The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When the war on the press turns violent, democracy itself is at risk

The bloody history of the war on the press

Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci promised “an era of a new good feeling” with the news media. It didn’t last long. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The constant churn among President Trump’s communications staff — including the abrupt ouster of Anthony Scaramucci, who days ago promised to bring “an era of a new good feeling” to press relations in his role as communications director — has not obscured the underlying principle driving their media efforts: unremitting hostility toward a free and objective press.

Even newly appointed Chief of Staff John F. Kelly appears to scorn the news media. In May, when a ceremonial saber was given to Trump at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony, Kelly suggested that Trump might “use it on the press.” The president seemed to like the idea, as well he might. Last month, he retweeted a GIF depicting his appearance on “WrestleMania” with a CNN logo superimposed on the face of the man he pummeled.

While both Trump and Kelly passed off their comments as jokes, the increasingly commonplace threats of violence directed at the press ought to be taken quite seriously.

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

In the early 19th century, the number of newspapers in the United States proliferated dramatically. Technological advances such as the steam-powered printing press made publishing easier and cheaper, and a burgeoning American population expanding across the continent and filling growing cities was hungry for information. In 1820, roughly 500 newspapers were published in the United States. By 1860, there were about 3,000.

Antebellum newspapers rarely professed objectivity. Most explicitly advocated for a particular political party, religious persuasion or moral reform. Leaders of the emerging abolitionist movement were unexceptional in this regard. They saw newspapers as vital tools for building their organizational network and reporting stories about slavery’s horrors and its corrosive role in American economic, political, cultural and social life.

What set abolitionist journalism apart was the outrage and violence such stories provoked. White Southerners accused abolitionists of lying about slavery and threatening their lives by publishing “incendiary” news that might ignite slave revolts. White Northerners believed abolitionists to be “fanatics” who courted sedition and threatened to undo the racial order of the United States. Such public censure soon resulted in violence against abolitionist journalists. Their presses were threatened, assaulted and attacked by individuals, mobs and governments alike.

In 1827 in Baltimore, a slave trader named Austin Woolfolk beat abolitionist editor Benjamin Lundy in the street because Lundy criticized him in his paper. After Lundy’s protege, William Lloyd Garrison, founded an anti-slavery paper called the Liberator in 1831, several Southern states issued bounties for his arrest, and some locales indicted him in absentia for publishing inflammatory anti-slavery material. In October 1835, a Boston mob dragged Garrison through the street with the intention of lynching him.

Every assault and every threat provided more ammunition for abolitionist claims that proslavery forces in the United States constituted a “Slave Power” that would undo democracy to maintain a slaveholding oligarchy. Moreover, by lending credence to the anti-slavery critique, attacks further emboldened opponents of slavery even as they made being an abolitionist journalist more dangerous.

In summer 1835, abolitionists sent hundreds of thousands of unsolicited pieces of anti-slavery literature through the mails in a coordinated “postal campaign.” The reaction, particularly in the South, was intense. Some Southern states criminalized the distribution of abolitionist newspapers. Local postmasters often refused to deliver the materials, and in Charleston, S.C., a mob calling itself the “Lynch Men” raided the post office and burned the anti-slavery papers that had been received there.

Even President Andrew Jackson got involved. Calling abolitionist editors “monsters” who were “guilty of the attempt to stir up amongst the South the horrors of a servile war,” Jackson urged passage of a federal law that would prohibit the circulation of abolitionist publications in Southern states.

A law that effectively would have created such a policy nearly did pass in Congress. Even though it failed, the violence directed against anti-slavery journalists escalated. It finally came to a head more than a year later in November 1837, when an abolitionist minister and editor named Elijah Lovejoy was killed in Alton, Ill. After setting fire to the warehouse where Lovejoy kept his press, a proslavery mob fatally shot him when he tried to extinguish the flames.

In death, Lovejoy became a martyr to the anti-slavery and press freedom causes.

The United States never became an entirely safe place for abolitionists to work. But the violence faced by anti-slavery journalists, and particularly the killing of Lovejoy, led to increased support for the abolitionist movement in the free states and to greater sympathy for the claims of anti-slavery forces that the slave power endangered republican government and the rule of law.

Journalism and journalistic practices in the United States have changed enormously since the 1830s, and journalists are no more infallible now than they were then. They make mistakes, and they publish stories and information whose foundations do not stand up to later scrutiny. But there is a lesson in the turbulent days of antebellum journalism. A free press in pursuit of the truth can serve as a counterforce to entrenched interests that do not serve the American people. Screaming that reporters deliver nothing but “fake news” and threatening to do them harm does not make the truth any less true. Attacks on abolitionists garnered sympathy for the anti-slavery cause as they exposed the brutal lengths to which proslavery forces would go to perpetuate slavery.

So, too, may the repetitive bullying being carried out by the president and his supporters bolster opponents and further isolate Trump from the American people as the tide of damaging reporting continues to rise.