Political invective, partisan media have long history in U.S.

There’s much ado about former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s new book and whether she takes her former employer to task for its coverage of the Trump Administration.

“Abramson, the veteran journalist who led the newspaper from 2011 to 2014, says the Times has a financial incentive to bash the president and that the imbalance is helping to erode its credibility,” wrote Fox media critic Howard Kurtz about Abramson’s book.

Abramson, who led the paper from 2011 to 2014, claims Kurtz took her words out of context, and said rather that her book is full of praise for the Times and Washington Post and their coverage of Trump.

No matter what the case, there are substantial numbers of U.S. citizens who, whether correct or not, believe the Times and Post have become “the opposition” to the Trump Administration.

What many news consumers don’t realize is that 125 years ago, newspapers were often unabashedly biased in their political coverage. The difference being that there were so many newspapers – more than a dozen in New York City alone – that the republic could afford to have media predisposed to one party or another.

Article in Newberry (S.C.) News and Herald describing then ex-Nebraska Gov. John Milton Thayer’s purported descent into lunacy.

Consider this small blurb which ran in papers across much of the country in January 1891: Under the headline “Ex-Governor Thayer Goes Mad” it was reported from Lincoln, Neb., on April 18, 1891, that “Ex-Governor Thayer, who has been suffering from nervous prostration brought on by the political complication in the Legislature, today became a raving maniac.”

John Milton Thayer was a Republican who had served as a Union general in the War Between the States, seeing action as such noted locales as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Fort Donelson.

He was one of the first two senators from Nebraska after it gained statehood, was appointed territorial governor of Wyoming by Ulysses Grant and was elected to two terms as governor of Nebraska, in 1886 and 1888.

Thayer didn’t run in the 1890 election, which was won by Democrat James Boyd, a native of County Tyrone, Ireland. Boyd was sworn in on January 8, 1891. However, the Farmers Alliance Party candidate, John Powers, who had finished second by 1,144 votes, contested the results, initially citing voting irregularities.

A month after the election, newspapers began reporting that Governor-elect Boyd wasn’t a U.S. citizen because his father, upon arriving in the United States in the 1840s, had failed to follow through on obtaining citizenship, and didn’t actually do so until the month his son was elected, more than 30 years after the family arrived from the Emerald Isle.

John Milton Thayer, governor of Nebraska, territorial governor of Wyoming and one of the two first senators from Nebraska.

Under naturalization laws in place at that time, “if a parent failed to naturalize before the child reached the age of majority, the child could only acquire citizenship through their own naturalization proceeding,” according to Nebraska Law Review.

Thayer also questioned Boyd’s citizenship and refused to relinquish the governor’s quarters. Within a few days, the Nebraska Supreme Court suggested that Thayer hand over the governor’s office while it considered the case.

It was during this period that Thayer was said to have become a “raving maniac,” with the story running from coast to coast in papers big and small, including the Boston Globe, San Francisco Call and Virginia’s Alexandria Gazette.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in May 1891 that Boyd was not a citizen and, therefore, ineligible for election as governor. With this decision, Thayer was reinstalled as governor.

Boyd then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he based his claim for citizenship on three points:

  • Boyd claimed that he was a citizen by having acquired citizenship while he was still a minor through the naturalization of his father;
  • He argued that the circumstances of his life warranted a conclusion that he was a citizen. He believed that he was a citizen. It was his intent to be a citizen. He had voted for many years, held public offices and taken oaths of his allegiance to the United States; and
  • Boyd argued that the principal of collective naturalization operated to make him a citizen when Nebraska was admitted into the Union in 1867. In other words, when Nebraska became a state, everyone living within its borders became citizens, no matter what their intention.

The Supreme Court agreed Boyd was a citizen, and he took office in February 1892.

Thayer retired from politics after his abbreviated third term and lived until 1906.

Despite being referred to as a raving maniac in papers across the country, there is no mention of Thayer’s purported lunacy in the Encyclopedia of Nebraska or the National Governors Association’s biography of Thayer.

A few days after the first article appeared, the Omaha Daily Bee ran a short piece stating that “General Thayer is not a raving maniac, as has been asserted,” but was simply resting in bed after having overtaxed himself.

One imagines General Thayer being somewhat less than thrilled to see his name again linked with the term “raving maniac,” even if in a correction of sorts.

More than likely, many of the publications that printed the initial article were Democratic organs which were only too happy to connect a Republican politician to madness. Were the tables turned, Republican publications no doubt would have done the same thing to a Democrat.

This was during a period when newspapers were much more open about their political allegiances, and the public understood where publications stood on candidates and key issues.

Rest assured that Thayer wasn’t the only politician in the 19th century to be incorrectly labeled as a raving maniac.

(Top: First Nebraska state house, built in 1868 and pulled down in 1883.)

23 thoughts on “Political invective, partisan media have long history in U.S.

  1. i’ve been hearing rumblings about this book in the last week. i love your explanation of the history of the press and their leanings. nothing new. i’m a huge fan of the press and love them speaking their minds

  2. Cotton Boll,
    If Thayer was a Union general, he was probably a raving lunatic before he became governor. In any case, I was exasperated with the NYT long before Trump ran, and not because it is partisan. I have a hobby of underlining, circling, making comments in the margins, and making cartoon balloons over photos, with my translations of statements inserted. I challenge anyone to take a favorite newspaper and circle all the predictions, speculations, anonymous or unqualified sources, gossip and second guessing, and they will discover for themselves how few facts newspaper articles contain.

    If newspapers were merely slanted, it would be more forgivable than the sloppy reporting by obviously inexperienced journalists that passes for news today.

    • Thayer was certainly an opportunist; he moved to Nebraska in 1854, the year the Kansas-Nebraksa Bill was signed into law, making Nebraska a territory, and immediately became involved with the fledgling Republican Party.

      I do recognize that there is a good deal of opinion inserted in stories, particularly at large outlets, as fact. What’s more telling is what gets covered and what doesn’t. By focusing resources on certain areas, outlets are determining what’s worthy of coverage and what isn’t. Consider religion: it’s a big part of tens of millions of Americans’ lives, but gets little coverage – except as a fringe topic or object of curiosity – by New York- and Washington-based media. Meanwhile, the focus on subjects which have significant meaning to the progressive movement receive a preponderance of coverage.

      Of course, media are free to cover what they choose, but when many potential readers can’t identify with stories or subject matter, they feel the outlets don’t understand them or their community.

      And smaller papers have made a habit in recent years of releasing, giving buyouts to veterans reporters and hiring youngsters, which means there’s less and less institutional knowledge, which is why you see foolish mistakes.

      • Cotton Boll.
        You cite several of my concerns. It seems the national media exist within their own clique. You mention religion, which only seems to be “newsworthy” when it’s a source of conflict or extremism. I think the urban vs. rural division is apparent, too., the focus on “the economy” and national and international politics. And you’re right that the young, inexperienced journalists seem to have little grasp of history. It’s as though the world was created with the Great Depression or the Holocaust.

        That’s a reason I like your historical posts.

      • Thank you, Katherine. There is a large divide between most daily newspaper journalists and the majority of their readership, or, at least, what used to be their readership.

        And I’d say older journalists seem to believe the world was created with Kennedy’s election to the presidency, while younger journalists appear to believe creation dates to the Clinton Administration.

        Anything before that is largely irrelevant, or open to being reinterpreted with today’s values. Which is why we remain, on the whole, a nation ignorant of history, both our own and that of the rest of the world.

        And thank you for the kind words.

      • Cotton Boll,
        I can understand why we are ignorant about history, unfortunately. The more I learn, the more confused I get, and the less I understand. Also, “historically” history has been presented as dry and boring, devoid of humanity. That may be beginning to change. I hope so.

  3. I appreciate the fact there used to be numerous newspapers in the cities and that diluted the partisanship to some degree. It seems now that the media is more of a cartel than a cross section of opinion and that cannot be good in an age of sound bites and bumper stickers.

    • I think many of the larger operations are reaping what they’ve sowed. Distrust has resulted in decreasing readership. The Wall Street Journal, which is not viewed as being nearly so partisan, is still doing pretty well, as far as I can tell.

      Of course, it’s difficult to report reliably when so many people only want sound bites and bumper sticker slogans.

  4. I’m confused.What on the surface seems to be about yellow journalism, may be a roundabout commentary on 14th amendment birth-right citizenship.Maybe either or both?

    Either way, the good Gov.Thayer should thank his lucky stars that ole Bedford way only interested in getting out of town at Ft Donelson, otherwise his political career could have been cut REALLY short! 😉

    • No, no commentary on the 14th Amendment. I realize things have changed from the 19th century regarding how citizenship is determined, but what prompted the story was my coming across the article in a small town paper about Thayer being described as being a “raving maniac.”

      And, yes, Thayer appears to have been lucky to have survived four years of conflict to have had the chance to become a “raving maniac” in 1891.

  5. And whats wrong with bumper stickers?
    back in 2001 I had a Sore/Looserman bumper sticker that led to lots of belly laughs and at least one free drink that I remember.

  6. I love that little clip you found, and glad it prompted this post. I’m curious about the book, scandal nothwithstanding. The discussion that ensued in comments was engaging as well. I’d like to get you folks around a table and hash this out for a couple hours.

    Have you read The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin? It is about the lives of Taft and T. Roosevelt, but weaves media into the story, and I was finding the chapters on news in America the most fascinating parts of the book. Also, as Katharine was alluding to above, the book is a good example of how much I do not know about history!

    • Crystal, if you have an interest in Theodore Roosevelt, you might want to give Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior” consideration. I found it interesting and learned things about TR that were completely new to me. I have “The Bully Pulpit” on the shelf just waiting for the next snow storm (a good back is part of my blizzard planning).

      • Thanks for the tip, Joan! I do hope you get a satisfactory blizzard to enjoy your book. While reading it I gained a huge amount of respect and admiration for Taft that I had never had an ounce of before. I love how much about history there is to learn.

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