with it. Were I to undertake to answer the calumnies of the newspapers, it would be more than all my own time, and that of twenty aids could effect.
For while I should be answering one, twenty new ones would be invented. I have thought it better just to trust to the simple justice of my countrymen. (Tebbel 1985) His actions and reactions to the horrendously negative press certainly aided his election to a second term. If Adams would have been as much as an optimistic pacifist perhaps he would have been allowed to serve a second term. From this point to decades in the future, the press was constantly a factor in the presidency. There always were presses against the views of the president and the freedoms of the press ,too, were stretched, tested, and analyzed.
They were constantly under scrutiny from the presidency through the following tumultuous decade. In the presidency of Andrew Jackson the press began to change to even more of a manipulatory tool, than just expressive of opposing ideals. Newspapers in Jackson’s time still served the purposes of political candidates and parties and were sometimes subsidized by them. Nearly every andidate had his own newspaper, with its loyal editor, whether he had any organization behind him or not. Until Jackson, political party organization had been so weak that newspapers were a prime element in the ability of a candidate to function.
When he solicited funds, the money was needed largely to buy the support of major newspaper editors which was for sale (Cole 1993). Jackson’s ideas of government were consistent with his character. He agreed that there should be three equal parts of a government, as the Constitution had decreed, but he insisted that he was the first among equals, as the popular voice esponsible for policy. The press, of course, could change the “popular voice” very easily with lies, half-truths, and calumny.
In Jackson’s campaign in 1828 began to take shape, the general heard a clarion call to governmental reform, and he perceived that the press was a valuable tool to bring this about (Cole 1993). For the first time, a presidential campaign was organized from the grassroots upward, not only to elect Jackson but, so it was said, to reaffirm the principles of republicanism of the Jeffersonian variety–that is, debt reduction, minimal government, and states’ rights. In the election of 1828 these broad issues were addressed only in policy, internal improvements were never dealt with directly by either the candidates or the newspapers.
Instead, the press lost whatever ground it had gained since older times and engaged in the old style of invective and reckless charges, libel, and harmful attacks (Tebbel 1985). It is believed that Jacksonians had raised a fund of $50,000 to establish newspapers guaranteed to support Jackson (Cole 1993) This is not very doubtful in my mind, since corruption of newspapers was commonplace and their favor was quite easily attainable. Jackson and his backers were all the while busy organizing a powerful coalition, drawing into it wise politicians, businessmen, as well as some newspapers and their editors.
So through reaction to a corrupted press the Democratic party was created (Tebbel 1985)! Obviously that seriously effected American politics to this date. At the time this was called the Nashville Central Committee, which then began giving regular handouts to the press, letters written to politicians everywhere in the country, and visitations to local and other state committees, and most importantly the central committee in Washington. This also lead to a steady distribution of propaganda and campaigning materials. Jackson also formed a trio known as the “Kitchen Cabinet” (Cole 1993).
It consisted of Kendall, Blair, and Jackson. Kendall noted down the president’s ideas, often as the president lay back on a couch and smoked his pipe, and later he and Blair would write, or rewrite, what was said into stories of both the Jackson and Van Buren administrations. Thus Jackson emerged as the first presidential manipulator of the press, in a practical, systematic way that far surpassed any earlier attempts at such (Tebbel 1985). So the “Globe” became the president’s personal and frequent conveyer of propaganda and the beliefs he wanted the people to have.
Ironically, since everyone knew that the Globe was the president’s personal organ, its circulation naturally increased because in its pages could be seen what the president was thinking (actually, what he wanted you to think) and assiduous readers might even anticipate what he might propose next. However, the Globe still prospered, and within a year had four thousand subscribers plus congressional and departmental printing contracts worth about $50,000 annually (Cole 1993). Many of these were taken away from the Telegraph, which was the oppositions leading paper!
Due to this the Telegraph had to stop due to funding problems and the Globe was left alone to lead people to Jackson’s cause. As the campaign for his second term began, the persuasive and overwhelming political character of the Globe was evident as even the most important news had to take a second place to the political maneuvers the Democrats were making. A cholera epidemic in Washington was noticed only in the official reports of the Board of Health, but there was room for columns of uotations from Democratic papers on the veto of the bank bill (Tebbel 1985).
Unlike Jefferson and Madison had been, Jackson was not known to be ultimately a supporter of total press freedom. However, this didn’t stop him from getting elected to a second term, which can be said is largely due to the Globe and its persuasions. Jackson had shown what could be done with a manipulated press to hit people on the head with the hammer blows of an aggressive presidency. It would take the “Little Magician” Martin Van Buren, to demonstrate how the press could be used to persuade without the hammer blow.
However, violent passions were rising in the country over the slavery issue, and a new breed of editors was about to come into its own–editors who could declare themselves independent of any political party or candidate and not only survive but become rich and successful (Wilson 1984). He also was known as the “Red Fox,” (Wilson 1984) as the press sometimes called him, because journalists already were well aware of Van Buren’s special talents as a master manipulator. More than any president before him, Van Buren possessed an innate ability to grasp the interrelationship of the press and the public mind.
Yet, what he wrote about both was hardly full of brilliant insight. He said, “In this matter of personal popularity, the working of the public mind is often inscrutable. In one respect only does it appear to be subject to rule, namely in the application of a closer scrutiny by the people to the motives of public men to their actions. ” In the same volume, speaking of the opposition papers, he gave us the common political opinion: “Their press had been for a long time and was at that very moment teeming with the most outrageous calumnies against me on the same general subject. Tebbel 1985)
The press even developed a term to describe the way they felt about him “vanburenish” which meant straddling or avoiding certain issues, but still maintaining the great guy facade. The “little magician” had some Jacksonian political attributes too. He may have complained from time to time about the Albany Argus, but this paper was an important factor in his rise to power. He contributed to it often, and eventually came to own it as his own, much like Jackson’s Globe. However, when Van Buren began his campaign for the presidency, he found himself in the naccustomed position of being on the receiving end of abuse from the press.
As a candidate, he also came under blows delivered by Webb’s corrosive pen. “Every paper almost we open speaks contemptuously of Van Buren’s prospects for the presidency. ” (Wilson 1984) The New York American even declared: “Mr. Van Buren consorts most naturally with the degraded and vile–for among them he is a superior… The good we desire we may not be able to attain; but the evil we dread, the great and menacing evil, the blighting disgrace of placing Martin Van Buren, illiterate, sycophant, and politically corrupt, at the head of this great epublic… e can avert it and such a consummation is surely worth some trouble. ” (Tebbel 1985)
With the press he wanted on his side backfiring on him like this, it is no wonder why he was not elected to a second term as president of the United States. As you see, the press was, and is, a very fickle group. You are either with them, or against them. It makes men, breaks men, and aids one at the expense of another. Yet, I am glad we have such liberties and such an intriguing press that can be played like a big game where ultimately someone loses big.