Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated and holding his spectacles...

Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil. (Feb. 5, 1865) Credit: Library of Congress/Alexander Gardner

Nations often view the crisis of the moment as the most severe ever, so in this time of worry it is worth recalling that 150 years ago, the very survival of the American experiment seemed in doubt.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was leading one of history's greatest military campaigns, routing Union forces of far greater number. Northerners, frustrated at their army's failure to quickly put down what many had presumed would be a weak insurrection, were divided over how forceful a stand the Republic should take on slavery. President Abraham Lincoln was so unpopular that his Republican Party was headed to a resounding defeat in the congressional elections that fall.

Then, as now, the press was in the thick of it all. But two key factors were different in the mid-19th century.

First, of course, there were no websites or TV channels, no incessant digital conversation on social media; the mass media consisted of hundreds of newspapers and a handful of influential magazines.

Second, virtually all those publications were virulently partisan at a level beyond the imagination of today's Fox News and MSNBC producers. Newspapers even took on the names of their sponsoring parties. (Years ago, I was the editor of an Indiana daily, founded in 1862, still called the Rensselaer Republican. The competing Jasper County Democrat had sold out to the Republican. Draw your own conclusions.) Against that backdrop, it is interesting to remember that the man many Americans consider our greatest president did not hesitate to harass and intimidate those in the press who disagreed with him. Editors in New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore were jailed; newspapers were shut down around the country, their presses often hauled into nearby rivers and lakes.

This harsh treatment was exclusively reserved for Democratic editors, so maybe it's not surprising that reverence for the First Amendment wasn't an important issue for editors on the Republican side. The historian Harold Holzer says that "one searches in vain for editorial objection" when editors critical of Lincoln's policies were targeted. Indeed, an editorial in The New York Times declared, "Speech should only be free when it is loyal." Henry Raymond, founding editor of The Times, became a member of Congress and Republican national chairman.

That sort of political activism wasn't unusual for editors then. Thurlow Weed, founder and editor of the Albany Evening Journal, became the most powerful political figure in the state and was Lincoln's personal envoy to France.

There were exceptions to the partisan spirit of the media. The Albany Morning Times, founded in 1856 -- the paper that is now the Times Union -- proclaimed that it wouldn't be in any political party's pocket. "Independence Now, Independence Forever," its motto announced.

Nowadays, plenty of people are urging so-called legacy media to embrace not just a more personal tone, but also a more overtly partisan one. They note the success of Fox News, which has an audience comprised largely of politically conservative viewers and presents its news with a twist that affirms the consumers' views. It's just smart marketing, we hear, to position a product in a way that will make would-be customers feel comfortable. Fox News, of course, is led by Roger Ailes, who was a top Republican campaign strategist.

It's undeniably a time of turmoil in the mass media, prompted by the emergence of easy access to audiences through digital channels. While newspapers still have big readership, some of the advertising dollars that used to support our journalism are now scattered further about. Should we pursue a business strategy that embraces audience segmentation by political stripe? But if the mass media by and large did just that, what would happen when the next crisis arises as great as that which confronted America 150 years ago? In a world beset by terrorists and conflicting values, such a challenge to America's survival could arise at any moment. Would a nation with media as partisan as its leaders be able to pull together? Or would we tear ourselves apart? Perhaps what we today consider abuses of the First Amendment during the Civil War occurred precisely because it made no sense to protect a Constitution at the risk of the nation it established. Maybe attacks on Lincoln's policies were, as many of his contemporaries argued, undermining the survival of the Republic.

I can imagine similar arguments arising again in American history. But it seems to me that fueling that fire is a perilous course for the American media.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at http://blogs.timesunion.com/editors.


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