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Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  271 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Infamous Scribblers is a perceptive and witty exploration of the most volatile period in the history of the American press. News correspondent and renowned media historian Eric Burns tells of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams -- the leading journalists among the Founding Fathers; of George Washington and John Adams, the leading disdainers of journalists; and T ...more
Paperback, 480 pages
Published February 13th 2007 by PublicAffairs (first published 2006)
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Jan 19, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I ordered this book a while ago after being intrigued by Eric Burns' (the author's) appearance on The Daily Show. At the time I was upset by the Bush administration's apparent manipulation of the press and of facts and Burns made the comment that their behavior was nothing when compared to the behavior of the founding fathers. He was certainly right.

The book covers the early history of journalism and newspapers from the first newspaper in the colonies up through the contentious partisanship of t
Ann Otto
Dec 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Those who loved the play Hamilton must read this book, the story of the founding fathers and the "rowdy beginnings of American journalism." Burns' well-researched nonfiction covers the period just before the revolution to the early 1800s. The infighting over the decision to engage in the Revolutionary War and afterward the very public disagreements of the new political parties in addition to the many personal disagreements between individuals like Adams, Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton are detaile ...more
Nov 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Infamous Scribblers is a lively, detailed, and shocking account of early journalism in America. Oddly enough, “rowdy,” the word in the subtitle, doesn’t begin to capture the story that Burns tells. Newspapers were far more important in Colonial times than I had known before reading this book. Many of the Founding Fathers were printers and ran newspapers. Few of them come out looking good in this book. One can almost understand the Sedition laws when it is clear how many complete falsehoods were ...more
Jan 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs, nonfiction enthusiasts
There's a certain amount of irony in a Fox News journalist writing about the bitter, nasty, unfair and (mentally?) unbalanced beginnings of American journalism. But Burns writes with style and sympathy, not to mention an occasionally laugh-out-loud wit. It's always fascinating to see the figures you remember as lionized idols in your elementary-school history class outed as squabbling, occasionally underhanded backstabbers, rabble-rousers, and snakes in the grass. Read "Infamous Scribblers" to l ...more
An accessible book about an interesting subject, but it got repetitive towards the end. There were times when the book got too far into speculation about the thoughts of its subjects, and I could have done without some of the cute turns of phrase.

I thought it was funny that during the chapter about America's first political sex scandal, Burns seemed almost as eager to go over details as the overzealous newspapers he was describing.
April Helms
Jun 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I've long held that with the Internet giving everyone the equivalent of a cheap printing press, we have not seen a decay in news coverage and journalism. Rather, the internet hit the reset button, and everything old is new again. This book solidifies this view. Despair of the talking heads, pundits, half-truths and outright likes now? We have nothing on our Founding Fathers. Not saying we don't need to improve but the amount of vitriol that blazed from the first Colonial-era newspapers made my j ...more
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: the-library
Burns's monograph on the history of journalism (really of the uses of the printing press) in the early American Republic is eminently readable and engrossing, for all its quirks of diction that often emulate the newspapers he's covering.

He uses a post-hole style, moving smoothly from the early days of the press in England to the travails of a would-be free press in the New England colonies to the rambunctious battles of the War of Independence and the growing pains of the first constitutional a
Stephen P
An extremely interesting of the history of the early days of journalism in the United Stated. Burns narrates the histories contained in this book in a compelling way that makes it hard to put down. One also gains insights that, although much has improved in the profession of journalism in the past 200 years, much remains the same - including the inability of many journalists to leave preconceptions behind.
Dec 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library
Eye-opening for us who came of age in the Walter Cronkite era of journalism.

