Heather Cox Richardson
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent his famous telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” from the U.S. Capitol to his assistant in Baltimore, Maryland. (See the dots and dashes in the title.) Morse had begun his career as a painter, but, the story goes, keenly felt the problems of communication over distance when his wife took ill and died while he was away from home. By the time he got the hand-delivered note warning him that she was sick, she was already buried.
While it had been a personal crisis that inspired Morse to pursue the telegraph, the importance of the new machine reached far beyond families. The telegraph caused a revolution in the spread of information in America. The information revolution, in turn, changed politics.
Notably, historians have credited the telegraph with hastening the coming of the Civil War. Before the time of fast communication, politicians could cater to different voters by making contradictory promises. Antebellum Democrats and Whigs could endorse slavery in the South and attack it in the North. Since news rarely traveled far, their apostasy seldom came back to haunt them.
The telegraph changed all that. It offered voters a new, clear window on politics. Now reporters could follow politicians and send messages to editors back home.
But faster communication did not necessarily mean accuracy. On the contrary, partisan editors tried to position their journalists in critical spots so they could control the spin about what was going on. They happily spun stories that would discomfit politicians they opposed. As the sectional crisis heated up, the telegraph enabled partisan editors to portray far away events in ways that bolstered their own prejudices.
On-the-spot reporting took away politicians’ ability to ignore the gulf between North and South. It forced white Southerners to defend slavery, and made Northerners sensitive to the growing Southern power over the government. The political parties could not remain competitive nationally, partisanship rose, and the country split. The result was bloody.
Information might come faster with the telegraph, but it was not necessarily more accurate. The same could be said about radio and television, which provided more information than ever, but still used a strong editorial filter.
Now a new tool has the potential to deliver the accuracy the telegraph promised. The internet provides even faster and more thorough information, with far less editorial filtering than ever before. This has given us instant fact-checking, in which politicians who vehemently deny saying something often find one of their statements with those very words posted to YouTube. It also gives us immediate commentary by specialists on a subject under discussion, judging the value of a proposed policy.
The internet has also given us a sea of bloggers who follow local developments and produce verifiable information that would never make it onto an editorial desk but that might, in fact, turn out to be part of a larger pattern. Joshua Marshall at www.talkingpointsmemo.com put such information together during President G. W. Bush’s second term to uncover the U.S. Attorney removals, a story the mainstream press initially missed altogether.
The web has the potential to break down editorial partisanship, but this accuracy has an obvious stumbling block. Will readers be willing to investigate politics beyond their initial biases to entertain a range of ideas and reach clear-eyed decisions about policies? Sadly, studies so far indicate the opposite, that people use the internet to segregate themselves along partisan lines and reinforce their prejudices rather than to tear them down.
The telegraph initially promised to break the close relationship of politics and the press by giving people access to events unfiltered by partisan editors. It failed. The telegraph only increased the partisanship of the news Americans read. Now the internet has the potential to break the ties between the press and politics for real. But can it, in the face of entrenched political partisanship?
One hundred and sixty seven years after the telegraph tapped out its famous words, we’re still struggling with the same questions.