Friday, January 15, 2010

"Spinning" the News is Nothing New

It seems now on television, with so many cable news shows, that everyone has a "spin" on what is happening. That is nothing new of course. Politics have been playing out in media since there was media. And, today things are not much different. Now there are Democrat and Republican "interpretations" of the news, but before television, and especially in the nineteenth-century, the two old parties slugged it out in the newspapers, sometimes deceptively.

Doing some background reading this week for my on-going research into how Kentuckians reacted to John Brown's raid, I came across a perfect example of how newspapers sensationalized an event and twisted words to fit their agenda.

In the fall of 1859 John G. Fee (see last post) had the misfortune to be in the Northeast on a fundraising trip when John Brown and his raiders decided to make their attempt on Harpers Ferry. Fee's trip proved to be successful in drawing donors' attention to his abolitionist work in Kentucky, but perceptions back in the Bluegrass state were far from friendly.

On the evening of November 13, 1859 Fee was asked to speak at the congregation served by Henry Ward Beecher (pictured above); Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Beecher was the son of Lyman Beecher, former president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, and was the Billy Graham of his day. He was also the brother of Harriet Beecher Stow who had penned Uncle Tom's Cabin some seven years before. He is also the source of the term "Beecher's Bibles." During the Bleeding Kansas years Beecher had encouraged antislavery supporters to send boxes of Sharpe's rifles to the free state proponents that were fighting the proslavery Missouri forces, marked as Bibles. Beecher thought that in the Kansas situation rifles would be more respected than Bibles by their enemies.

Fee's speaking at Beecher's church would have been enough to draw severe criticism from his home slave state, but his mention of John Brown, whose Harpers Ferry raid had aborted less than a month before, brought a tide of disapproval down upon his mission, and partners back in Kentucky.

The New York Tribune printed Fee's spoken words that evening, and it is to be believed, as their reporter was present. It wrote that Fee said, "We need more John Brown's-not in the manner of his action, but in his spirit of consecration-men who would go not to entice away a few slaves, for that would not remove the difficulty-men who would go out, not with carnal weapons, but with the 'Sword of the Spirit,' the Bible: and who in love, would appeal to slaveholders and non-slaveholders, if needs be, to give up property and life."

Fee mentioning John Brown at this time was about as safe as holding a lightening rod in an electrical storm. As you might imagine, when this news made its way back to slaveholding Kentucky it was not well received. The Lexington Kentucky Statesman reran the story from the Louisville Courier, a very common practice in that day. That story read, "The Louisville Courier of yesterday says, 'Rev. John G. Fee, a fanatical abolitionist, who is a native of this State, and a resident of some one of the mountain counties, is now in the east collecting funds for his nefarious work. Last Sunday night he preached in Henry Ward Beecher's church in Brooklyn and said that more John Brown's were wanted, especially for Kentucky. He also gave a detailed account of his operations here, which partakes somewhat of the Munchausen style [fairy tales] of story-telling.'" The long story ends with the sentence, "Well, let brother Beecher and brother Fee come along to Kentucky with their John Browns. The mountaineers know how to welcome such traitors with bloody hands to hospitable graves."

It seems the Kentucky papers conveniently left out that Fee called for John Brown's "not in the manner of his action, but in his spirit of consecration," and "not with carnal weapons, but withe the 'Sword of the Spirit,' the Bible." Fee made it more than clear that he did not approve of John Brown's hostile militant act at Harpers Ferry, but he did respect and acknowledge that Brown's "spirit" of antislavery was a worthy example.

Fee's family and friends would be forced to leave their settlement at Berea in December 1859. They were forced to leave the state because their neighbors believed that they had a potential John Brown in their midst; and that could not be permitted for safety's sake.

This interesting example shows that even in the nineteenth-century words were twisted (or in this case omitted) to promote an opposition agenda and bring about a desired action. The cable news shows or our day couldn't have done it any better.

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