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.)

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Reveling in the timeless joy of newspaper corrections

Having spent nearly 20 years in journalism all told, I saw plenty of unintentional errors show up in print, some by my own hand and others by friends and co-workers.

Given that thousands and thousands of bits of information appear in even the smallest daily newspapers, mistakes and subsequent corrections are a regular companion of journalists everywhere. Occasionally, they offer a bit of levity.

Most corrections, or their cousin, the clarification, are pretty straightforward, with the goal being to mend the mistake without repeating the error unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Sometimes, however, corrections are necessarily hilarious.

Consider this from the Oct. 30, 2014, edition of the New York Times, which came in the form of a letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

I was grateful to see my book “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.

Ann Patchett

Nashville

There’s also the unintentionally funny – although one is certain the reporter and editor didn’t get much of a chuckle out of having to put together the following, which appeared in the April 11, 1996, edition of the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

An April 5 story stated that Mary Fraijo did not return a reporter’s calls seeking comment. Fraijo died last December.

And then there are those corrections which leave one scratching one’s head as to how they could possibly have come about. Thus, we have, from the May 10, 2016, The New York Times, this:

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about a theological battle being fought by Muslim imams and scholars in the West against the Islamic State misstated the Snapchat handle used by Suhaib Webb, one of Muslim leaders speaking out. It is imamsuhaibwebb, not Pimpin4Paradise786.

The number “786” appears to have some importance to some Muslims, at least on the Indian subcontinent; something about giving numeric values to the Arabic letters of the opening words of the Koran. However, it is not a widely held belief among Muslims.

Even so, one would think that given the overall conservative nature of most Muslim leaders, the handle “Pimpin4Paradise” would be viewed as a red flag – a bright, flaming- red flag.

One could see “Pimpin4Paradise786” maybe getting by, say, the editors at the local Peterborough Prattler, but the New York Times? Oy!

Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

How the tyranny of the petty minded can infect a society

Coleman_Livingston_Blease

Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.

Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.

In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.

The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.

The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.

“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.

Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.

“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”

The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task. Continue reading

Inquirer’s demise a sad reflection on state of print journalism

philadelphia inquirer sign

Anyone who has followed the print journalism industry over the past decade has witnessed its unmistakable decline.

Metro papers in particular have been hard hit as technology has revolutionized not only information distribution, but advertising, as well. The collapse of classified advertising coupled with the dramatic increase in online readership has resulted in the newspaper industry deteriorating precipitously in recent years.

Consider the Philadelphia Inquirer: 25 years ago it had 700 employees, dispatched journalists around the globe regularly to file stories and boasted daily circulation of more than 500,000.

Today, the paper fields barely 200 employees, has pulled back its coverage dramatically and seen daily circulation shrunk to a little more than 160,000.

“The Inquirer used to send reporters and photographers to South America and Africa,” said photojournalist Will Steacy, whose father was an editor at the publication and who has closely followed the paper’s decline since 2009. “They once sent a guy off to study the fate of the black rhino for six months. Now no story gets done that involves much more than a half-hour drive from the city. Otherwise it is mostly wire stories.”

As the British newspaper The Guardian notes, the Inquirer once had a reputation for both holding local government to account as well as breaking big foreign stories.

“ … it was the Inquirer that uncovered, for example, the full truth behind the OPEC oil blockade of 1973 that was causing panic in Philadelphia and beyond, by dispatching its reporters to examine the shipping lists of Lloyd’s of London and to interrogate dock workers in Rotterdam and Genoa,” according to The Guardian.

Today, in what is perhaps a sad reflection on both the industry and those that it serves, the Inquirer, at least based on its website traffic, appears beholden to lowest-common-denominator stories.

“The stories that receive the most clicks on philly.com,” Steacy suggests “are weather stories, celebrity stories, sex stories. I guess best of all is a celebrity sex story with a good weather angle… ”

The last bit fits all too well with musician Paul Weller’s wonderfully crafted line: “The public wants what the public gets.”

A lesson in how not to win friends and influence people

cops

One could speculate on how the above made it into a newspaper – mischief, a prank gone awry, subliminal loathing of law enforcement – but of all the mistakes I’ve seen printed in newspapers over the years, and there have been many, this has to take the cake.

The comment was attributed to Hardin County Sheriff John Ward by the Elizabethtown (KY) News-Enterprise in a story that appeared on the front page of paper on Jan. 8. Ward denied making any such comment and stated that what he said was officers go into law enforcement “because they have a desire to serve the community.”

The paper, which retracted the statement, initially called the misquote a typographical error, but later blamed it on a production mistake.

The media blog jimromensko.com investigated and was told that two copy desk staffers – 23 and 32 years old – had been fired.

“One wrote the ‘shoot minorities’ line on the page proof as a joke and the second – in charge of the front page – put it in the story,” according to the blog.

It’s telling that reporter Anna Taylor was not fired. Editor Ben Sheroan explicitly stated in an editorial posted Thursday afternoon that Taylor was not responsible for the mistake.

“A function and process designed to rid the news pages of error instead added a terrible one that altered the reporter’s original sentence,” Sheroan stated. “No reasonable excuse can exist.”

Ward said the interview was conducted with another member of the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office present and there was no part of the interview that mentioned any related comments.

“I have served in law enforcement for 30 years and have never known any officers that had these motives,” he said in post on the department’s Facebook page.

One imagines folks at a certain central Kentucky newspaper have been pouring over their media liability insurance policy quite closely the past day or two.

California paper asks newsroom staff to help with delivery

Orange County Register

As a former journalist, I’ve had a hard time watching the newspaper industry’s continuing decline. Across the United States, papers are struggling to handle the significant drop in advertising revenue that’s taken place over the 12 years or so.

None of the four daily papers I toiled at during my career are doing particularly well at present. Nowhere is that more evident than at the last paper I worked for, in Columbia, SC.

When I joined the paper as a banking reporter in 1999, it had a business staff of seven, an assistant business editor and a business editor. Today, it has a business editor and approximately 1-1/2 business reporters.

I say “approximately” because the two individuals assigned to write business stories will often find themselves covering non-business subjects, as well.

But things could be worse.

Take the Orange County Register, which this week asked its employees, including its reporters and editors, to deliver the paper’s Sunday edition over the next few weeks.

The California newspaper, which has three Pulitzer Prizes to its credit and is one of California’s largest dailies, started the initiative after a switch in distributors wreaked havoc on home delivery, leaving some routes uncovered and thousands of papers undelivered, according to Slate.

The Register asked employees to help deliver the Sunday edition of the paper until its carrier woes are worked out.

As compensation for the task, which involves sorting and delivering 500-600 papers on a full route and can take as much as six hours to complete, employees can earn $150 in Visa gift cards. A smaller route will earn a $100 Visa gift card.

Continue reading