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thedrifter
03-08-06, 08:33 AM
Poisoned Quills
The slander, treachery and trivia of America's early press.

BY ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

Where there are gutters, there will soon be presses. As America's colonial seaboard developed towns and cities, newspapers sprang up. "Infamous Scribblers" covers more than a century of the slander, treachery and trivia that characterized America's early Fourth Estate.

It began on Sept. 25, 1690, the day that the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, appeared in Boston. There would be no second issue. "The Governour and Council," announced the colonial government, "having had the perusal of the said Pamphlet, and finding that therein is contained . . . sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppressed." Exit Publick Occurrences; enter the dynamic tension between government and press that has been with us ever since.

Eric Burns's piquant history takes its title from a letter of George Washington's. While Washington publicly ignored the gutter press (it falsely accused him of everything from corruption to imperial ambition), he confided to a friend that the attacks were "outrages on common decency" and that he was sick of being abused "by a set of infamous scribblers."

Chronicling them, Mr. Burns, a television newsman and author, gives discredit where discredit is due. Most colonial journalists were either toadies publishing hand-in-hand with the royal authorities or angry misfits pursuing vendettas. Consider James Franklin, who "seems to have thought of journalism less as a career than as an outlet for his rage." Such was his hatred of Boston's clergy that when Cotton Mather led an enlightened drive for smallpox inoculation in the 1720s, Franklin's New England Courant waged a smear campaign that resulted in the deaths of many frightened, noninoculated readers. For good measure, Mather's home was firebombed around the same time.

James Franklin's only saving grace was that he grudgingly allowed a young apprentice--his kid brother--to run the Courant during a sabbatical that James spent in jail. Brother Benjamin thus made his debut as a pundit, writing under the pseudonym of "Silence Dogood," at the tender age of 16. He soon moved on to Philadelphia and better things.

While Ben Franklin's brand of journalism was more benevolent than his brother's--he favored gentle satire over bile--he was an exception to the rule. Just as well, perhaps. As war approached, it would be the infamous scribblers more than the reasoned patriots who lit the fuse. Foremost among them was a failed Boston tax collector named Samuel Adams, who composed "blacklists" of alleged royal sympathizers, put out false atrocity stories and presented altered versions of state documents. Better men would reap the whirlwind that Adams and his like set into motion.

The Founding Fathers claimed to be above party politics, but the country divided into quarreling factions within years of independence. Both the federalists and republicans had their infamous scribblers, and sometimes they got help from the higher reaches of power. Jefferson commiserated with Washington over press smears but, as Mr. Burns notes, "what Jefferson did not say, what he would never admit . . . was that, while serving in Washington's administration, he had been secretly and shamefully polluting [press coverage], doing so for his own ends, which were seldom the same as the president's."

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. In the end, Jefferson's own reputation was soiled by one of his hired hacks. Of all his faction's scribblers, none was more infamous than James Thomson Callender, an itinerant Scots pamphleteer who published some private letters of the federalist Alexander Hamilton involving adultery and blackmail--letters that reached Callender's hands from a crony of the republican James Madison. When Jefferson was elected president and Callender demanded a postmastership as reward, Jefferson snubbed him. Callender sought revenge, revealing Jefferson's role as his past patron and going public with the Sally Hemings story, alleging that Jefferson had sired bastards with his slave housekeeper.

Outraged denials followed, and a disgraced Callender died soon after, found face-down in Richmond's James River. But as Mr. Burns writes: "DNA testing would reveal that our nation's third president had almost certainly fathered several children with a Hemings, and that Sally was the only likely candidate. James Thomson Callender's maliciously intended journalism . . . was in this case factual as well."

Mr. Burns, a facile writer, delivers history with flair and vividness. Given the wide range of his subject matter, it is not surprising that a few errors creep into the narrative. Peter the Great and his son were not murdered (Peter did supervise the execution of his son Alexei, but he himself died either from uremic poisoning or from the effects of a voluntary plunge into the icy Gulf of Finland); North America was a sideshow, not the "primary battle ground," of the Seven Years War (which involved Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain, England and France, all of which did most of their fighting elsewhere); and the five-foot-long musical instrument designed by Ben Franklin was not a mammoth mouth organ but a "glass" harmonica played by rubbing water-glass rims with a wetted finger.

Mr. Burns's claim that today's journalists are more honest and responsible than their early ancestors is certainly plausible, but open to challenge. As disgusting as most of the Founding Scribblers were, they'd probably feel right at home contributing to a supermarket tabloid, blogging on the Internet, serving as local shock jocks or putting in the occasional appearance with Jerry Springer--not to mention doing creative documentary work about the president for "60 Minutes."

Mr. Bakshian, the editor of American Speaker, was an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Ellie