The campaign season had set “a new standard for nastiness, maybe because the campaign lasted so long and involved so much drama and intrigue.” Analysts pointed to a campaign “based more on personal attacks … the politics of personal destruction – than on policy issues.”
The New York Herald wrote “Every four years we have a revulsion and uprisal of all kinds of elements – defamation, hatred, misrepresentation. The press becomes a sewer … honest differences of opinion grow into animosities.”
It was 1876 and the closest presidential election ever, decided by a single-vote margin in the Electoral College after a record-setting voter turnout of over 80%.
The quotes are drawn from “Shooting Arrows & Slinging Mud: Custer, the Press and the Little Bighorn” by James E. Mueller, professor of journalism at the University of North Texas. It was an impulsive purchase at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument the day before the world shut down last March. I was looking for local history. It turned out to be a history of journalism as told through coverage of the battle once known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Federal policy was to force the Sioux tribes onto reservations. It was an otherwise obscure guerrilla war in a country only 11 years past the horrific casualty counts of the Civil War. The deaths of 258 soldiers in a police action at Montana’s Little Bighorn River was a shock to a nation celebrating its hundredth anniversary. Every newspaper had its own spin. Or as Professor Mueller puts it, “Someone was to blame. Journalists were eager to help the public figure out who deserved it.”
At the time, newspaper partisanship was assumed. Republican newspapers blamed Custer, a proud Democrat who had testified before Congress against his commander in chief, and excused Republican President Ulysses Grant. Democratic newspapers blamed inadequate staffing by Grant. It gave them another talking point on why Union troops enforcing Reconstruction should be pulled out of the South. Today the slogan might be “defund the Army.”
And yet the Great Sioux War of 1876 was quickly pushed out of the news cycle by a nasty and divisive presidential election no longer remembered, proving Mueller correct when he writes “what journalists think is news is not necessarily what will be important to future generations.” The Sioux victory at the Little Bighorn became a lasting historical landmark of our country’s centennial year.
The now infamous endorsement column in last Sunday’s paper will fade as well. It reflects the conversations among many reluctant Trump voters who can’t stand the man’s bluster but appreciate his administration’s policies. It wasn’t based on the character of either presidential candidate who now “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then [will be] heard no more.” There is a distinct choice between party platforms which will impact the country and the culture much longer than any man’s lifetime.
Modern newspapers are as likely to regularly quote Shakespeare as to declare partisan allegiance. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says “journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting,” while striving to stick to just the facts. This demands a rare level of self-awareness, and a willingness to question one’s own reality. Some reporters will inevitably be better at it than others.
Writing a news-opinion column is easier. A progressive columnist can legitimately write an entire column focusing on potential violence from fringe right wing-radicals without once mentioning five months of current political violence coming from the left wing. Columnists tip their slant by choice of topics and breadth of balance. My column assignment is to reflect rural and conservative values in subjects I select within boundaries I choose, within word limits as assigned. Some readers appreciate one columnist more than the other. I hear from both kinds and thank everyone for being a reader, and hopefully a subscriber.
Editors have word limits too. The space available depends on the number of pages, driven by the number of subscribers and the number of advertisers. The Spokesman-Review is a rare resource as media outlets are sold off to megacorporations. Local journalism supports staff and freelancers with a cross-section of values and experiences reflecting the community. It’s essential at a time when we face honest differences of opinion threatening peace among neighbors.
And the contestants in the presidential election of 1876? Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio and Samuel J. Tilden of New York. It was just another election in a long and unbroken line of elections. We’ve had them before, we’ll have them again. May the better platform win.
Contact Sue Lani Madsen at firstname.lastname@example.org