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Infamous Scribblers: Journalism in the Age of the Founding Fathersby Eric Burns
Synopses & Reviews
Infamous Scribblers is a perceptive and witty exploration of the most volatile period in the history of the American press. News correspondent and renonwned media historian Eric Burns tells of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams — the leading journalists among the Founding Fathers; of George Washington and John Adams, the leading disdainers of journalists; and Thomas Jefferson, the leading manipulator of journalists. These men and the writers who abused and praised them in print (there was, at the time, no job description of "journalist") included the incendiary James Franklin, Ben's brother and one of the first muckrakers; the high minded Thomas Paine; the hatchet man James Callender, and a rebellious crowd of propagandists, pamphleteers, and publishers.
It was Washington who gave this book its title. He once wrote of his dismay at being "buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers." The journalism of the era was often partisan, fabricated, overheated, scandalous, sensationalistic and sometimes stirring, brilliant, and indispensable. Despite its flaws — even because of some of them — the participants hashed out publicly the issues that would lead America to declare its independence and, after the war, to determine what sort of nation it would be.
"Today's press should be commended. Really. Compared with the press of yesteryear, it is a model of integrity — or so Eric Burns would have us believe. His new 'Infamous Scribblers' has a clear subtext: Early American journalism was a dung heap (or, to quote one 18th-century editor, a 'dung barge') compared with today's more civilized press.In many ways, this story makes sense coming from Burns,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a former NBC News correspondent who's now a host for Fox News. He appreciates the craft of his profession and sees little of it in what he depicts as American journalism's dark ages. By his account, in fact, a generation of churchgoing, tolerant and family minded early Americans somehow ushered in 'the gutter age of American reporting.' Chatty and anecdotal, 'Infamous Scribblers' weaves through the 18th century, touching on the highlights — or in Burns' view, the lowlights — of the period's journalism. Burns criticizes his subjects for their journalistic sins, making the book less a study of the early American press than an ongoing editorial commentary about it. To be fair, by modern standards, the infant American press does deserve a good scolding. The period's journalism had a downright savage edge. Many newspapers were unabashedly partisan weapons used to blast political opponents. Politicians referred to newspaper attacks as 'assassinations' or 'beatings,' for good reason. And sheer political bloodlust often made it difficult to pinpoint the actual news.Although Burns glances at the explanations for such scurrility, he is more interested in condemning it than understanding it. He dismisses Boston Gazette editor Samuel Adams as 'perhaps the least ethical newsmen (sic) of the entire colonial era, if not the entire history of American journalism.' Why? Because he printed blatant lies. But Adams was hardly alone; 'Infamous Scribblers' includes a host of like sinners. And while Adams' misdeeds were hardly commendable, they make sense in historical context. Early American newspaper editors filled their newspapers with lies, accusations and exaggerations for good reason: They were scared. They were scared about the outcome of the Revolution, scared that they would lose their property, scared that foreign powers would attack American soil and scared that their experimental government would fail, bringing anarchy or despotism in its wake. Put simply, early Americans lived in a weak fledgling nation with no sure future. As Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania wrote in 1790, 'The Whole World is a shell and we tread on hollow ground every step.' Newspapers from the period capture this emotion perfectly. With everything at stake and without a long-standing tradition of objective news reportage, newspaper writers went to extremes. They sound shrill to us, in large part, because of hindsight; we know that America survives. So Burns himself is guilty of hyperbole here. Adams and his contemporaries were not unethical; they were not violating professional standards. Rather, they were crying alarm with the tools at hand at a time when popular politicking — and the code of editorial conduct — were in their infancy. How much public involvement in politics was enough? At what point did democratic campaigning and electioneering give way to anarchy? Newspapers were at the center of this debate — pleading, prodding, urging and attacking. It wasn't pretty, but you can't blame editors for violating editorial rules that hadn't been invented. They were learning how to appeal to the politically minded public, one paper at a time. By Burns' lights, American journalism began to crawl out of the gutter in 1804, with the death of one of the new republic's biggest political lightning rods, Alexander Hamilton. Federalists lost their 'guiding spirit,' Republicans lost their favorite target, and editors adopted the 'less contentious, more civil tone' that supposedly prevails today. In Burns' eagerness to defend today's press, he consigns the worst travesties to the distant past, but yesterday's sins have modern counterparts. The once screamingly partisan press is more covert about its prejudices today, but are hidden biases that much more admirable than their boldfaced equivalents? Moreover, while much of today's press strives for calm objectivity, the tradition of shrill accusation survives; indeed, it has survived quite well at Fox News. And when the House of Representatives was shut down in October 2001, the New York Post's headline screamed, 'Wimps: The Leaders Who Ran Away From Anthrax' — this from a newspaper founded by Hamilton. The founding generation knew that a free press was a blessing with rough edges, a guardian of liberty that could topple the mighty with one fell blow. The struggle to balance both sides of this equation continues today. True, modern American journalism has come a long way from its rough-and-ready origins; charges like 'profligate madman' and 'nuisance of the world' are usually relegated to the editorial page. But in many ways, early American journalism is not quite as alien as Burns would like it to be." Reviewed by Joanne B. Freeman, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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This lively, fascinating account of the surprisingly raucous journalism of the Revolutionary era—and how it helped to build a nation that has endured—offers new perspective on today's media wars
About the Author
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch." A former NBC News correspondent, Burns was named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism by the Washington Journalism Review. He is also an Emmy winner for media criticism. He is the author of four previous books; his The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, was named one of the best academic press volumes of 2003 by the American Library Association.
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