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Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

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. 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.

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Other editors did. It was not uncommon for printers to attack one another on the street.

Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns | Hachette Book Group

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.

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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.

Infamous scribblers

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.


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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.


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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.