So apparently the subscribe-to-my-newsletter style of journalism was the fashion then as it is today. There was no point in publishing any form of journalism unless it was to extol your side and trash the other. Truth and facts, of course, were entirely optional. Fox and Friends has nothing on these guys. I have to admire, though, the poly-syllabic magnificence of their insults. THAT'S how it's done.
Daniel Parker
Sep 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Full of American Revolution anecdotes related to early newspapers. It appears that the issue of fact vs. opinion and molesting the good fortune of elected and appointed officials predates the establishment of the country. Sometimes humorous and sometimes head-scratching.
Jon D
May 30, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
More anecdotal than I prefer, but a useful overview nevertheless.
Jun 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is an eye opener for anyone who looks back on history and assumes things were done more honorably, more civilly, and with more integrity than they are now. And for anyone who thinks the founding fathers were a cadre of enlightened supermen who had anything like a consensus of how the new United States should look and be governed. In particular, Infamous Scribblers serves to shed light on the press of the time, which we see operated with the same or less scruples than today's seedier tabloid ...more
Jan 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Note: I only read the first half, because that time period fell under my interest.

Eric Burns gets the idea of a popular non-fiction book. It instructs; it entertains. With the prose shaped by the very material under consideration, it delivers just enough of that experience of being there in the moment.

Burns' basic point is that from its origins, American journalism was less about truth than about making a buck and pushing the publishers' viewpoints. Caught between the need to stay competitive
Alex Shrugged
"Infamous Scribblers" is history focused on journalism around the time of the American Revolution. "Infamous scribblers" is what George Washington called the newspapers of the time. This not a book written by an historian but Eric Burns does a good job pulling all the relevant facts together to make a good narrative. There were no reporters. There were no editors. There were only printers and very little truth. It is clear why the 1st amendment included the press. The press was considered politi ...more
Oct 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
Apparently journalists and politicians in America were always corrupt. Burns wrote a detailed chronology of the newspapers from just before during and shortly after the revolutionary war without making it so dry that its unreadable. I did have two major problems with the book.
My first issue is Burns' agenda. Shocking I know, the author of a book about journalists with with ulterior motives has an ulterior motive. Burns was a media analyst for Fox news and the entire book reads as a defense of
Scott Martin
May 26, 2010 rated it liked it
A very interesting read about the early days of American journalism. If you think the current media is bad (The right wingers of Fox vs. The overt liberal stance of MSNBC vs the establishment of CNN vs. the current newspapers vs. the local media), it holds nothing to the first days of American journalism. It is evident that journalists from the colonial times (the book focuses from the first colonies to the post 1800 election times (maybe the most brutal of electoral campaigns the US has ever an ...more
Tom Nailor
A great read about the foundations of American journalism, focusing in on America in the early colonies, through the Revolutionary War, and into the times of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Some very interesting stories and tidbits about a number of historical figures, both famous, infamous, and unknown. Burns does a good job bringing the subject, and these figures especially, to life. Interesting looks at a number of famous events and trials, and it forces you to reflect on the state of m ...more
JZ Temple
Aug 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: someone looking for some casual historic reading
Shelves: history
This book, as the title notes, covers the early history of American journalism. It's a very readable history, full of anecdotes and character profiles, written for an afternoon at the beach rather than academic research. There are many interesting but perhaps less than likable folks who's idea of reporting the news was to make up what they couldn't uncover, and perhaps even create something completely out of their imagination. Journalism was something to support your political, social or religio ...more
This book is filled with fun stories and tidbits about our forefathers we do not learn in school. I will admit the first half or so of the book is better than the rest. The book seems to be well researched, there are 55 pages of notes,bibliography, acknowledgments, and index. If you enjoy early American history you will enjoy learning about his part of history as well. It appears political scandals are the same now and then, perhaps how they were reported or who reported them are different, but ...more
Courtney Cooper
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
love love LOVE this book! great combination of journalism before/during/after the revolution and the politics of early America. It is easy to say that the newspapers and editorial pamphlets of that time held huge influence and sway toward declaring independence and then afterwards how the United States would be set up and governed.

