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IN A DELIGHTFUL ESSAY ON THE PRACTICE OF JOURNALISM, HISTORIAN Robert Darnton reported seeing some graffiti that turned the famous motto of the New York Times on its head: "All the news that fits we print." Indeed, for all who have spent any appreciable time reading early American newspapers, the phrase seems an apt characterization of the "cutting and pasting," to use a modern term, of excerpts from other papers, so common a practice in these publications. And for portions of many papers, it may be appropriate. But Darnton also discussed a different and more important meaning of the "fit" of a column, one where the shape and content of the story meet the expectations of editor and reader. Having played a crucial role in the emerging political party conflict in the 1790s, newspaper editors in 1800 looked for stories that fit or could be fashioned to meet their political needs in the heated, often vitriolic campaign for the presidency and control of the federal government. Federalist editors found one such topic in the reports of Gabriel's conspiracy. (l) Notices of Gabriel's conspiracy, a failed slave plot in Virginia at the end of August 1800, broke in the press in mid-September. At first the crisis in Virginia was presented elsewhere as short bits of news and rumor without political comment. But this restraint did not last long. By mid-October, the Newport (R.I.) Mercury, a Federalist paper, was complaining, "We have in vain searched for a satisfactory development of the causes of the very alarming insurrection of negroes in Virginia." The editor's lament arose not from the paucity of coverage, but because press accounts were "evidently written under the influence of partial views of the subject, and destitute of that spirit of candor which ought to direct the elucidation of a subject so interesting as it respects the peace of our country, and the permanence of its government." The complaint reflected the fact that Gabriel's conspiracy had become part of the newspaper wars in the contest for the presidency in 1800, a struggle that pitted the Republican supporters of Thomas Jefferson against the Federalist backers of incumbent John Adams. (2)

1 février
Southern Historical Association

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