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Infamous Scribblers

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About the Author

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Channel's "Fox News Watch." A former NBC News correspondent, Burns was named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism by the Washington Journalism Review. He is also an Emmy winner for media criticism. He is the author of four previous books his The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, was named one of the best academic press volumes of 2003 by the American Library Association.


Some of today's talk radio hosts appear to have descended in a direct line from America's earliest journalists. Many of the nation's first newspapers were established by passionate political men who strongly advocated their positions. Burns (host, Fox News Channel; The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol) explores the role newspapers played in the founding of the country. Early newspapers did not purport to be objective or even to value impartiality. Burns draws on primary sources to contrast what was printed with what actually happened. He shows how skillfully Sam Adams manipulated truth in the Boston Gazette, stirring up resentment against the British and planning and hosting one of the most famous tea parties in history. Washington's administration perfected the news leak. Newspapers were vicious in their attacks. In the first truly contested presidential election (Jefferson v. Adams), Jefferson was described in the press as an infidel, an atheist, a libertine, and a spendthrift among other things. Some papers even reported rumors that he had died. Burns also traces the beginnings of politicians, conversely, making use of the press. Making excellent use of secondary and primary resources, Burns places his study in the context of existing journalism history. His colorful account of the men of the press and their coverage of the birth of the nation will be of interest to both public and academic libraries with journalism and American history collections.-Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Considering the many noble accomplishments of early American culture, Burns observes, the levels of vulgarity and partisanship in colonial newspapers should strike modern readers as shocking. Given the ideological jousting taking place on talk radio and in the blogosphere today, he may be overstating the case, and at times the condemnation feels as if it's laid on a bit thick, but Burns's historical examples of journalistic excess-rabid language, character assassination, even outright fabrication-never bore. From the sniping feuds among Boston's first papers to sex scandals involving Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the snappy patter gives clear indication of how much Burns, a Fox News anchor and accomplished historian (The Spirits of America), relishes telling his story. With so much attention on the Founding Fathers in recent years, many sections, like those on Ben Franklin's early publishing career and the intense rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, each of whom underwrote a paper to propagate his point of view, will be familiar. For every recognizable anecdote, however, Burns weaves in fresh elements like the vicious feud between publisher James Franklin (Ben's older brother) and Cotton Mather over smallpox inoculation, keeping the entertainment levels high. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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