Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Burns' Infamous Scribblers traces the entertaining roots of American journalism

107. Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns. 12-12, pp. 412

Use of the term “infamous scribblers” to describe American journalists is first found in a letter from George Washington to fellow Virginian Henry Lee. Washington wrote that the attacks on him by the republican press were “outrages on common decency” and “arrows of malevolence.”

Surely political figures today, from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton, from Donald Rumsfeld to Mark Foley, would concur with the father of our country in his pained tolerance – and near intolerance – of the press.

That link, from our nation’s founding to today, is part of what makes Eric Burns’ book such an enjoyable and interesting read. It may feel, at times, like American History Lite, but it’s packed with information and fascinating anecdotes that resonate with even the casual consumer of print or broadcast journalism today and which revives all those names and newspapers that I had to memorize in Calder Pickett’s History of American Journalism at the University of Kansas.

Here you will read about Samuel Adams, the brewer turned printer; John Peter Zenger; Ben Franklin’s irascible grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache, William Duane, John Fenno and Philip Freneau, the venomous James Thomson Callender, the Alien and Sedition Acts and Harry Croswell, editor of The Wasp, a federalist newspaper based in Hudson, New York, which bore the motto, “To lash the rascals naked through the world.”

Burns traces American journalism from its beginnings with Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic, first published by Benjamin Harris in 1690, to 1801 and the founding of the New-York Evening Post, the second and final newspaper to be financed by Alexander Hamilton. That's a time span that ranges from colonial American, almost 100 years after the first settlement at Jamestown, through the American Revolution, to the creation of the two-party system of government and, finally, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

The journalism of the Revolutionary era was characterized by sensationalism and scandal, vicious personal attacks, the practice of placing ideology before accuracy and, in fact, a general willingness to publish outright fabrications. It may not always seem so, particularly if you are a viewer of Fox TV, but Burns contends that while we have held on to much that our Founding Fathers left us – the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – we have not adopted their style of journalism.

“We do not, in most of our print and broadcast news sources, impugn character as they did. We do not, except in extraordinary cases, use the kind of language they did. We do not, except on well-publicized and well-published occasions, make up the news to suit our ideology. It is a rare example of turning our backs on the Founding Fathers, finding them unworthy, rejecting their legacy,” Burns writes. “We are to be commended.”

Burns is to be commended, as well, for this thoroughly delightful history.

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