News: Then and Now
News travels fast. Americans are accustomed to receiving current events and details within hours or even minutes of their occurring. America runs on the “24 hour news cycle.” After the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, it took approximately 16 minutes to broadcast the horrific events, and less than an hour for President Bush to speak to the nation on the matter . However, before Internet, mobile devices, and electronic newspapers this was not the case. Most news traveled through the vernacular, but official news took hours to be written up and printed in a local newspaper and then distributed by newspaper boys the next morning. Today the assassination of President Lincoln is infamous as one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Its immediate significance as the first assassination of a US president was paralleled by its long-term significance in the way that it has since shaped American culture. The way it was reported was revolutionary and began a transition in American journalism to the way news is consumed today . This post will explore the exhibit on display until January of 2016 at The Newseum and the significance it holds in remembering President Lincoln.
(Video source: )
The President Shot
At the Theater
As the first newspaper to break the news of Lincoln’s assassination , the New York Herald closely followed the condition of the President over an 18-hour period as it declined rapidly. The Herald’s coverage of Lincoln’s assassination marks a step in the quick evolution of the news cycle. In 18 hours, the New York Herald published 7 editions with updates on the president’s condition. These updates began at 2:00 AM on the morning of April 15, 1865.
The publication timeline is as follows:
2:00 am: The first edition of the New York Herald to break the news was published and distributed at 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the 15th. Blaring the headline “Assassination of President Lincoln,” few Americans would have seen this paper until the next morning when many were already communally mourning and sharing the news.
3:00 am: While the first edition of the Herald contained mostly mundane news about protests and parades in New York, this second addition dropped many of the other headlines to advertise “THE LATEST NEWS” concerning the condition of President Lincoln.
8:45 am: The first report of the President’s death, the headline read: “EXTRA: Death of the President!!”10:00 am (two 10 am editions): The first edition alerted Americans of the reward for John Wilkes Booth, the man who was suspected of shooting the President. The second edition contained a staff report from D.C. describing the “bells throughout the city…tolling” (Washington Post).
2:00 pm: Nearing the end of the saga, the afternoon newspaper reported eight pages of updates including details about the death of the President and what was done with his body. The paper claimed, “strong men weep in the streets” (Washington Post). However, following a warning to guard against Booth’s escape over the Canadian border is the headline: “Inauguration of Vice President Johnson as PRESIDENT.”
3:30 pm: The last Herald of the day contains details of Lincoln’s autopsy and many reactions to the assassination. However, the dominant story is the “CAPTURE of BOOTH.” The Herald mistakenly believed that Booth had been captured outside of Baltimore, when in actuality he was to be captured several days later in Virginia .
These “breaking” updates resemble the live news stream that Americans today expect on their TVs, computers and phones. However, in the mid 19th century, reliable news was often slow moving and most news was vernacular. Through their quick reporting of the assassination and death of the President, the New York Herald set the precedent for the news coverage of future American tragedies.
The moderately recent invention of the telegraph played a large role in the revolutionary nature of the Herald’s reporting. The slow circulation of the news lent itself to rumors and word-of-mouth, however the Herald kept its most recent publication up to date with the President’s condition to comfort and inform an anxiously waiting Union of their President’s health. This event can be collectively remembered because of the way it was collectively documented. The country experienced this unprecedented tragedy together as the news traveled across the country via the telegraph but was often preceded by screams, tears, or even confederate celebration as individuals learned of the assassination and death of their President.
The Emancipator in Memory:
Lincoln’s Assassination in JFK Memory:
Because Lincoln was the first US president to have been assassinated, his death set a precedent for future presidents and the way in which future assassinations were reported. Nearly 80 years later, in 1963, JFK was shot and killed by a sniper. While there had been other presidents shot and killed between Lincoln and JFK, Kennedy’s assassination is arguably the second most notable assassination is US history, as well as being the most recent. Newspaper headlines read: “KENNEDY ASSASSINATED” and “JFK SLAIN” mere hours after the fatal shooting occurred . As the country distances itself from both of these tragedies, vernacular myths have begun circulating concerning uncanny coincidences between the first and last assassination in US Presidential history. For example, both Lincoln and Kennedy were concerned with Civil Rights, both lost children while living in the White House, both were shot on a Friday, and both names have seven letters . Vernacular memory has allowed these myths to persist, and today countless websites are dedicated to dissecting the similarities between these two mens’ deaths. The significance of the connection of these two men is profound. Not only has the assassination of Lincoln persisted in the official, dominant memory of the country, it has permeated the vernacular and mythic memory and become the standard to which future assassinations will be held in the way they are covered on the news and remembered in memorialization.
Washington Post as a source for the timeline and details of each edition.
 Barbie Zelizer, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communications (June 1995): 214-39.