For those who bemoan the tone and quality of today’s journalism and long for a more civil time, Eric Burns has an interesting retort. In “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism,” he shows that the years around the American revolution produced journalism that was sensational, opinionated, hyperbolic and only loosely tied to the facts.
Burns also shows that many of America’s Founding Fathers dabbled in journalism, since the printed word was the sole way they could reach large numbers of people during that era. For example, Sam Adams wrote for the Boston Gazette, advocating military action, Benjamin Franklin wrote humorous pieces for the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison was first published in the Independent Journal of New York.
But that doesn’t mean most readers today would recognize what these men did as journalism. In fact, the press was expected to be sharp, bold and opinionated. “There was no tradition at the time of an impartial press either in the colonies or in Europe,” Burns wrote. “…newspapers were printed either to indulge the whims of the owner or serve political causes with which he had aligned himself.”
To show the landscape of early journalism, Burns begins in Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. Here, colonists established the New World’s first broadsheet newspaper and organized a system of “running patterers” who spread news door to door. Reliable information was vital, especially as settlers died from famine and disease. Later, as the northeastern settlement of Boston grew into a sizeable town, it spawned two competing papers. Publick Occurences was gossipy and salacious, while the Boston News-Letter was sober and fact-based. News, though, was still an oddity. As evidence that news was not seen as essential at the time, Burns notes that the News-Letter never had more than 300 subscribers.
In the early 1700’s, other papers joined the fray. The New England Courant was the first to have a staff of reporters, although they were unpaid. Burns credits its founder, James Franklin, as being America’s first “crusading journalist” although he points out that Franklin’s first crusade was a dangerous one. He advocated against inoculation at the height of the smallpox epidemic. James’ younger brother, Benjamin, assisted him in his work at the paper. The Courant was also one of the first papers to encounter official censorship when it was ordered by the Massachusetts General Court to submit all editions for approval since it mocked and disrespected religion. Later, the issue of censorship would come to the forefront in the U.S. with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 where newspapermen, including the notorious Benjamin Franklin Boche, could be arrested for what they wrote.
Another Founding Father who appears in the book as an editorialist pushing a personal agenda is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson served as the State of Secretary under Washington’s administration and took state money to fund a newspaper, the National Gazette, in order to pit people against the administration he was serving under. Other publications followed suit and despite being an advocate of free speech, Jefferson was instrumental in the process of approving charges against Harry Croswell, an editor of a publication, The Wasp, because Croswell published: “To lash the rascals naked through the world” in which he claims that Jefferson should be subject to lashes in public similar to other citizens for paying money to a political pamphleteer who reported controversial subjects at the time, James Thomson Callender, so that he can call Washington a traitor.
Burns effectively demonstrates that in these years where America’s democratic values and independence were forged, the principles of journalism were very much in their infancy. In fact, actual first-person, fact-based reporting of the Revolutionary War was extremely rare. Burns gives the example of the owner of a publication called the Massachusetts Spy who went to cover the war on the ground and practiced shoe-leather reporting to gather facts. By contrast, most reports of the war came through the mail from soldiers who sent letters to their loved ones and the letters would be reprinted verbatim in newspapers as accounts from the war. Sometimes, letters would be written directly to newspapers, although no efforts were made to confirm the veracity of what was written. These newspapers didn’t have reporters or staff working to gather news.
Overall, the book does an excellent job of detailing for the reader America’s first, cautious steps toward the creation of a truly free press. It reminds us that the Founding Fathers not only protected journalists in the Constitution, they practiced it as well. It just so happens that they did not practice it very well. Burns points out that journalism is one of the only instances where we explicitly do not follow the example of the America’s founders. “We do not, except in extraordinary cases, use the kind of language they did,” he wrote. “We do not, except in well-publicized and well-punished occasions, make up the news to suit our ideology. It is a rare example of our turning our backs on the Founding Fathers, finding them unworthy, rejecting their legacy. We are to be commended.”
Salem Solomon is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C., working at the Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service. You can find her reports in English here, in Amharic here and in Tigrigna here. For daily updates, here’s her Twitter account: @salem_solomon