Lincoln And The Power Of The Press: The War For Public Opinion, by Harold Hozier
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.]
As someone who reads a fair amount of books about Abraham Lincoln , I am often interested in seeing what a given author provides that is distinctive. Hozier’s book is immense in its scope and achievement, containing more than 700 pages of material that deal with such matters as the conflict between New York’s major newspaper titans, the clandestine ownership of partisan newspapers by politicians like Abraham Lincoln, and the savvy way in which Abraham Lincoln managed the press as a president in order to help the Union cause, despite the agendas of the media bosses themselves. The book is, as might be imagined, extremely complicated and extremely broad in its scope, looking at a wide variety of elements of Lincoln’s interactions with the press, which ranged from virtual house organs to critical but reasonable to outright hostile. Given the partisan nature of the mid-19th century press, which has some important parallels to our own times, and is thus relevant, it is not a surprise that even an immensely able and principled leader like Lincoln found the press difficult to deal with.
To be sure, not all of Lincoln’s moves were savvy. For example, Lincoln’s attempts to woo New York publisher Bennett, a longtime friend of the Democratic party, to his side were immensely unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Lincoln had a much higher view of the importance of the freedom of the press than many of his generals had, and his willingness to overlook some immensely hostile portrayals from the media, which he had the constitutional power to hinder if he had chosen to use it, makes Lincoln far more creditable as a wartime president when compared with Wilson, for example. The book even covers the way in which Lincoln at times was able to borrow expressions and ideas from the newspapers he read voraciously to improve and inform his own prose, ranging from his use of the expression “a new birth of freedom” to his justification of the Emancipation Proclamation as a purely wartime measure based on arguments from Raymond (editor of the once-great New York Times).
To be sure, few people will likely have the free time and the stamina to read a lengthy book about the history of Lincoln’s relationship with the press. That said, the book is filled with skillfully collected anecdotes and an attention to detail that is commendable. Here we see a rare history that looks at the relationship between the press and political history that contains nuance and detail, avoids simplistic conclusions, presents relevant connections but also reminds us that the behavior of neither politicians nor journalists is straightforward, given the tension between trying to shape others and being shaped by others and the tension between the desire for popularity and success and the desire to remain true to one’s own principles. Such tensions were not unique to Lincoln’s time, but they are discussed here very well and in a fashion that offers no hagiography, no whitewashing, and also no axes to grind, but rather a focus on facts and evidence and a desire to present a complex reality as accurately as possible. For those who can endure its length, the book presents many pleasures in its large scope as well as its miniature portraits of people and incidents.
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