restricted access War with Mexico!: America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront (review)
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War with Mexico!: America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront. By Tom Reilly. Edited by Manley Witten. (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2010. Pp. xi, 335. $39.95.)

Over a lengthy career in academia and journalism, Tom Reilly helped establish journalism history as a field of study in its own right. Reilly began teaching journalism in 1969, and in the mid-seventies became founding editor of Journalism History while completing a doctoral dissertation on American reporters during the Mexican War. Several years after his death in 2002, his student and friend, Manley Witten, took as his MA thesis the task of editing and bringing to publication Reilly's manuscript and notes, compiled from thirty years of work in newspaper files. The end product is War with Mexico!: America's Reporters Cover the Battlefront.

The Mexican-American War, most authorities agree, was the first foreign war to be extensively covered by American reporters. Journalism was in a state of flux in the 1840s as penny papers, claiming an element of independence, challenged the predominance of the political and mercantile press by adopting new technology and using new methods of communication to reach a mass reading audience. The penny press stressed news over political views, and in the 1840s the biggest story was westward expansion and the war with Mexico, long the special terrain of New Orleans papers. "Led by the Picayune and Delta," Reilly and Witten assert, "the New Orleans newspapers provided the tone, direction, and content for the reporting of the conflict—and in the journalism style of the day, most of the nation's press followed their lead" (p. 21). Reilly's focus is on the activities of eleven to fourteen special correspondents, nine of whom were from New Orleans papers. They were armed civilian journalists who traveled with the military and shared their lot, coming under fire and suffering from hunger, thirst, heat, and disease to hurry the story of battle, blood, and victory to the nation.

For every success of these pioneering war reporters, there were corresponding lapses and liabilities. Their graphic descriptions of [End Page 237] battles and soldiers' experiences, rendered in the glorified, heroic style of the day, enabled readers, so the authors contend, to join the public conversation about the expansion of the country. Reporters developed their own courier systems to overcome distance and Mexican guerrillas, adopted the practice of setting stories in type on shipboard to put the news on the street within minutes of arrival in New Orleans, and used pony express riders to spread their accounts to the rest of the nation. Only late in the war did the telegraph beat the riders with a truncated version of the news. These novice war reporters mixed news and views, glorified Manifest Destiny, and, reflecting American culture as a whole, derogated all things Mexican, popularizing the term "greasers" and stereotyping Mexicans as arrogant, lazy, and uncivilized. Battle descriptions were often unbalanced since they were first impressions that could hardly incorporate all aspects of a widespread battlefield; more balanced accounts published later seldom had the impact of initial impressions. Everything that appeared in the press was viewed through the prism of partisan politics; Democratic papers considered Whig reporters shills for Whig generals and potential president makers, and Whig papers reciprocated in kind.

Reilly and Witten effectively tell the story of what the journalists wrote and how they got the story to the public. Their strength is in narration; they are less successful in analyzing the significance of the correspondents' work. How much did special war correspondents contribute to the public dialogue on expansion? Reilly and Witten themselves reference a growing split between popular opinion at home and those in Mexico close to the war. Finally, the focus on a small number of special correspondents does not allow for the possibly greater impact of all of the amateur letter writers in the army who also told their stories in hometown newspapers. [End Page 238]

Carl R. Osthaus

Carl R. Osthaus taught history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan for thirty-nine years. He is author of Partisans of the Southern Press: Editorial Spokesmen of the Nineteenth Century (1994).