While [Alexander Graham] Bell was trying to work the bugs out of his telephone, Western Union, telephony's first and most dangerous (though for the moment unwitting) rival, had, they reckoned, a much bigger fish to fry: making their man president of the United States. Here we introduce the nation's first great communications monopolist, whose reign provides history's first lesson in the power and peril of concentrated control over the flow of information. Western Union's man was one Rutherford B. Hates, an obscure Ohio politician described by a contemporary journalist as "a third rate nonentity." But the firm and its partner newswire, the Associated Press, wanted Hayes in office, for several reasons. Hayes was a close friend of William Henry Smith, a former politician who was now the key political operator at the Associated Press. More generally, since the Civil War, the Republican Party and the telegraph industry had enjoyed a special relationship, in part because much of what were eventually Western Union's lines were built by the Union Army.
So making Hayes president was the goal, but how was the telegram in Reid's hand key to achieving it?
The media and communications industries are regularly accused of trying to influence politics, but what went on in the 1870s was of a wholly different order from anything we could imagine today. At the time, Western Union was the exclusive owner of the nationwide telegraph network, and the sizable Associated Press was the unique source for "instant" national or European news. (It's later competitor, the United Press, which would be founded on the U.S. Post Office's new telegraph lines, did not yet exist.) The Associated Press took advantage of its economies of scale to produce millions of lines of copy a year and, apart from local news, its product was the mainstay of many American newspapers.
With the common law notion of "common carriage" deemed inapplicable, and the latter day concept of "net neutrality" not yet imagined, Western Union carried Associated Press reports exclusively. Working closely with the Republican Party and avowedly Republican papers like The New York Times (the ideal of an unbiased press would not be established for some time, and the minting of the Time's liberal bona fides would take longer still), they did what they could to throw the election to Hayes. It was easy: the AP ran story after story about what an honest man Hayes was, what a good governor he had been, or just whatever he happened to be doing that day. It omitted any scandals related to Hayes, and it declined to run positive stories about his rivals (James Blaine in the primary, Samuel Tilden in the general). But beyond routine favoritism, late that Election Day Western Union offered the Hayes campaign a secret weapon that would come to light only much later.
Hayes, far from being the front-runner, had gained the Republican nomination only on the seventh ballot. But as the polls closed his persistence appeared a waste of time, for Tilden, the Democrat, held a clear advantage in the popular vote (by a margin of over 250,000) and seemed headed for victory according to most early returns; by some accounts Hayes privately conceded defeat. But late that night, Reid, the New York Times editor, alerted the Republican Party that the Democrats, despite extensive intimidation of Republican supporters, remained unsure of their victory in the South. The GOP sent some telegrams of its own to the Republican governors in the South with special instructions for manipulating state electoral commissions. As a result the Hayes campaign abruptly claimed victory, resulting in an electoral dispute that would make Bush v. Gore seem a garden party. After a few brutal months, the Democrats relented, allowing Hayes the presidency — in exchange, most historians believe, for the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.
The full history of the 1876 election is complex, and the power of the Western Union network was just one factor, to be sure. But while mostly studied by historians and political scientists, the dispute should also be taken as a crucial parable for communications policy makers. More than anything, it showed what kind of political advantage a discriminatory network can confer. When the major channels for moving information are loyal to one party, its effects, while often invisible, can be profound.
It also showed how a single communications monopolist can use its power not just for discrimination, but for outright betrayal of trust, revealing for the first time why what we now call "electronic privacy" might matter. Hayes might never have been President but for the fact that Western Union provided secret access to the telegrams sent by his rivals. Western Union's role was a blatant instance of malfeasance despite its explicit promise that "all messages whatsoever" would be kept "strictly private and confidential," the company regularly betrayed the public trust by turning over private, and strategically actionable, communications to the Hayes campaign. (22-24)
Wu, Timothy. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.