Borchard talks Lincoln and media

podcastlogoFor the first episode of the Journalism History podcast, Teri Finneman interviewed the journal’s editor Gregory Borchard regarding his book Lincoln Mediated (co-authored with Journalism History Assistant Editor David Bulla) and the complex relationship between the president and the press during the Civil War.

This episode is sponsored by the Missouri School of Journalism.

Transcript:

Teri Finneman: [00:00:08] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

[00:00:24] This episode is sponsored by the Missouri School of Journalism, the world’s journalism school, where students conduct research with world class scholars and gain experience as educators alongside award-winning faculty.

[00:00:38] He was a controversial president who presided over an embittered nation after winning less than 50 percent of the popular vote. After his election, the nation split in half, with a partisan media and even family members taking sharply different sides. He took advantage of a new technology to present himself and his administration in a favorable light, secretly seeing the value of the mainstream press while at the same time promoting media censorship.

[00:01:07] In this episode, we examine the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the press with Civil War researcher, Greg Borchard, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Later in the show, we’ll also talk with Greg about his new role as Journalism History editor to discuss his vision for the future of the publication and provide some tips for a successful journal article.

[00:01:30] Greg, welcome to the show. Why don’t you start out telling us how you became interested in studying Civil War journalism?

Greg Borchard: [00:01:37] Hi Teri, thanks for asking. Thanks for having me here. My interest in the Civil War and journalism, both, go way back to when I was a little kid, believe it or not. Some of the first books I ever picked up and started perusing even before I could read were Civil War related. Also, Dr. Seuss and some of the fun kids’ stuff, too, but my dad was the history student. He had history books laying around the house. And I do remember as a kid picking up compilations of Civil War history and paging through it and being fascinated, in some cases horrified, by what I was seeing and really quickly trying to make sense of this event that people are still trying to make sense of.

[00:02:30] And for as long as I’ve been interested in history, that is probably the event that I’ve come back to over and over again, in time realizing and recognizing some of the issues attached to it through research, recognizing and realizing there were 670,000 Americans who died during the conflict and realizing it was a big deal. It was a watershed moment in American history and, in some cases, even world history because the issues attached to it have far-reaching implications.

[00:03:09] As far as journalism, well, that’s another part of life that goes way back as far as I can remember where my first job was delivering newspapers as a kid and we’d go door to door with the Minneapolis Tribune, 10 years old. Now it’s a nice easy way to make money as a 10-year-old, 12-year-old, 15-year-old, but it’s also a good exposure to the news. That was one way I picked up an early appreciation for the press and newspapers was seeing the first stories that would show up in print in the morning as I was delivering newspapers.

[00:03:50] And as it turns out when I got into college and later into grad school it was a nice fit to be able to put news, my own journalistic interests, including my own professional writing at the time along with a research area I’d studied for a long time, and dig in to Civil War journalism and over time, over the past 20 years or so, it’s produced quite a bit of research, including some books, and I’m still very much interested and I think I will be for the rest of my life. This particular area and journalism especially as a way of making sense of it all, that is I think journalism’s finest feature is telling a story about either just a particular event, or when you put a whole bunch of stories together, a much bigger event. And journalism is a good way to make sense of what was going on at the time.

Teri Finneman: [00:04:49] So you mentioned your research in books that you’ve done. Today in this episode, we’re going to talk specifically about your book Lincoln Mediated. Your book notes that before the Civil War, newspapers functioned primarily for political purposes with occasional crime stories to attract readers and advertisers. For those unfamiliar with journalism in the mid- 1800s, tell us about how journalism operated back then and what impact the war had on journalism.

Greg Borchard: [00:05:15] Sure. Well it’s not really a simple answer that can boil down to a few sentences but it helps to keep in mind an evolution in the press.

