Attacking Municipal Corruption: The power of journalistic images

TAKE-AWAY:

After the Civil War, immense changes went on in the cities of America as immigration and urbanization skyrocketed. In the chaos political and economic corruption took hold. In New York City that corruption took the form of William Marcy Tweed and his powerful circle of city official friends, termed “Tammany Hall.” Tweed held so much power that he was able to embezzle millions of dollars from public funds to his own benefit and the benefit of his close companions, and pay news media thousands in exchange for their silence. It wasn’t until The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly, two newspapers who were committed to the exposé of Tweed, took a stand in conjunction with political cartoonist Thomas Nast that New York citizens were able to see the truth and Tweed was indicted for his crimes. Nast’s cartoons were especially influential as vast portions of New York’s population at this time were either illiterate or foreign immigrants who could not read English. His captivating images got the message across to thousands who otherwise would not have picked up a paper.

In this story the face-off between Tweed and the newspapers is presented as a David and Goliath story. Tweed exerted so much power over how he was presented in the media that many papers were either too scared or too contented with their payoffs to challenge him. It was the persistence and bravery of the Times and Harper’s that proved that the voices of the people, influenced by the media, can have real change on society, even one gripped by corruption.

KEY TERMS:

  • Late 1860s – early 1870s
  • William Marcy Tweed – corrupt New York politician/city official
  • Thomas Nast – political cartoonist
  • Tammany Hall – powerful Democratic political organization that supported Tweed and helped manipulate city policy
  • payoffs – paid out by Tweed to keep media outlets silent
  • The New York Times – published editorials exposing Tweed and Tammany Hall
  • Harper’s Weekly – published Nast’s cartoons
  • free press – helped cement a negative image of Tweed in the eyes of the public, which would lead to his arrest
(above) A photographic print of Thomas Nast, circa 1896. Image from the Library of Congress. (below) A portrait of William Tweed, circa 1870. From the LIFE photo archive and sourced on Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

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A page from the pamphlet “Frauds of the New York City Government Exposed,” published in New York in 1871 and depicting a ledger of the Tweed Ring’s spending. Similar ledgers were published in the New York Times as damning evidence of Tweed’s crimes. Photo from the Library of Congress, attributed to Abram P. Genung. Cf. NUC pre-1956 imprints

 

DISCUSSION

The New York Times was aided by a former Tammany Hall member who provided them with documents and records of Tweed’s embezzlement activities, and publishing them was a major turning point in the “fight” against municipal corruption. The Times was widely criticized for doing this by other papers such as the New York World, who claimed the Times was intentionally slandering/portraying Tweed in a bad light to “divert attention away” from the supposed corruption of the Republican federal government.

The public was largely unaware of Tweed’s actions until they were published, do you think this is an example of media bias? Was Tweed depicted fairly? Did he deserve to be depicted “fairly?”

How relevant are political cartoons in today’s media world? If they’ve been replaced, what have they been replaced by?

 

 

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