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Debauch This

December 13, 2011

Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns
Media matters
Status: You’ve been scooped

FOR ALL THE WOE CONCERNING TODAY’S UNDER-BALANCED AND OVER-SENSATIONAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE, perhaps no era of newspapers was more intense or intemperate, or more guiltless in its venom, than early journalism in the American colonies and new United States. It was the first draft of history for a nation feeling its way, rather probingly, to an identity as a republic.

Eric Burns’ “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism” explores this turbulent era of news from the first newspapers in Boston in the 1690s through the Passionate Decade of the 1790s. These formative years produced some of the finest scolds and wordsmiths our country has ever known, from Ben Franklin writing as Silence Dogood in his apprentice days, to Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. It was also a golden age of wrath and overreaction, when mobs would tear print shops to shreds and thrash offending editors in the streets. Years ago, I worked as the editor of the Pioneer Review, a small-town weekly in rural South Dakota. I remember after one contentious election, an angry contingent — including several prominent citizens — stormed into my office and demanded that I turn over the voter rolls to reveal any local traitors who had helped elect Tim Johnson, a Democrat, to another term in the U.S. Senate. I explained that I printed the vote tally but was not privileged with individual ballots. The mob grudgingly retreated, leaving my office and body unharmed. No tables were overturned. No chairs tossed through windows, no fire set to our press. That was child’s play by comparison.

But then I hadn’t even written anything to inflame the town. In colonial times, blowhards railed against everything from the Stamp Act to various treatments for small pox, and publishers neither saw nor presented any distinction between a news report or opinion and editorial. The idea of an impartial media did not yet exist, and rival editors laced into each other with blistering ferocity. You couldn’t skate by with clichés. You couldn’t be toothless in your taunting, or insipid with your insults, or you made a sorry journalist.

Early newspapermen were businessmen first; they needed to turn a profit, and that often meant accepting commissions, and viewpoints, from their patrons. One of the most scandalous instances of a writer-goon for hire came from Thomas Jefferson, who secretly funded Thomas Callender to slander and abuse President George Washington — all while Jefferson served next to Washington in his cabinet as secretary of state.

Jefferson’s dick-move has earned him condemnation in multiple volumes, while history has judged Washington far more generously than his own time. In his two terms, the first president was sneered as a monarchist, accused of “debauching” the nation, and slandered by nearly every Republican newspaper. These takedowns took their toll, and Washington — who appears to have coined the phrase “infamous scribblers” — grew to regret the free press his administration had tolerated (John Adams, with the Sedition Act, would later exact some temporary and questionable revenge by imprisoning the most vocal of his government’s critics).

Another foul-mouthed minion of the Republicans, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was involved in a long-running feud with archrival William Cobbett, whose paper supported the Federalists. Cobbett once wrote that Bache “has outraged every principle of decency, or morality, or religion and of nature. I should have no objection to the boys spitting on him, as he goes along in the street, if it were not that I think they would confer on him too much honour.”

These exchanges and many others in Burns’ book give me a pang of jealousy for an age of such impudent journalism.  There was once an honor to being eloquent, even at your most vicious, and no one bothered with the illusion of impartiality. Everyone had a bias, and that bias was a brand. Owning your arguments — and acknowledging your influences as a writer and thinker — did far more to educate readers than any pretension of being fair and balanced. Plus, the very real threat of a duel hung over every exchange of verbal fire. Now that’s accountability for your words.

It’s difficult to do justice to all the misery these writers heaped on each other, or to capture the extraordinary friction and energy involved in the early days of hammering out our grand national experiment. In these subdued times — and likely to the grave disappointment of my journalistic forebears — I will only go so far as to advise that you read the book and find out for yourself.

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