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 Philadelphia Aurora, engaged in what Burns describes as "journalistic savagery ... not caring about accuracy or even the illusion of it." The Aurora published a series of letters supposedly written by George Washington while he was encamped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778. 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.
Journalism survived, even displaying responsibility on occasion. The public can sort out the good from the bad and ugly. They don't need politicians doing it for them.
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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