Students of the American press have, in recent years, complained increasingly about partisanship, shrillness, and relentless focus on scandals real and imagined. Eric Burns, who, somewhat ironically, works by day for Fox News, is here to remind us that things could be worse. A lot worse.
Mr. Burns's tale in "Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism" (Public Affairs, 480 pages, $27.50) is about the most heroic age in our nation's history. He begins by noting that if "it was the best of times, it was the worst of journalism."
The history here is familiar, but the angle of attack is unusual. In this recounting, Benjamin Franklin was the man "who made his readers smile more than any other journalist of the eighteenth century" and, not coincidentally, "the first American to make good money from journalism." Samuel Adams is portrayed as an editor first and leader of the Sons of Liberty second. Alexander Hamilton is the target of the first newspaper sex scandal, and then the founder of the New York Post - which, in another irony, was the first paper in the country to claim to aspire to objectivity. George Washington is a leader who complains, in words that give the book its title, of being "buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers."
Among the most striking aspects of this tale is the very small scale of early American newspapers. In 1740, five years after the famous case of the editor John Peter Zenger's acquittal by a New York jury on charges of criminal libel, there were only 12 newspapers in America. In 1754, the largest newspaper in the colonies had a circulation of 700, and while this figure doubled by the time of the Stamp Act in 1765 and doubled again by 1775, the year of Lexington and Concord, that left a new nation of but 38 papers, with the largest of these selling 3,500 copies.
Only with the coming of government under the Constitution did the number of newspapers reach 100. During the 1790s - what Mr. Burns calls the "Passionate Decade" - this number doubled, and the political leanings of the newspapers charted the messy rise of the new Republican Party of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (forerunner of today's Democrats) and the decline of the Federalists of John Adams and Hamilton. Once Jefferson's near-term triumph over Hamilton was complete, and "as the United States was becoming a larger and more powerful nation, the importance of its newspapers was beginning to shrink."
Indeed, Mr. Burns marks Hamilton's death at the hands of a gunshot by Vice President Aaron Burr as a watershed event in American journalism: "It took the soul out of the Federalist press and the animus out of the Republican, the one having lost its guiding spirit and the other its most frequent and influential target."
This book is full of lovely little nuggets:
* The first newspaper in America, Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic, published in Boston in 1692, was comprised of four pages, with the last of these left blank, so that readers could add news and comment of their own as copies were passed from hand to hand. Mr. Burns calls this "a source of interactive journalism a full three centuries before the Internet."
* The 1721 campaign by the New England Courant against Cotton Mather's efforts to promote inoculation against smallpox not only set back public health, but also yielded 40 new subscribers for the Courant. Mr. Burns calls it "the first indication that... accuracy would seldom be a match for zestful falsehood."
* Franklin's refreshing admission in an issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette, during the first winter of his editorship, that, "We have little News of Consequence at present, the English Prints being generally stufft with Robberies, Cheats, Fires, Murders, Bankruptcies, Promotions of some, and Hanging of others; nor can we expect much better till Vessels arrive in the Spring. ... In the mean Time we hope our Readers will be content for the present, with what we can give 'em, which if it does 'em no Good, shall do 'em no Hurt. 'Tis the best we have, and so take it."
* The famous Revolutionary-era drawing of a sundered snake whose pieces each represented one of the colonies and the caption of which enjoined them to "JOIN OR DIE" was actually the first editorial cartoon in American newspaper history.
Mr. Burns's style is breezy and generally readable, but occasionally verges toward too breezy for what, after all, are issues of weight and years of foundation. The book feels, moreover, as if it was written chapter by chapter, with nearly every chapter a chronicle of a particular newspaper or editor, rather than as a narrative whole. One of two approaches might have compensated for this: The book could have been presented as a series of entertaining essays on 18th-century journalists (which, to a great extent, is what it is), or the narrative could have been woven more tightly. As it is, this is solid popular history, but not nearly as gripping as the thinly fictionalized version of much the same story presented in William Safire's novel from 2000, "Scandalmonger."
Most significant, it is not at all clear that the implications for today's journalism are nearly as self-congratulatory as Mr. Burns would have them. He concludes the book by observing that Americans have made their nation in the image of the Founders, but have gone another route when it comes to their press, and, "We are to be commended." But many readers may instead find the book's moral in Mr. Burns's discussion of the disgraceful Sedition Act of 1798, which Mr. Burns rationalizes by noting, "When the press goes too far, reaction against it goes too far as well." It is that cautionary tale on which thoughtful contemporary journalists who read this book may wish to reflect.
Mr. Tofel is an adjunct professor of media ethics at New York University. His latest book, "Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address," is available from Ivan R. Dee.