[00:05:27] Certainly it began before the Civil War, if you go all the way back to the American Revolution and some of the partisan papers that emerged afterwards. It helps to make sense of the context in which Civil War journalism emerged. The partisan press after the revolution was devoted almost entirely to political purposes and served its purpose, it served its function. However, as the nation changed itself and more and more people got involved in creating a government for the people you started to see more and more popular newspapers that appealed to common interests, and common interests did include crime and sensationalism, scandal, and all the rest that went into the penny newspapers. Penny newspapers were designed for the masses.

[00:06:24] In time what we wound up having by mid-century was a blend of both, political newspapers from that partisan era and popular content as well, so that by the time the Civil War rolled around it was common to pick up a newspaper and find a fair share of politics mixed in with popular interests. And politicians realized this, so did publishers, and both relied on each other to exploit readers. In some cases, readers exploited publishers with their own interests as well. It was a fascinating period with a lot of content that we can interpret in different ways, we can interpret it in hindsight from our perspective in purely commercial sense or purely political sense.

[00:07:20] The writing of the series is really fascinating too, and as much as people relied on newspapers much more so than they do now as their primary source of information, and you will see that emphasized in the text when you pick it up. It is packed and loaded with all sorts of kinds of information from the political to entertainment to, well, pretty much everything you see today in a multimedia format. Newspapers were the primary source for a lot of people when it came to getting information.

Teri Finneman: [00:07:55] So what goal did you have in mind when you decided to write Lincoln Mediated?

Greg Borchard: [00:08:00] The real goal was to try to put Lincoln in context with media, not just newspapers, which has been done before, people over the years have written several books about press coverage of Lincoln and how Lincoln interacted with newspapers themselves. But what my co-author David Bolla and I had in mind was to try to look at a bigger picture beyond newspapers alone and hence the title itself, Lincoln Mediated. It’s supposed to be a play on words, and as much as it includes the word media and mediated at the same time. By mediated we are looking at items such as illustrations, Lincoln’s use of the Telegraph at the time, which is a very important development in press history.

[00:08:54] We were also looking at a global context, which is a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think has been done not nearly to the extent that it could be or should be. We looked at newspapers in Europe, especially in London and Paris and also in Canada, pretty much anywhere we could get access to archival information outside of the United States to try to put Lincoln in context, not with just newspaper columns, but with the way people were thinking about him at the tie. And also to take a look at how those ideas, those contemporary ideas, have evolved over the years and see if we can see Lincoln more clearly in that context than just the limited context of press clippings from the United States in the 1860s alone. I guess the verdict is out. I think we succeeded in as much as we put together a book that addresses those particular issues.

[00:10:04] But I know Lincoln’s legacy is so complex that it’s just a matter of time before somebody comes along and does essentially the same thing and finds areas we’ve missed. It’s an ongoing study. The funny thing about Lincoln is there are tens of thousands of books about him and there will be tens of thousands of more books about him and inevitably there will be something somebody who finds, soon, that somebody else, everybody else has missed up until this point and authors will keep adding to his legacy. It’s a living legacy. That’s the funny thing about Lincoln. He never really died, he’s still very much with us. And in as much as people keep writing about him.

Teri Finneman: [00:10:54] Yeah. So let’s expand on that a little bit. So I mean, obviously everyone in the general public has learned about this legend of Lincoln from elementary school on up, as you mentioned so many books have been written about him. So what are facts that you learned about Lincoln while working on this project that surprised you or that you think should be better known?

Greg Borchard: [00:11:14] I think the big one is something people are somewhat familiar with but probably need to be reminded of, and that’s Lincoln was not necessarily a fan of the press. He knew the press, he worked well with the press. He even owned a newspaper, we found that out, and not really gone into much detail about it before writing this book. He also knew from an administrative end, how important it was to control the press. Under the Lincoln administration, we saw an unprecedented amount of censorship and in some cases publishers and editors even going to jail. It was a time of war.

