Early New York newspapermen James Gordon Bennett and Moses Beach both recognized the power of the telegraph on news they could sell in their Herald and Sun, respectively, and both sought that “mass market” which was shortly to become the Holy Grail of American industry. The revolutionary-minded reporters they sent to Kansas in 1856 greatly helped light the fuse for the coming war; the election of a purely sectional president in 1860 finished their work.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Mass Market Sensationalism and Kansas
“The appearance of the telegraph [in 1835] unlocked the door to the entire country for the newspaperman. Until it came, current news was the property only of the city room . . . while the steam locomotive sliced helpfully into the mailbag’s travel time, it could not keep up with the dots and dashes.
“This agency,” wrote James Gordon Bennett at the time, “will be productive of the most extraordinary effects on society, government, commerce and the progress of civilization.”
The Herald . . . [was] soon blooming with police-court reports, details of murders and offenses against morality of an interesting nature, blow-by-blow write-ups of bare-knuckle prize fights, stock market reports, gossip, and the most up-to-date news that money could procure.
In 1841, Bennett wrote to Henry Clay, asking for the distinguished Senator’s help in removing [a rule barring non-Washington reporters from House and Senate galleries]. Clay, a master politician, perhaps guessed that already the Herald was useful to have on one’s side. He went to work and the rule fell . . . [soon] the solons rapidly accustomed themselves to orating for a national audience.
National elections came in 1856 – automatically a year ripe for trouble. At the very beginning of it, ominous stories were appearing from the territory of Kansas, opened to settlement since 1854. There had been elections for a legislature, bad blood between factions divided on the inescapable issue of slavery, angry claims of fraud, and then shootings.
Editors swung around in their chairs and scribbled notes; reporters boarded trains and steamboats and headed West to cover Kansas.
They wrote as actors, not spectators, and many believed that truth could be put to flight in a free and open encounter unless it received at least some assistance [from them].
They sallied forth to depict a contest between freedom and tyranny in the impressive arena “beyond the Mississippi.” The results boded ill for the caving Union.”
(Reporters for the Union, Bernard A. Weisberger, Little, Brown and Company, 1953, excerpts pp. 17-18; 20; 22-23)