"Newspaper Row, Washington, D.C." Engraving from "Harper's… (NATIONAL ARCHIVES/ )
The life of a newspaper correspondent in pre-Civil War Washington was marked by insultingly low wages, uncertain job security and frequent charges of inaccurate or biased reporting.
So, in a way, not much has changed in 150 years.
But the onset of the conflict in 1861 acted like a spike of adrenaline for the city’s journalists. The hostilities generated a flood of news and rumor in a city suddenly bursting with wartime energy. With Union newspapers hungry for any information about the unfolding catastrophe, newspapermen, and a few newspaperwomen, flocked to the capital.
The new arrivals — many of them young, most quite inexperienced — set up shop in one- and two-man news bureaus between the Capitol and the White House, selling their dispatches to whoever would buy in the north and west. So thick were the scribes clustered around 14th Street NW near the Willard and long-gone Ebbitt hotels that the stretch became known as “Newspaper Row.”
Reporters were nothing new in Washington in the 1860s, but the Civil War influx of newcomers established the hazy outlines of the permanent reporter-political-industrial complex that we know today. Many of the new correspondents stayed to establish permanent news bureaus. European correspondents, fascinated by the war’s massive scale, settled in, too; among them was a young French journalist named Georges Clemenceau, destined to become France’s prime minister during another great conflict — World War I.
The journalistic epicenter, around 14th and F streets NW, later became the site of the National Press Building, home to numerous national and international bureaus. An inebriated politicians-and-correspondents party for a new speaker of the House of Representatives in 1864 may have been the model for Gridiron and White House Correspondents dinners to come.
The city was the logical place for a war correspondent.
Most of the major battles of the eastern campaign were fought within a day’s ride of the capital and some were literally within earshot of it. Congress and the burgeoning federal bureaucracy were here, as was the commander in chief. A surprisingly accommodating President Abraham Lincoln regularly chatted up the newspapermen in informal, off-the-record meetings; the Associated Press’s senior man, Lawrence “Pops” Gobright, occasionally accompanied Lincoln when he went from the White House to the War Department to read communiques from the battlefields.
The reporters were an educated group — schoolteachers, lawyers, small-town editors and, later, wounded war veterans, said Donald A. Ritchie, Senate historian and author of “Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents.” Some of the journalism of the day holds up, he says.
“There’s a lot of good shoe-leather work involved,” Ritchie says. “The job hasn’t changed much. You get the facts and you tell people about them.”
But the wartime city buzzed with rumor and gossip, and sensation often appeared as news. The New York Herald, under its storied editor and proprietor James Gordon Bennett, gained a reputation for wildly speculative stories; just before the war’s outbreak, the newspaper reported that armed gangs in Maryland and Virginia were preparing to descend on Washington to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration.
“They printed almost every rumor you can imagine,” says Mark J. Stegmaier, a historian at Cameron University in Oklahoma.
By the beginning of the war, the Washington press corps had become a partisan bunch, “openly rooting for a Union victory, as were their newspapers,” Ritchie says. Southern correspondents had “seceded” from the city, along with their state delegations.
The reporters established close — and by contemporary standards, corrupt — relationships with the people they covered. They courted and wrote flattering accounts of political players. Horace White, the Chicago Tribune’s man in town, actually shared a boardinghouse with the congressmen he covered, Ritchie says.
The cozy connections between the press and the politicians enhanced the newsmen’s chances of gaining not only news leads but also insider investment tips, and of winning “patronage” jobs. Thanks to their friends in office, correspondents for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune and other leading papers secured jobs as clerks on House and Senate committees, earning paychecks from the government and their newspapers simultaneously. The reporters, naturally, repaid their sponsors with favorable coverage, leading one senator, James Doolittle of Wisconsin, to complain that “great men and heroes are manufactured here” by blatant press bribery.