Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism / Edition 1

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Infamous Scribblers is a perceptive and witty exploration of the most volatile period in the history of the American press. News correspondent and renonwned media historian Eric Burns tells of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams—the leading journalists among the Founding Fathers; of George Washington and John Adams, the leading disdainers of journalists; and Thomas Jefferson, the leading manipulator of journalists. These men and the writers who abused and praised them in print (there was, at the time, no job description of "journalist") included the incendiary James Franklin, Ben's brother and one of the first muckrakers; the high minded Thomas Paine; the hatchet man James Callender, and a rebellious crowd of propagandists, pamphleteers, and publishers. It was Washington who gave this book its title. He once wrote of his dismay at being "buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers." The journalism of the era was often partisan, fabricated, overheated, scandalous, sensationalistic and sometimes stirring, brilliant, and indispensable. Despite its flaws—even because of some of them—the participants hashed out publicly the issues that would lead America to declare its independence and, after the war, to determine what sort of nation it would be.

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Editorial Reviews

Claremont Review of Books
... An entertaining account of where we came from
Wall Street Journal
"Gives discredit where discredit is due... Mr. Burns, a facile writer, delivers history with flair and vividness."
Los Angeles Times
"Extremely readable... Burns' vigorous narrative is rich in genuinely engaging anecdote ...He so clearly appreciates history's sweep."
New York Sun
"The history here is familiar, but the attack is unusual... full of lovely little nuggets... breezy and generally readable."
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 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Some of today's talk radio hosts appear to have descended in a direct line from America's earliest journalists. Many of the nation's first newspapers were established by passionate political men who strongly advocated their positions. Burns (host, Fox News Channel; The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol) explores the role newspapers played in the founding of the country. Early newspapers did not purport to be objective or even to value impartiality. Burns draws on primary sources to contrast what was printed with what actually happened. He shows how skillfully Sam Adams manipulated truth in the Boston Gazette, stirring up resentment against the British and planning and hosting one of the most famous tea parties in history. Washington's administration perfected the news leak. Newspapers were vicious in their attacks. In the first truly contested presidential election (Jefferson v. Adams), Jefferson was described in the press as an infidel, an atheist, a libertine, and a spendthrift among other things. Some papers even reported rumors that he had died. Burns also traces the beginnings of politicians, conversely, making use of the press. Making excellent use of secondary and primary resources, Burns places his study in the context of existing journalism history. His colorful account of the men of the press and their coverage of the birth of the nation will be of interest to both public and academic libraries with journalism and American history collections.-Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Boston's first four-page News-Letter (1690) to the death of George Washington (1799): a quick, illuminating history of the rise of American journalism. It began in primordial slime-and stayed pretty slimy for its first century, writes Burns (The Spirits of America, 2003, etc.), host of Fox News-Watch. Anyone who has ever read American newspapers from the colonial and Revolutionary periods knows they were not at all fair and balanced. They were never intended to be, the author declares; they were proudly, patently partisan and often deeply vituperative and mendacious. Burns begins in Boston, where America's first papers were born, then moves to Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin (whose family-no surprise-is prominent in the story, as are members of the Adams clan). The author summarizes the 1735 libel trial of John Peter Zenger and examines the role of the press before and during the Revolutionary War. He introduces significant, though not necessarily admirable, journalists like James Rivington, John Fenno, James Thomson Callendar, Benjamin Franklin Bache (Ben's grandson) and William Cobbett. He describes poet Philip Freneau's editorship of the National Gazette and limns the reactions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to the often vicious portrayals of them in the press. (Callendar was the first to print the rumors about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.) Burns also examines the sobering effects of the 1798 Sedition Act, which suppressed editorial criticism of the U.S. president. Unfortunately, his narration and exposition are not always equal to his subject. The author uses too many tertiary quotes and often fails to provide textualattribution, so that readers must go to the endnotes to identify the source of a contemporary comment. He also has an annoying habit of quoting rather than paraphrasing scholars, as if he were a student fearful that his fastidious professor might allege plagiarism. Important, informative, amusing, surprising and even cautionary-a pity it's not more gracefully told.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586484286
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 2/12/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 836,378
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Burns

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch." A former NBC News correspondent, Burns was named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism by the Washington Journalism Review. He is also an Emmy winner for media criticism. He is the author of four previous books; his The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, was named one of the best academic press volumes of 2003 by the American Library Association.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : inappropriate behavior 3
Pt. I The role of authority
1 The end of the beginning 19
2 Publishing by authority 35
3 Defying authority 53
4 The sounds of silence dogood 67
5 Science, sex, and Super Crown Soap 83
6 The end of authority 97
Pt. II The approach of war
7 Severing the snake 115
8 "The weekly dung barge" 135
9 The tory dung barge 171
10 The shot spread 'cross the page 185
11 Uncommon prose 199
12 A sword of a different kind 211
Pt. III The tumult of peace
13 The passionate decade 225
14 The not-so-unlikely target 247
15 The Gazette ... 261
16 ... versus the Gazette 277
17 Dark whispers on the page 293
18 "The arising vapour" 315
19 Cobbett's quills 337
20 Sedition 351
21 Master and mistress 375
22 Post-script 395
Epilogue : renewed subscriptions 407
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2008

    Wonderful and coherent.

    Some titles can be esoteric in their knowledge and approach. Almost to the point where you don't retain anything of what you just read. This book was amazing. Wonderfully writtern and interesting stories that helped shape the country. I prefer it over many other similiar titles.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2006

    American Journalism Has Gone Full Circle

    I love american history and Eric Burns has found a new 'angle' from which to present our founding fathers. I truly enjoyed the book from cover to cover. I was amazed to learn that our journalistic roots represent all that is unsavory about journalism today e.g. sensationalism, lack of ethics, and the scarcity of independant reporting.The book is well written, informative and for me a page turner.I would recommend this book to anyone regardless of age or education, however,an interest in history makes this a must read book. ja

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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