The American Civil War on Cable News

What if in 1861 a cable news network existed to broadcast the events of the day?

William Rabkin, known to OTB readers as long-time commenter wr, has an interesting new project (with Steve Ecclesine) called “The Mason-Dixon Report.” The premise:

It is exactly 150 years since our ancestors launched the first salvos that began bloodiest, costliest war America has ever fought.

What if in 1861 a cable news network existed to broadcast the events of the day?

A news show with colorful, opinionated pundits in front of the cameras to discuss the pros and cons, the ups and downs, and the ins and outs of the ongoing American Civil War.

A news show with eyewitness reporters in the field to cover the human drama playing out in the halls of power, on the streets, and on the battlefields.

A sample video:

An excerpt from an article (“Making the Past Come Alive … Through Cable News from 1861“) Bill wrote on the project for History News Network:

A casual study of history teaches us one indisputable fact: We’re much smarter than all those guys who lived in the past.

Want proof?  Read a couple of chapters of any decent history book and you’ll instantly have a clear understanding not only of what happened, but why.  You’ll see the cause behind every effect, the pattern binding together incidents that once seemed random.

They couldn’t do that back then, could they?


Unless—and this is just a wild guess—the experience of living through a period of time is fundamentally different from that of looking back on it from a distance.  And that any historical presentation, by virtue of its own necessary organization, removes essential qualities of human existence.  History, like other great art forms, seeks to turn chaos into order—and order is the last thing we see in our own lives.

He argues that the presentation of the past as a series of black-and-white snapshots with old-timey music playing in the background creates an artificial distance, stripping the basic humanity of the period and disconnecting the real people who lived there from their successors.

We chose the cable news format for a couple of reasons.  (Aside from the same reason cable news chose it—it’s a lot cheaper to have people talking about battles than to send cameras to cover them.)  One is that this is the language of our day.  This is how we’re used to hearing the news, and the contemporary format strips away many levels of historical varnish.

But what really works for us is cable news’ institutional amnesia.  Every day on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News pundits give analyses and make predictions, and the next few days prove them completely wrong.  Then they come on again and make a new set of predictions based on the current state of affairs, and no one ever mentions what they said before.  We wanted to give our people that license to forget.  Because what’s most important to us on The Mason Dixon Report is that we never know what’s going to happen next.  We don’t know who is going to live or die, which side will win or lose, which tiny detail will turn out to be a crucial turning point.

That gives us a remarkable freedom to explore what actually happened on any given day.  (We currently have our first seven episodes up, most taking place on the days around the firing on Fort Sumter; we are preparing a second batch that will take us through July 1861 and into August.  By September our goal is to have new episodes five days a week, right through the end of the war.)  And because our people don’t know what will turn out to be significant in the grand scheme of things, we can bring to life some of the thousands of fascinating stories that don’t directly fit into the great pattern of History.

Given our interactions over the years, I’m guessing Bill’s take on the Civil War will be different from mine. But I agree with his essential premise: We look back on the 1860s as if the participants were all extremely informed, rational individuals who governed their lives according to carefully thought out ideological and philosophical principles. Those who fought in the wars of the past always did so fully aware of the long-term social implications of their actions, totally unswayed by such things as adventure, money, or peer pressure. It’s of course bunk–we’re not like that today, after all–but we’ve somehow convinced ourselves the past was different.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. WR says:

    Thanks so much for the link. And even though my own take on the war may be different from yours, we’re really trying to represent all sides fairly. And I hope our viewers will take us to task when we fail!

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Oh my yes…having Fox around to propagandize for the South could only have made things better.
    CONGRATS to WR…putting something like this together takes passion, and seeing it to the end takes tenacity. Good on you…

  3. The problem is that it does not capture the attitudes of people in the 1860s. Hardly anyone, outside people like William Tecumseh Sherman, thought the war would survive beyond the first battle. What was the antidote that Shelby Foote mentioned in Ken Burns’s “The Civil War”? A Southern Congressman say that all the blood that would be shred could wiped up with a handkerchief?

  4. The South would be to poor to afford cable. This result might cause them to win the war when people from the North’s heads start to explode from the ridiculousness of cable news.

  5. Love This.

    Very funny & insightful satire of the sad state of cable news coverage. Sort of like CNN saying facts are not blue or gray. Or, if John King interviewed Hitler, he’d probably say, “Now there are some who say you’re a madman who’s murdered millions, but we’re gonna have to leave it there.”

    Or MSNBC saying: “Once again, repeating our top story: President Lincoln has freed the slaves. And now back to LOCK-UP.”

    Look forward to more updates from the Mason-Dixon report!

    Good stuff.

  6. mattb says:

    Gratz WR.

    Between the creative work being done by the Bloggers and the Commentators, OTB is really establishing itself as a home (or at least a gathering point) for a number of really creative people and interesting projects.

  7. sam says:

    Sounds interesting, wr. ( I wonder, is anyone around here other than me old enough to remember the TV show, You Are There?)

  8. JKB says:

    Sounds like an interesting presentation. When I was a kid, I read ‘1861-1865’ by Captain James Dinkins (1897), personal recollections and experiences in the Confederate Army. It brought the war alive since, although filtered by age and time, it was thoughts and memories of someone who was there and who wasn’t all-knowing. In fact, he was a boy of 16 sent into battle from military school. It was the best book to give a real person perspective to the war.

    It seems the same could be done by presenting it as a current event being commented on.

  9. ponce says:

    One of my favorite SNL skits was when they had Kirk Douglas on called “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub.”

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    I remember something like this during the bicentennial of the constitutional debates. They had Patrick Henry on the Phil Donauhe show and Al Roker doing the weather report for the all 13 states.

  11. Hmm…, what would CNN (the Copperhead News Network) do? If you are going to introduce cable, how about the Internet as well to help get away the news away from the gatekeepers’ filtering fingers?

    Reading through the post there is a conflation of news, opinion, and analysis as though they are the same thing or carry equal weight. History a hundred years on rarely looks the same as it did on the day it happened. It is interesting to contemplate how we might be seen 2,500 years from now. That future date is about as far from us as we are from the age of Pericles. The challenge for historians then will be somewhat different than for those today. Where evidence is relatively sparse for the times that are ancient to us, our time in the future will be loaded with so much dreck as to make historical research of our time by future historians just as difficult as historical research of by modern historians of ancient Athens, but for reasons that are 180 degrees out of phase with those of modern day historians. Perhaps they can then start an initiative something along the lines of, “What if the Global War on Terror Wasn’t on Cable News?”

    FWIW, Bill James has commented on this phenomenon when it comes to how we perceive modern baseball players compared to those that played the game long before we, or even our fathers, were born.

  12. In the 2000s MSNBC positioned itself as a alternative to the more Fox News Channel in the process vying for second place with CNN in the ratings..Regional cable news television channels that are primarily concerned with and cover some statewide interest are that operates out of operates from and NWCN operates from ……