With Donald Trump tweeting about "fake news" most mornings, the relationship between the president and the media is a timely subject.
And few are as qualified to talk about that relationship as Dan Abrams. The chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News, founder of Abrams Media (Mediaite, The Mary Sue) and host of "Live PD" on A&E, Abrams will speak at Auburn High School Thursday as this year's guest in the Seward House Museum's Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speaker Series. Previous speakers in the series have been Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, journalist Cokie Roberts, political satirist Mark Russell and director emeritus of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Brent Glass.
But Abrams is more than distinguished: His most recent book shares a historical focus with the museum. Released in June, "Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency" covers an 1859 trial that drew close media attention due to Lincoln's rising profile at the time. Months later, he'd vie with William H. Seward for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Abrams said the book documents its subject's media savvy, which the author called one of Lincoln's most underappreciated strengths. Abrams noted that Lincoln frequently penned letters to the editor, and even purchased a German newspaper, Illinois Staatsanzeiger, to help him win the German vote in the 1860 presidential race.
"Lincoln was a pioneer when it came to recognizing the significance of the media and using the media to his advantage," Abrams said.
The media seized upon the 1859 trial because it took place a year after Lincoln's famed debates across Illinois with Stephen Douglas during their race for a U.S. Senate seat. The trail saw Lincoln defending 22-year-old Peachy Quinn Harrison, the son of a close friend and supporter, who was accused of murdering a young man Lincoln once mentored in his law office.
Based on his research, Abrams believes Lincoln took the case both because of his connection to the defendant's family and because he sincerely believed Harrison killed in self-defense. But while that squares with the "saintly views" people often attribute to the former president, Abrams noted that Lincoln also represented railroads and even a slave owner in civil cases.
The trial is the only one of Lincoln's 3,000-plus to be transcribed, Abrams said, and the document wasn't discovered until 1989. He said the transcripts were sent to newspapers daily to use in their reporting. That reporting, Abrams continued, depended on the publication, as they were more politically biased at the time.
Abrams, who covered the OJ Simpson murder trial for Court TV in the mid-'90s, believes transcripts and, today, cameras can help people understand court proceedings. He added that the public should have the right to see its government in action, and called it "inexplicable" that the Supreme Court doesn't allow cameras.
The media, meanwhile, benefits from the existence of court transcripts and cameras because they can back up its coverage, Abrams said.
"In an age of criticism of the media, the best antidote is to let people see for themselves," he said.
The author believes that Lincoln, with his media savvy, would have taken to another modern communication tool: Twitter.
But, Abrams added, Lincoln probably wouldn't use it the same way as the current president.
"I think there's no question Lincoln would have a Twitter account, and I think he would use it judiciously," Abrams said. "I don't think he'd be tweeting at every event at every moment."