Saturday, September 15, 2012

Historical Nooks: Infamous Scribblers

Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism
I know the basics of American history, although not nearly as much as my BIL, who will soon in fact be a history teacher. (He's student teaching now.) But I had American history in school, and I read Johnny Tremaine and My Brother Sam Is Dead, and then I had it again in college to learn about the dark seamy side of history and I read John Jakes books, and I've taught it to my first grader which involved watching a few Dear America movies.

But I only know the highlights, so it's interesting sometimes to take a journey into someone's particular interest, looking at the nooks and crannies of history on the tails of a passionate researcher. Eric Burns turns his focus on newspapers and journalist in Infamous Scribblers, which traces the first newspapers in America through the scurrilous and furious Federalist/Republican feuds. I hadn't really thought about how newspapers made money, or even ink, in the days before comics, so I liked reading the early chapters following the first editions which showed how information moved around in the days when social media meant passing the broadsheets around the local pub.

Benjamin Franklin gets his own chapter, from his apprentice days and anonymous letters that tricked his brother into giving his annoying family member his own series through his own paper in his new city. And later on Franklin's grandson becomes one of the most hated editors with his own scurrilous journal. The final chapters involve a lot of scandal, because the newspapers all had axes to grind and had no compunction about making things up, but even more glee when reporting things that actually happened, such as Hamilton's torrid affair or Jefferson's use of his slave, Sally. I learned to heap shame of the politicians who either encouraged papers that attacked their opponents but then recoiled when the same tactics turned on them (Thomas Jefferson especially comes out badly in this instance).

Anyway, it's written in a clear if not compelling language, and mostly carries along the non-specialist reader (me) without assuming I remember more than a smidgen of my history. It's a good look at the development of journalistic ethics, something that few of the publishers back in the Founding Father's day would recognize.

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