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Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism Paperback – February 13, 2007

4.2 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Considering the many noble accomplishments of early American culture, Burns observes, the levels of vulgarity and partisanship in colonial newspapers should strike modern readers as shocking. Given the ideological jousting taking place on talk radio and in the blogosphere today, he may be overstating the case, and at times the condemnation feels as if it's laid on a bit thick, but Burns's historical examples of journalistic excess—rabid language, character assassination, even outright fabrication—never bore. From the sniping feuds among Boston's first papers to sex scandals involving Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the snappy patter gives clear indication of how much Burns, a Fox News anchor and accomplished historian (The Spirits of America), relishes telling his story. With so much attention on the Founding Fathers in recent years, many sections, like those on Ben Franklin's early publishing career and the intense rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, each of whom underwrote a paper to propagate his point of view, will be familiar. For every recognizable anecdote, however, Burns weaves in fresh elements like the vicious feud between publisher James Franklin (Ben's older brother) and Cotton Mather over smallpox inoculation, keeping the entertainment levels high. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Grievances against journalists are as old as America--Burns' title is lifted from an epistolary lamentation by none other than George Washington. Most of the founders found themselves on the receiving end of printers who reveled in calumny and condemnation and made no pretense of impartiality. Burns' chronological narrative spans the century between what is regarded as the first newspaper in America, Publick Occurrences of 1690s Boston, and the partisan papers of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Burns, a broadcast journalist, adopts a flowing, anecdote-laden style infused with bemusement toward the period's reportorial practices. These included outright fabrication, lightly so, as in Benjamin Franklin's occasional inventions in print, or more seriously, as in fulminations against the British by patriot Samuel Adams. Come the Revolution, Burns notes that most papers went under due to a paper shortage; after the War of Independence, they reappeared with vigor and invective. Excerpting extensively from the newspapers under discussion, Burns has produced a spry history of early American journalism. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (February 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484281
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484286
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,599 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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 ...
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Format: Hardcover
You have had it up to here with newspapers and news broadcasts that are partisan and shrill. You are sick of the media focusing on scandal or even making up scandals. You can't stand the prospect of hearing from another pundit who calls for the death of her political opponents. You wish that newspapers would go back to the good old days of objectivity and impartial promotion of the public interest, perhaps when Freedom of the Press was a new concept and was being flaunted with energy and joy. Don't be too sure. In _Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism_ (PublicAffairs), Eric Burns (who works for Fox News!) has given a funny and thoughtful look at our nation's initial press. The title of the book comes from a phrase George Washington, who had more than his share of problems with the papers, used to describe his newsprint detractors. We may have come a long way in the technologies we use for our media, but the problems here of lies, leaks, and libel will sound familiar to modern readers.

One excuse the newspapers had then that they do not have now is that they were new. Neither Europe nor the colonies had a tradition of an impartial press, so the press had to invent itself. The first newspaper was closed because the publisher was obnoxious and refused to get a license. The second was a toadying journal that printed what the authorities wanted. Ben Franklin's elder brother was the first crusading journalist, but took up a malicious crusade against smallpox inoculations. Founding father Sam Adams edited the _Boston Gazette_ and had no interest in printing the truth, unless the truth happened to promote American liberty.
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Format: Hardcover
Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism is the eye-popping true story of how raucous and undisciplined American journalism once was. Feuds, partisanship, and outright lies often colored journalism of the era. Some founding fathers, such as Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Sam Adams, were leading journalists, others, such as George Washington and John Adams, passionately disdained journalists; and Thomas Jefferson was a skillful manipulator of journalists. Infamous Scribblers is divided into three sections: "The Role of Authority", "The Approach of War", and "The Tumult of Peace", all tracing the contentious relationship between the founding fathers and journalism throughout the birth of America. Highly recommended for American history shelves, and an absolute "must-have" for public and college libraries.
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Format: Hardcover
The opening sentence says it all.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of journalism." It was an era that spawned the finest minds our country has ever seen drawn into public service. It was an era that spawned some our country's most raucous journalists.

Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams were accomplished journalists. George Washington and John Adams detested journalists. Thomas Jefferson was a skilled manipulator of journalists.

Franklin's brother, James, was one of the first muckrakers. Thomas Paine was thought-provoking, high-minded and persuasive. James Callender was a hatchet man. The journalists of the era were often partisan, scandalous and sensational. They were often stirring, passionate and brilliant.

Together they aired the issues that caused the now United States to declare its independence and chart a course that lead to its position in the world today. Eric Burns, host of Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch" relates the story.

This tale is essential to understanding the press' role in our society today.
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