Burns writes of the Gazette of the United States (born on April 15, 1789, a month after the Constitution took effect) that its editor, John Fenno, was an ardent supporter of the federalism represented by Washington and Hamilton. Fenno's newspaper served as a counterweight to the republican slant of the National Gazette. Burns sums up Fenno's journalistic philosophy: "He would cajole his readers, deceive them when necessary, rile them when advisable; he would praise public officials and other newspaper editors who agreed with his positions and drub those who did not, assailing their intelligence, their character, their patriotism; and he would publish the records of legislative proceedings that advanced the federalist agenda while either ignoring or deriding or sometimes even falsifying documents to the contrary."
Such things were to be found on the "news" pages, not the opinion page. Entire newspapers were opinion pages. To have a page designated "opinion" would have been redundant.
The 1790s were, according to historian John Ferling, "one of America's most passionate decades." The nation's journalism, notes Burns, could not help but reflect the heat.
One paper, named the Aurora, engaged in what Burns describes as "journalistic savagery ... not caring about accuracy or even the illusion of it." In 1795, the Aurora published a series of letters George Washington supposedly wrote while encamped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 and 1778. The letters "portrayed Washington as a lukewarm patriot at best, a loyal subject of George III at worst, and at least a skeptic concerning independence."
It would have been a great story if true, but Washington wrote no such letters. That didn't bother Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben Franklin's grandson and the owner of the Aurora), who was not about to retract something that served his anti-Washington political ends.
They're all in the book - people you studied in school - and so are their many detractors. After reading "Infamous Scribblers" you will be amazed at how far journalism has progressed (or not) and even more amazed at how our Founders overcame the inaccurate and biased attacks from the "newspapers" and pamphlets of their day to achieve greatness and a deserved place in our history books and our hearts.
Editor's note: "Infamous Scribblers" is now on sale at Amazon.com for 34% off the cover price.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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