February 05, 2008

Book Review: Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns

The first thing that struck me in reading this book is how similar the beginnings of American journalism and the beginnings of the blogosphere actually are.

In the beginning, you have Benjamin Harris and his Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic (1690). Four pages long, poor formatting, little space between stories -- no headlines. And the first edition was also the last -- Harris' writing was so inflammatory that the colonial government in Boston shut him down. Harris is the forefather of many bloggers who seek to increase readership (and subscribers) by being as outlandish as possible (coughDrudgecough). Unfortunately, there was no freedom of the press back then.

But if Harris was the Drudge of the early colonial period, then John Campbell and his Boston News Letter was the cat blog. Long lasting just because of it's inoffensiveness, Campbell's effort was also excruciatingly dull, and typically included reports of each shipment that came into Boston Harbor.
Campbell was the exception, however, and Burns shows exactly how this book got it's name. From hyper-patriots like Sam Adams (who made up quite a bit of his 'news' with the goal of simply inflaming the public) to Tories like Jemmy Rivington (who was actually spying for the colonists!), American journalism from the mid 1700s through the Federal era was marked by constant abuse, ad hominem, and fiction masquerading as fact. Journalistic impartiality was a foreign concept to these early newsmen -- much as it is on the blogosphere today.

Burns traces the growth of American journalism from the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, and of course profiles folks like Sam Adams and Ben Franklin. The value in this book, though, is in Burns' treatment of the lesser-known publishers, folks like Harris, Campbell, and Rivington, but also like John Peter Zenger, who was the first journalist to really fight in court for freedom of the press. Even Thomas Paine, who never published a newspaper himself but provided plenty of material for newspapermen, is profiled because of his influence on the Revolution and the attitudes of the press in his day.

Newspapers were founded to make points, to further agendas, to support causes. Many didn't make much profit, and some lost money. But that wasn't the point for them -- they had opinions and they wanted to be heard. That sentiment is gone from modern newspapers -- journalists are called to be impartial reporters with no agenda when they report the news. They are simple scribes recounting the day's events.

The people who are the real spiritual heirs of the early American newspapermen are bloggers. They, for better or worse, are the folks who get into it because they have something to say -- even if it's just what their cat spat up that afternoon. Bloggers are creating the controversies, and in some cases are making up or twisting the facts as they need to to support their positions.

One fascinating aspect of this book is the conflict between the newspapers and politicians once the Revolution was won. Newspapers hated George Washington. And just as there are conservative and liberal papers and blogs today, there were federalist and anti-federalist papers in early America. These papers often attacked each other, and were unmerciful to the politicos of the day -- something that you don't really learn in American History class today.

Infamous Scribblers is a fascinating work. What makes it even more interesting and valuable is the parallel with today's new media. I enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 06:42 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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