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Like many, I was a big fan of Eric Breindel, the sadly deceased original host of FOX Newswatch. When he was replaced by Eric Burns, whose work I was completely unfamiliar with, I just assumed they'd brought in a random talking head. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Burns currently has no regular writing gig and i can't recall ever reading anything by him until I picked up this book. What a revelation!

Infamous Scribblers is fabulous. Though the topic, the American press at the time of the Founding, may seem somewhat limited, the reality is that so many of the Founders were intimately involved in either publishing papers themselves -- Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson -- or writing regularly for them -- consider only the Federalist papers of Madison, Jay and Hamilton --that Mr. Burns is free to range widely through the era. What might have been a deadly dull reading of primary sources in the hands of a "professional" historian is instead as lively and readable as any history book you'll find. After reading it, I was not the least surprised that Mr. Burns has won an Emmy for his media criticism and been named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism by the Washington Journalism Review. Fox didn't just hire a pretty face in his case.

I do, however, have one serious quarrel with the book -- as I've mentioned previously -- and it is with the very premise from which Mr. Burns proceeds, The Infamous Scribblers of the Founding Father Generation (Eric Burns, 5-15-06, History News Network):
It does not seem to make sense. It is almost incomprehensible. Yet the golden age of America's founding was the gutter age of American journalism. The era that produced such works as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers also produced newspapers that lied, slandered and incited violence. [...]

Hamilton and Jefferson never came to blows over the views in their conflicting newspapers. Other editors did. It was not uncommon for printers to attack one another on the street. One paper, in fact, urged its readers not to spit on the editor of a competing journal when they happened to see him, as it would be a waste of good saliva.

These were not editorials. There were no such things as editorials at the time. These were news stories, and they were like none we have seen since.

Why was journalism so unfair in the founding era? Because it was a new business with no tradition of fairness behind it. If you told a man who had purchased a printing press that it was his duty to include points of view other than his own in his publications, he would have thought you were telling him to promote the products (read: ideas) of his competitors, which would not have been asked of other businessmen and therefore, he thought, should not be asked of him.

Why was journalism of the time so vicious? Because the two most important events in American history occurred in the period of which I write in Infamous Scribblers (the title, by the way, is a quote from George Washington, who was disgusted by the journalists who wrote about him). First event: the winning of independence from England. Second event: the struggles to interpret the Constitution, which is to say, to decide what kind of nation we should erect with our newly-earned freedom. There was, in other words, in the view of all too many Americans, simply too much at stake late in the eighteenth century for civility in print.

We have learned so much from the Founding Fathers. We have accepted the ideals they expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the structures and guidelines they laid down the Constitution, the code of conduct that they provided in the Bill of Rights. We have not, however, adopted their notions of journalism as bloodsport.

We are to be saluted.
If it is incomprehensible that a savagely partisan press went hand in hand with the singular achievements of the Founders, while we are haunted by the feeling that our own politics has become rather petty despite an ostensibly non-partisan and disinterested press, oughtn't we consider reversing our expectations? Consider that the Founders understood, and said in Federalist 51:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Does not the notion of journalism as a profession, with journalists whose writing is uncolored by their own political agendas, depend to an unreasonable degree on the possibility that newspapers will be written by angels? Wasn't it more sensible, more honest, and, not surprisingly, more effective, for the Founding generation to expect that the press would be rather rowdy and engaged in the fights in which they obviously had dogs? There is an unhealthy element of make believe when a modern American picks up the morning's NY Times and pretends, along with the editors, that what he's reading is just the news, devoid of political slant and cant. It would be better for all concerned if the Timesmen dropped the pretense and wore their allegiances on their sleeves. Such, anyway, is the unavoidable conclusion that Mr. Burns's exceptional history accidentally leads us to by its end. The rest of the book is so enjoyable though, let's cut him some slack for not recognizing the counterintuitive case he's made.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Eric Burns Links:
    -BIO: Eric Burns (FOX Newswatch)
    -Eric Burns (Wikipedia)
    -Eric Burns (NNDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism by Eric Burns (Public Affairs Books)
    -ESSAY: The Infamous Scribblers of the Founding Father Generation (Eric Burns, 5-15-06, History News Network)
    -ARCHIVES: Eric Burns (Media Matters)
    -ARCHIVES: "Eric Burns" (Find Articles)
    -PROFILE: 'Infamous Scribblers': Eric Burns Looks Back To Find The Media Have Feisty Roots (CBS Early Show)June 30, 06)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The American Press, 'Infamous' from Day One (Fresh Air from WHYY, March 1, 2006)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism/Eric Burns (History on Book TV, July 2, 2006, C-SPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: Founding Propagandists (Brooke Gladstone, June 2, 2006, On the Media: NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Eric Burns (Leonard Lopate Show, 3/29/06, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: Eric Burns: Fox News Does Not Air 'Irresponsible Right-Wing Ranting': The host of Fox News Channel's media program "Fox News Watch" insists that neither his network nor fellow Fox host Bill O'Reilly are "unabashedly conservative." (Patrick Phillips, 06/05/03 , I Want Media)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (ARAM BAKSHIAN JR., Opinion Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Cal Thomas, Gwinnett Daily Post)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Margaret Teichert and Oleg Kaganovich, Prosper)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Eric Fettman, NY Post)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Steve Weinberg, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Larry Stirling, San Diego Source)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Matthew Price, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (JEROME WEEKS, The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (John Secor, The Evening Bulletin)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (RICHARD J. TOFEL, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Columbia Journalism Review)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (Geoffrey Nunberg, June 29, 2006, Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (CAROL FELSENTHAL, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (
    -REVIEW: of Infamous Scribblers (
    -REVIEW: of The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol by Eric Burns (Gary Shapiro, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The Spirits of America (Indiana Magazine of History)
    -REVIEW: of The Spirits of America (Andrew Stuttaford, National Review)

Book-related and General Links: