August 2009
April 2009
March 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
Recent Entries
Book Review: Your Jesus Is Too Safe
Movie Metaphysics: The Dark Knight
What's Going On Here??
Why I'm Getting Rid of Google Chrome
Twitter and Me
To the 52, From 1 Of the 48
A Note To Authors (and PR people, too)
Beat Coastal, The Sequel

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 February 5, 2008 06:42 PM | TrackBack
Email me!
Email Protection by Name Intelligence