Eric Burns does a great job really getting to the root of these writers and political men; what they were trying to say, how they used the media to influence public o
Jon Gauthier
May 28, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, _econtalk
The first newspapers in the New World were a potent political force, pushing the colonies toward the fight for independence and later dividing the citizens of the nascent United States into squabbling factions of the sort we are still well acquainted with today.

Burns follows the history of the colonies up to the 19th century, stopping regularly to point out the influence of journalists and their targets in every major event. Each significant conflict or scandal, it seems, was fueled or at least
David R.
Jun 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A surprisingly readable discussion, chapter by chapter devoted to particular journalists or events, of the American journalistic enterprise from 1710s to the early 19th Century. Burns makes clear that the style of the times was abusive, vivid, and unruly and effectively demonstrates why. There's plenty here to be sober about when reflecting on current times, especially trends towards manufactured news, diminishing journalistic ethics and nearly nonexistent objectivity. The comparisons are striki ...more
Oct 17, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Not much of a history reader, but this book makes the early days of journalism in America interesting and entertaining. Creative turns of phrase like "...all of them jacked-up on 90-proof Sam Adams prose.." flavor the text and kept me reading. It's a detailed and quote-riddled expose on America's first newspapers and journalists and shows how the media has always been (and perhaps will always be) editorializing in favor of their own beliefs.
Jan 05, 2008 rated it liked it
I found it comforting to learn that today's partisan media and belligerent public commentary are deeply rooted in the actions of America's founding fathers.

A fun, detailed account of the lies, propaganda and skullduggery that swirled around the American Revolution and the Washington, Adams and Jefferson administrations. And as an added bonus, each chapter begins with the reproduction of a newspaper frontpage from the period.
Jun 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
I was surprised to learn that author Eric Burns worked both for FOX and MSNBC, but he has such delightful storytelling in this book that it made me forget how much I struggle through history books. I'm just bummed that the "rowdy beginnings of American journalism" started out with honest attempts to cover politics and community happenings, but degenerated into questioning and demeaning politicians' character, that anyone with a press and a grudge could simply churn out a periodical.
Jul 30, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book is about the birth of journalism, particularly in the United States. However, it's much more than that. It gives us a fascinating insight to the founding fathers of the U.S., how newspapers and printing instigating the founding of the country, and the no-holds-bar game of politics during that time. A very good read and a must for any American (the British could read it too but they might find it a bit depressing)
Sep 01, 2012 rated it liked it
An interesting account of the early days of American journalism (and politics) but the storytelling is too distracted and sometimes quite superficial. The author does not go too far to give some background to a (non-American) reader who might not be too well acquainted with the story of the Founding Fathers, the formation of political parties in the US etc. But will definitely stir an interest to dig deeper and read other books on the subject.
Evan Brandt
Mar 03, 2014 rated it liked it
This book was fun, but didn't tell me much I didn't already know.

It did fill in some details, mostly about what an irrepressible propagandist Samuel Adams was and, in actuality, how recent and fragile our tradition of a fair press really is.

Considering how important one's reputation and honor was to those of the era, and how completely scurrilous some of the publications were, it is no wonder they wrote anonymously.
May 24, 2009 rated it liked it
This is a decent survey of colonial-era journalism that provides a nice overview of the goings-on. Even so, the book feels rushed and/or incomplete at times, with only a few pages devoted to Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, for instance. A good introduction, but you'll find yourself wanting to know more than what is offered here.
Jan 19, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
One might expect a book about journalism to be free of opinion and grammatical errors. This book certainly isn't free of either, but it's still a decent look at the often overlooked role of newspapers in the formation of the United States. Opinion and errors aside, it's a pretty smooth read and worth the time, though I would read everything he's written with a grain of salt.
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Eric Burns is an American media critic and journalist. He began his career as a correspondent for NBC News where he appeared regularly on NBC Nightly News and on the Today show.

Burns has written five critically-acclaimed books and continues to work in television. He has worked as a commentator for Entertainment Tonight, host of Arts & Entertainment Revue on A&E, and is the former host of Fox News

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