“There is something in the human mind that turns instinctively to fiction, and that even journalists succumb.” What remains to the world, Mencken argued, “is a series of long tested and solidly agreeable lies.”
Journalism, Truth and War
In May 1830 James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald in search of “that mass market” which was soon to become the Holy Grail of American industry. In its pages aimed at the laboring classes were “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.”
By the 1850s news-collection was the central task of the business, with political broadsiding still the bread and butter of each paper – as each thought of itself as the very political life of its particular partisan party.
New reporters picked this up immediately and wrote from the party point of view. When trouble commenced in the Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s, Republican party-minded papers sent young reporters on westbound trains and steamers to get the right news to send back East.
One “reporter” was 21-year-old James Redpath, a Scottish immigrant to Michigan, whose only training was writing “fervid articles damning slavery in a Detroit paper.” This caused him to be highly regard by the editors of the St. Louis Missouri Democrat, Chicago Tribune and New York Tribune. These connections and his worship of John Brown helped him become a delegate for the first two conventions of the Free State faction, and a major’s rank in the Free State army once guerilla warfare began.
Bernard Weisberger wrote in his “Reporters for the Union” that the “reporters sent to Kansas by the metropolitan journals wrote amid the time-hallowed insanity of an election year and under the weight of their own upbringing. They were 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. They sallied forth to depict a contest between freedom and tyranny in the impressive arena “beyond the Mississippi.” The results boded ill for the Union.”
Just before Lincoln’s election in 1860 Redpath admitted: “I believed that a civil war . . . would ultimate in slave insurrection and that Kansas troubles would probably create a military conflict . . . Hence I . . . went to Kansas; and endeavored personally and by my pen, to precipitate a revolution.”
(Reporters for the Union, Bernard A, Weisberger, Little, Brown and Company, 1953)