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The Infamous Scribblers of the Founding Father Generation

It does not seem to make sense. 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.

The leading practitioner of such reporting was Samuel Adams of the Boston Gazette, who takes a back seat to everyone, including Jayson Blair, in terms of ethics. So desperate was Adams for the colonies to become independent from the Crown---either legislatively or militarily, whatever it took---that he wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston molesting women in the streets. It never happened. He wrote stories about British soldiers in Boston assaulting men on the streets. It never happened. He wrote stories that urged violence against British officials charged with collecting taxes, then summoned his henchmen to the Gazette's offices after closing hours and plotted the violence for them. Hang taxman Andrew Oliver in effigy, he told them. Trash his office. Destroy his home. Threaten him with physical harm if he did not resign. His minions did precisely as told.

Then, a few days later, Sam Adams wrote an article describing such reprehensible actions without either regret or acknowledgment that he had been their primary cause.

All Jayson Blair did was apply a few coats of gilding to stories that were basically factual.

Other colonists, jacked up on 90-proof Sam Adams prose, vandalized the residences of other British officials, and other newspapers, under Adams's influence, made up their own lies, including reports that Parliament was about to impose taxes on the colonists for their children---15 pounds for each male child born in the New World, 10 for each female, 50 for a child of either gender born out of wedlock. It was the Pennsylvania Journal that cooked up the levy on kids, and it knew the tales were untrue from the outset. It didn't matter. It was determined to incite the populace against the British.

Alexander Hamilton, as prolific a journalist as any among the Founding Fathers, did not tell lies, but after the Revolutionary War, as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, appropriated Treasury Department funds to start a newspaper to promote Washington's view of the Constitution; i.e., that it called for a big, centralized government which held power over the states. One thinks of the second Bush administration paying Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind.

Worse, however, were the efforts of Hamilton's competing "press baron," Thomas Jefferson, Washington's Secretary of State, who believed in a weak centralized government with power concentrated among the states. In other words, he was a foe of the Washington administration even as he held one of its most prestigious offices, which he did not do nobly. Jefferson purloined State Department money to fund a paper to compete with Hamilton's---in other words, he used government dollars to criticize the very government of which he was such an important part. Further, he would on occasion leave the door to the State Department unlocked at night so that Philip Freneau, the editor of Jefferson's paper, could sneak in and copy documents that Jefferson had left on his desk, documents that could be quoted out of context to make the Washington administration look ill-informed at best, malicious at worst. There was, to the oft-noble Thomas Jefferson, a very devious side---although not so devious as to refer to Hamilton, as one newspaper did, as Tom S**t.

Hamilton and Jefferson never came to blows over the views in their conflicting newspapers. Other editors did. It was not uncommon for printers to attack one another on the street. 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). First event: the winning of independence from England. Second event: the struggles to interpret the Constitutition, which is to say, to decide what kind of nation we should erect with our newly-earned freedom. 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. We have accepted the ideals they expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the structures and guidelines they laid down the Constitutition, 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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