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.
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.