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KNOXVILLE – A University of Tennessee journalism professor has co-written a book suggesting that newspapers inflamed tensions that helped instigate the U.S. Civil War.

Dr. Dwight Teeter

Dwight Teeter wrote the book, titled “Fanatics & Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War,” with Lorman Ratner, an adjunct history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former UT dean of arts and sciences and history professor.

The years before the Civil War were not a time of good fortune for the United States, Teeter said.

“There were inflammatory events that kept cropping up, such as the caning of a Massachusetts senator by a South Carolina representative on Capitol Hill in 1856,” Teeter said.

“In the Northern media this was played up along the lines of the ‘slave-driver mentality’ of the South. In Southern newspapers they talked about it in terms of chivalry and upholding honor.”

Other events such as the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry by abolitionist John Brown and the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 kept tensions strong between the North and the South as newspapers discovered their power to inform and sway the public.

“This is the first time that we really had mass media in the United States,” Teeter said. “We had steam printing for rapid duplication, a nationwide railroad network for rapid transportation and the telegraph for instantaneous communication, all being used by suddenly powerful newspapers who saw the opportunity to increase their profits and promote their agendas.

“We can’t prove that the press caused the Civil War, but we certainly know it didn’t head it off.”