Book Reviews -- the Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878 by Mark Wahlgren Summers

Article excerpt

Mark Wahlgren Summers argues that the Bohemian Brigade did not fade away at the end of the Civil War. Instead, the personal, colorful--and often venal--journalism pioneered by Civil War special correspondents became a model for Gilded Age Washington reporting. In telling this story, he begins to fill a glaring gap in the history of political reporting--what happened between the decline of partisan journalism and the rise of the modern presidency associated with Theodore Roosevelt.

Summers' extensive knowledge of mid-nineteenth-century political history (he's written three books on the subject) is evident in the nuanced explication of Gilded Age political journalism The Press Gang shows that Washington correspondents gained considerable autonomy within their news organizations by cultivating politicians as sources, an important step in the emergence of a capital press corps. Large parts of the book, in fact, examine correspondents' maneuvering in key intra-and inter-party battles. These politico-journalistic alliances often yielded stories of corruption--the Gilded Age's emblem--that enriched reporters financially and professionally, served the partisan goals of sources, and furnished exciting copy to city papers locked in circulation battles.

In one of the more intriguing sections of the book, Summers suggests how systematic reporting biases weakened the political commitment to Reconstruction. Washington-based reporters who toured the South, for instance, suffered from many of the same shortcomings that afflict modern foreign correspondents: they limited their travel (staying in a few cities), consulted a narrow range of sources (conservative Democrats), focused on negative stories (the corruption that accompanied Reconstruction), and responded to editors' demands for the trivial ("amusing" features on black dialect). …


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