[00:12:02] And Lincoln did in his mind what he had to do in order to make sure that the union efforts succeeded. Now, as somebody directly affiliated with the press now today, as I think anybody would, you should take issue with that, that this was a case in which the federal government stepped in and put limitations on free speech, in some cases in extreme and dramatic ways. There were editors whose newspapers were shut down, or with Clement Blandingham, even given orders to march to the south. They were silenced.

[00:12:46] And I think you know as cozy as our understanding of Abraham Lincoln is today as this great president who kept the nation together, which he did, and he was a great president, we tend to forget, you know, there were serious problems that he addressed that maybe should affect our understanding of who he was as a president. He wasn’t necessarily “Father Abraham” as much as he was, in some cases, a very strict dictator. And people tend to forget that.

Teri Finneman: [00:13:26] That’s really fascinating, because we have built up this really “Father Abraham” image, collective memory that we have of him today. Talk about what people of his actual time period thought of him. What did they think?

Greg Borchard: [00:13:38] They did not think nearly as highly of him as we do now. Certainly some people did, some newspaper editors supported him during his years as president well before then as well. But here’s another thing people tend to forget, he was elected with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, and it was unprecedented, still unprecedented to have a president enter office with that little support. And that didn’t change for a good chunk of the war.

[00:14:14] It wasn’t until right before his second election that popular support turned around. In fact Lincoln himself didn’t believe he was going to be reelected. There’s a story of him handing out notes to his cabinet members in 1864 more or less telling them, ‘you better find another job because we’re not going to be around Washington very long.’

[00:14:41] We’re again living in an age with a very divided country and a president whose controversial. What do you think of comparisons to the divided age of Abraham Lincoln and the divided age now under Donald Trump?

[00:14:53] I think the comparisons are a natural tendency for people to do and we do this as a way to make sense of the past and the present. But at the same time, I also think comparisons are very dangerous and we shouldn’t do them, because the people who lived during the Civil War era lived under very different circumstances and a different context. And the issues that affected them are not comparable to the issues that affect us now. For example, there was institutionalized slavery at the time, and people will make arguments today that we have forms of institutionalized slavery but they’re not the same forms.

[00:15:39] It’s a different context that we live in and the people who were alive then are different from the people who are alive now. In some cases it’s apples and oranges, and that’s the real dangerous part of this, people try to draw direct comparisons and say that Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln are managing similar problems when in fact they’re not. And if we try to read too much into history we just wind up getting lost. The similarities that exist have something to do with similar issues and as much as I don’t think the Civil War ever really came to a close. Lincoln was assassinated. There were Reconstruction amendments.

[00:16:26] There was a treaty at Appomattox and all the rest, but the United States has had ongoing issues for hundreds of years that are still with us, and in some respects, the Civil War never brought them to a close. People today who are divided in general ways are divided over issues that troubled Americans in the 1860s. What does it mean to be an American? What are our individual identities all about? What are our cultural identities all about? The political issues at stake during the Civil War in some cases haven’t subsided either, whether it’s the federal government that gets to call the shots, or if state governments get to call the shots, and you see divisions along those lines as well. There is something of a continuum that has tied the American experience together.

[00:17:26] But as a historian, as a scholar, as somebody who reads primary sources, I do everything I can to resist comparing today with the 1860s, or any other period in American history for that matter. You run into a real slippery slope of misinterpreting what people alive at any given time were actually dealing with. A very complicated answer, but I guess it’s the best one I can give, and the more you study history I think the more apparent it becomes that we can interpret the past through a lens of the present but we can’t impose our own values upon it. And that’s where people get in trouble, is when they start judging people who are dead. It’s a waste of time, frankly, in my opinion.

Teri Finneman: [00:18:13] Ok. So, this is a good place to transition into your new role as editor of the journal, Journalism History. Why did you want to be the journal’s editor?

Greg Borchard: [00:18:23] For me it was just part of a natural trajectory in my career after having published articles in journals, and then later books, and having a bit of administrative experience. The next progression in what I can do and wanted to do turned out to be being an editor of journalism history, and as serendipitous as it was, there was an opportunity to do so. And I guess I happened to be at the right place at the right time to take advantage of the opening after Mike Sweeney had decided he was going to retire from the position. I was happy to see the opening. And as luck or fate would have it, the folks at AJMC appointed me the editor.

