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Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

Eric Burns

Host of Fox NewsWatch and author of Infamous Scribblers

The Golden Age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American journalism. It seems a remarkable paradox. And the Founding Fathers were both the perpetrators and the victims of this brand of journalism.

The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash.

The Constitution of the United States was philosophy, but the Boston Gazette slung mud.

Its chief mud-slinger was Samuel Adams, whose name has become far more credible as a brand of beer than it ever was as a brand of reporting. Adams wanted the colonies to be free from British rule—legislatively if possible, militarily if need be. And toward that end he not only wrote lies about egregious behavior on the part of British soldiers and diplomats stationed in Boston, behavior that never happened, but urged violence to punish them.

In at least two cases, the violence was carried out: against Andrew Oliver, who was appointed to collect taxes in Boston under the Stamp Act, and against Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams accused, falsely, of being one of the architects of the Stamp Act. Adams seems as well to have been one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party, and it was probably in the back room of the Boston Gazette that the colonial marauders applied their Indian makeup and took their bows to one another when the tea had been dumped into the harbor.

Other newspapers took their cue from Adams, the Pennsylvania Journal publishing a list of punitive measures being considered by Parliament in the wake of American opposition to the so-called Intolerable Acts. None of it was true; all of it was incendiary, Sam Adams-inspired journalism for the purpose of rousing public opinion, not reporting the facts.

One wonders why. Why, when America's real "greatest generation" trod the earth, was the journalism so scurrilous? Why did one newspaper refer to Alexander Hamilton in print as Tom S**t? Why did the editor of a paper urge his readers not to spit on the editor of another paper because it would be a waste of good saliva? Why did Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, both members of George Washington's cabinet at the time, establish newspapers to attack each other's person and views? To Hamilton, Jefferson's paper was "a prostituted vehicle of party spleen." To Jefferson, Hamilton's editor had a "canker'd hoof;" he was, in other words, the devil.

Journalism in colonial times was both unfair and vicious. It was the former, in large part, because journalism was so new that it had established no tradition of fairness. In fact a man who owned a printing press, who paid for it out of his hard-earned money, believed he was being fair by expressing his views without compromise. The village smithy would not tell would-be customers to see a competitor. Neither would a man who owned a print shop give space in his publication to competing views.

Colonial journalism was vicious because, in my view, the two most important events in American history occurred late in the 18th century, with the repercussions of one continuing well into the 19th. First was the Revolutionary War, which allowed the colonies to become an independent nation. Second was the battle over interpretation of the Constitution, to decide what kind of nation the United States should be. Should it be federalist, with a powerful central government and weak states, as Hamilton advocated? Or should it be republican, with a weak central government and the states maintaining much of their original sovereignty, as Jefferson urged?

These were events and decisions of monumental importance, which is another way of saying that the times were simply too contentious for civility in journalism, even among people who were civil in most of their other dealings.

Perhaps the era's most vile journalist was James Thomson Callender, who holds the distinction of having published the first two celebrity sex scandals in American history—Alexander Hamilton's affair with a woman who later enlisted her husband in an attempt to blackmail Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson's affair with his slave, Sally Hemings.

Callender seems to have gotten his facts right in both these cases, but he got them wrong, and willfully so, in others. He was a journalistic mercenary, and when Jefferson did not reward him sufficiently for vilifying Hamilton, Callender switched sides and began to vilify Jefferson. One of the papers that opposed him, sympathizing with Jefferson, called him "a miserable and ragged vagabond ... whose very appearance gives a disgustful idea of the collected dregs of corruptible meanness and filthy beggary, who would not dare be picked out of a ditch even by a good Samaritan!"

This was not an editorial. There were no such things as editorials in colonial newspapers. This was just another story in just another edition.

It was Washington, however, who the colonial press savaged more than anyone else, Washington who was accused of everything from ineptitude to megalomania, and who, as a result, provided the title for my book examining the period's journalism. On one occasion, in a rare fury, Washington, explained to a friend that he was tired of being "buffited in the in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers."

About the author:

Eric Burns is the host of FOX News Channel's Fox News Watch, a weekly half-hour program that "covers the coverage." A former NBC News correspondent and an Emmy winner for media criticism, Burns was named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism by the Washington Journalism Review. He is the author of five books, including "Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism" (2007, PublicAffairs, paperback edition). The American Library Association named two of his books best academic press volumes: "The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol" (2003) and "The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco" (2007).

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