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The Campaign of 1896

Politicians did not readily give up control over vehicles of publicity. Indeed, ownership of a newspaper was deemed essential in intra-party struggles. In the mid-1860s, the Detroit Advertiser and Post, long the state’s leading Republican newspaper, began to stray from the path charted by Zachariah Chandler, the state’s leading Republican. When the paper added to this shortcoming the failure to endorse the complete slate of candidates, Chandler and a few of his friends founded the Detroit Post. The Post was intended, according to ones source, to “offset the lukewarm if not hostile influence of the Tribune and at the same time [to] properly chastize it.”[78] However when Chandler finally  lost his senate seat in 1875 the reason for the two papers ended and in 1877 the two papers merged and was renamed the Post and Tribune. Ownership of the merged paper remained in the hands of Republican politicians until it was sold to James Scripps in 1891. A decade earlier, in 1883,new factionalism among Republicans led to the founding of the Detroit Journal. The Journal struggled financially, but in both 1886 and 1892 Republican Senator Thomas Palmer invested substantial sums of money to keep the paper afloat and his political views prominently displayed.[79]

The presidential campaign of 1896 proved the final undoing of the partisan press. In 1893 Depression gripped the country and as the presidential campaign of 1896 began the nation was gripped by a vigorous debate over the nature of currency. Those who believed the depression could be ended by inflation urged that the United States treasury abandon the “gold standard” and allow easier to obtain silver to support the currency. The battle was bitter and with many consequences. Among the consequences was the final separation of most major newspapers from party affiliation. For example, the Detroit Free Press, long the Democratic Party’s faithful party organ, broke with the party, and declared its independence. This act came as no surprise. The paper had been at war with Detroit’s Democratic mayor Hazen Pingree since 1895, who repaid the bad press he received at the paper’s hands by claiming that he “wouldn’t believe the weather reports” printed in the paper.[80] It was not such a large step to move from criticizing Detroit’s Democratic mayor to abandoning the party’s presidential nominee.

Nor was the Free Press alone in defecting from the Democratic fold. Joseph L. Titus, a life-long Democrat and editor of the Livingston Democrat, published under his supervision in Howell since 1857, also bolted. Of the ticket, Titus believed that, “They were not Jeffersonian, they were not Jacksonian, they were not Democratic, and he would have none of them.”[81]

It seemed as if the 1896 presidential campaign took the last wind out of overtly partisan sails. By 1900 newspapers across the state and across the country no longer served as partisan organs. Whereas in the past parties simply established new papers to present their views, the heavy investment necessary to create a widely distributed newspaper no longer made this possible. Economics had forced political parties out of the newspaper business.[82]

The end of overt partisanship, however, did not mean that twentieth century newspapers abandoned consistent political views or strong party preferences. The historically Democratic Detroit Free Press , once it broke with the Democratic Party in 1896, consistently supported Republicans for the presidency until the paper endorsed Jimmy Carter in 1976.[83] In a second example, a study of six Michigan newspapers coverage of the state’s 1960 congressional campaigns, found that while all six papers were generally non-partisan in their news coverage of the campaigns, only one of the six papers studied, the Traverse City Record Eagle, was non-partisan on its editorial page.  The other five papers displayed a preference toward Republican candidates.[​84]

Newspapers also adopted other crusades, For example the long-time editor of the Escanaba Journal, was remembered as a

… violent Prohibitionist and in the prolonged “Wet” and “Dry” battle in this county he led the prohibition forces through many a knock down an drag out campaign. After prohibition became a reality he became actively engaged in protecting the prohibition regime…[85]

Papers continued to have strong editorial views, but those views were more often disconnected from the news columns.