Academic journal article Journalism History

Reporting on Party Spirit: The Western Spy's Coverage of the March to Ohio Statehood

Academic journal article Journalism History

Reporting on Party Spirit: The Western Spy's Coverage of the March to Ohio Statehood

Article excerpt

The Western Spy, a weekly newspaper published by Joseph Carpenter, first appeared in Cincinnati in 1799, four years before Ohio became a state. This article examines the Spy's coverage of Northwest Territory politics and the statehood movement from May 1799 through the Ohio General Assembly's first meeting in March 1803. The study found: the paper's political coverage largely consisted of the publication of raw data without an editorial narrative; the isolation of the Northwest Territory caused delays in the reporting of news, which influenced the Spy's news-gathering sourcing, and publication schedule; and the paper's reliance on official documents for news often caused it to overlook underlying stories. But most importantly, the Spy exercised the power of the press in an impartial manner, making Carpenter a journalistic pioneer.

When The Western Spy began publication as a weekly newspaper in May 1799 in Cincinnati, the Ohio River town was just over a decade old and had a population of about 800.1 As the capital of the vast and largely unsetded Northwest Territory that lay north and west of the Ohio River, Cincinnati was at the heart of a growing region evolving toward statehood. "Party spirit," a term that described the emerging political activism of the era, was beginning to flourish with citizens gravitating to Thomas Jefferson's Republicans (which would later be known as Democrats) and President John Adams' Federalists. For many of the territory's Republicans, statehood could not come quickly enough to end what they considered the oppressive rule of the longtime Federalist territorial governor, Arthur St. Clair. For many supporters of the Federalists and the governor, however, the young territory was not yet ready for statehood, and they wanted to put off the inevitable transition as long as possible. Over the next four years, the struggle played out in many venues, including the taverns and meeting halls of towns across the territory, the Capitol and the White House in Washington, and the pages of the Spy and other newspapers published on the frontier.

The Spy emerged in an era when American newspapers focused on ideas rather than the day-to-day events that would constitute news for later generations of journalists, and the main role of the press was political.2 As historian Hazel Dicken-Garcia wrote in her 1989 study of American journalism standards of the 1800s, "The press served other purposes, but its content, function, and role reflected American's primary interest in fashioning a new form of government and debating ideas for the country's development."3 Not only did newspapers such as the Spy facilitate political dialogue in their communities, in a manner not unlike the editorial and oped pages of later generations of newspapers, but they also served as a platform for political campaigns. In its editions preceding an election, the Spy routinely published numerous contributed articles and letters written in support of, and opposition to, candidates and parties.

Newspapers of the late 1700s and early 1800s often actively promoted political movements and candidates, rather than reporting impartially on politics.4 The press of the era typically sided with Jefferson's Republicans or Adams' Federalists, and politicians often started or subsidized newspapers to help spread their views.5 "Many editors, subsidized or not, took a positive role in party organization and electioneering; a few even ran for office," wrote historian Donald H. Stewart in his 1969 study of Federalistera newspapers.6 Such partisanship contrasted sharply with the politically neutral reporting found in newspapers of the twentieth century.

Reinforcing the political role of the press in the late 1700s and early 1800s was the nature of newspaper circulation and audience. Due to their relatively high cost, newspapers of the era did not reach a mass audience as the Penny Press did later in the 1800s. Rather, the typical newspaper reader in 1800 was a member of the educated elite of the community. …

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