Few things can ignite a more heated debate these days than when the subject of "the media" is introduced into polite conversation. People on the left and right fault contemporary journalism for (a) giving the Bush administration a free ride, or (b) extreme bias against all things Bush and Republican.
Charges of media bias and the controversy over good vs. bad journalism are older than the nation, literally. Veteran journalist Eric Burns has written about the notorious founding fathers of journalism in a highly readable, outrageous and frequently hilarious book called "Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism."
Here, a disclaimer may be warranted. Burns hosts "Fox News Watch" on Fox News Channel (Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET), a program on which I appear as a panelist. Nevertheless, I am writing about his book without his encouragement, without remuneration and without even the promise of more airtime.
"Infamous Scribblers" is a line taken from the pen of George Washington, who responded to the disdain some in the press and politics had for him with disdain of his own. Schoolchildren are taught many things about some of our Founding Fathers, but little about what their journalistic tormentors said about them. Burns' book wonderfully completes the record.
The National Gazette was so afraid President George Washington would become a monarch that it took the slightest occasion, including Washington's 61st birthday party, to warn of impending doom to the newly born republic. Its editor, Philip Freneau (a college classmate of James Madison at Princeton), wrote, "Who will deny that the celebrating of birth days is not a striking feature of royalty? We hear of no such thing during the republic of Rome ..."
Another paper of the time likened the birthday observance to a "Political Christmas" and suggested the event was an attempt to rank "Washington with Jesus Christ."
In Colonial journalism, prominent men like Alexander Hamilton would use numerous pseudonyms to comment on, criticize and attack political opponents. Editors, such as they were in those days, saw nothing wrong with the practice and, in fact, encouraged it. The most outrageous and inaccurate items were printed in newspapers with no fact-checking and little sense of responsibility for the damage to career and reputation they might cause.