Teri Finneman: [00:19:18] What is your vision for the journal?

Greg Borchard: [00:19:20] My vision is to build on the success of the journal as it has existed over the years since 1974, and maintain the best practices, best qualities of the journal as well as possible. It is an extraordinary journal as much as it’s very well produced. Its attracted some of the best scholars in the country and it features a fairly engaging and colorful style of presentation, I’d like to continue that. My vision is to increase its scope and hopefully attract readers who haven’t picked it up before. And by that I mean folks outside of journalism history, and make it a salient journal for scholars in other disciplines as well, outside of the United States as well. I found from reading up on Lincoln and the global context for interpreting him that I think we as journalism historians can do a better job of putting our research in a global context as well, and hopefully attract scholars from outside the United States to contribute.

[00:20:33] The real big issue I think is to try to increase our online presence, including social media through podcasts, through Facebook and Twitter and all the rest. Not just for the bells and whistles attached to it, but because that is the reality of contemporary media, and if journalism historians aren’t in tune with that, we may very well become journalism history and no longer have a very meaningful role in contemporary scholarship. I think this is the way that we need to adapt and adjust and make sure that our voices are heard and we continue to attract interest and develop new research angles as well. I’d say increasing our scope and our visibility online is a fairly important part of this vision.

Teri Finneman: [00:21:24] So you’re pretty new to the job. But this is what everybody wants to know: what are the secrets to getting published?

Greg Borchard: [00:21:32] I’ll say this from my own experience. I would guess others would back me up on this too, but if I’m giving advice to somebody who is trying to get published, it’s simply this, be open to criticism. And it can be a very painful experience if you’re submitting to a journal for the first time to get rejection letters. People tend to take these personally. I know I did. But, it is part of the process, like it or not. And rejection letters in a strange way are actually a blessing. Please, I would suggest to anybody who gets one to take it as constructive criticism as well as possible, even though I know, and everybody whose gotten rejection letters from time to time knows, and you know sometimes readers just missed the point or they may have misinterpreted something. That is part of the process, like it or not. We have to realize that not everybody reads what we think they’re supposed to read. And upon getting suggestions for revision, take them to heart, follow up on them, don’t get discouraged. In time it will happen, if you’re doing a responsible job with revisions, your article will get published.

[00:22:54] Maybe not in your first pick for a journal, but it will get published if you have the patience and the desire to see it all the way through. It is a learning process. This whole publishing business is a craft, you don’t master it overnight, it takes time. If you’ve got the patience and the desire to see it through to the end it will happen. That’s my best advice.

Teri Finneman: [00:23:19] Alright. So, final question of the show. Why does journalism history matter?

Greg Borchard: [00:23:25] I think it matters because everybody I know, including myself, likes a story. It’s just part of our human nature, we like to hear stories that are meaningful, that tell us something about the world in which we live. Sometimes they tell us a story about ourselves and we find out more about ourselves too. Journalism does this, by nature it tells a story, generally within the past 24 hours or maybe week or even month. History does this, sometimes on a much grander scale of ten years ago or a hundred years ago.

[00:24:00] Journalism history is the best of both, it tells an awesome story. It tells a story about a story and you get the best of both. And if you engage in journalism history, wow, if nothing else you get a great story out of the package and it can be very meaningful on both an immediate level and a long term level. And I’ve always been fascinated by it. I make the same pitch to students in class. You’re gonna be telling stories about people who told stories, which might make somebody’s head spin, but the more you get into it, I think the more rewarding it gets.

Teri Finneman: [00:24:42] Alright. Well, thanks so much Greg for being on the show, our very first episode. Thanks to everybody for tuning in, an additional thanks to our sponsor, the Missouri School of Journalism. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, goodnight and good luck.

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