Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, By Eric Burns, PublicAffairs, 467 pp., $27.50
Bill O'Reilly, you got nothing on Sam Adams. Fair and balanced? The Revolutionary-era patriot and editor of the Boston Gazette was neither. He also wasn't much interested in printing the truth. As Eric Burns writes in a spirited survey of early American newspapering, Adams's journalism ``might well have been the best fiction written in the English language for the entire period between Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens."
For Adams, loyalty to the cause of American freedom excused all, even the printing of outright lies about British troops raping helpless women. Adams was a loose cannon: In 1765, he incited a rabble, ``all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose," to ransack the house of Thomas Hutchinson, an important Crown official. Said Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard of Adams, ``every dip of his pen stung like a horned snake."
Adams is one of an outrageous crew of ``infamous scribblers" -- George Washington's less than friendly description of the journalists of his day -- who created the American newspaper in the 18th century. Today's journalists swear fidelity to objectivity and scrupulous reporting (well, most do), but in Adams's time, such principles were scorned. ``A despicable impartiality I disclaim," huffed one editor in Danbury, Conn. ``I have a heart and I have a country."
Yet it wasn't always this way. America's earliest papers, most founded in Boston, were craven affairs. They sought permission from authorities to publish a cobbled rehash of European news. Their news-gathering power was limited. But as the Colonies grew, so did the appetite for reporting.
Editors got bolder. In 1721, the freewheeling James Franklin (brother of Benjamin) launched the New England Courant in Boston, and quickly picked a fight with Cotton Mather over the best way to treat smallpox. ``It was with James Franklin," Burns writes, ``that the American tradition of the crusading journalist began, al though far from honorably."
Franklin made hell for Mather with a potent combination of slander and innuendo. Mather shot back that the Courant was a ``Flagicious and Wicked Paper." And so on. Burn s's pages are thick with epithets and generalized nastiness, which can get repetitive. ``Infamous Scribblers" is long on anecdote, but short on deep analysis.
Though it can't match Burns for color, Paul Starr's rigorously dry ``The Creation of the Media" will give you a better picture of how the public sphere evolved in Colonial America. Still, Burns is a capable student of the political currents of America's founding and the passions they inspired.
As the Founders hashed out the details of the Constitution in Philadelphia, two opposing camps, Federalists -- advocates of strong central government -- and Anti-Federalists lined up and sniped at each other in opposing papers. Through the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton, impassioned federalist, and Thomas Jefferson, a fiery anti-federalist, waged a proxy war against each other in the press. The pro-Hamilton Gazette of the United States excoriated America's third president, who shot back that the Gazette was ``a paper of pure Toryism, disseminating the doctrines of monarchy, aristocracy, and the exclusion of the influence of the people."
Jefferson teamed with like-minded investors to fund the National Gazette to promote their views, even if this meant just bashing the rival Gazette. Needless to say, both papers were rife with conflicts of interest, employing officials on government payrolls. For all this, Burns rightly notes there was a lot at stake -- what shape should the Republic take? -- and if we sift through the bluster and the `` squawking journalism," the issues of the day were getting aired, however biased their advocates.
Hamilton's death in 1804 `` was the beginning of the end of an era." A culture of civility slowly emerged. Burns's conclusiondoesn't amount to much; as far as journalism is concerned, he thinks we're better off ignoring the Founders' example. Still, sound advice.