Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Great Read

Determined while on vacation in South Florida to read what I expected to be a fascinating book, I set out reading Eric Burns’ Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism even before we left last week, and it is proving to be a great choice. Burns is the host of Fox News Channel’s “Fox News Watch,” a weekend program I have watched as often as I can since FNC was added to our cable system a couple of years ago, and which I enjoy because it analyzes the modern media, a force in American life badly needing critical analysis.

FNW’s cast includes, in addition to Burns, four journalists that pretty much span the ideological spectrum from Left to Right representing various walks of journalistic life, and includes: Jane Hall, a moderate Left educator; Neil Gabler, a solid Left media critic; and columnists Jim Pinkerton (moderate Right) and Cal Thomas (solid Right). Burns moderates sometimes-spirited discussions of the way print and broadcast media handle events and issues of the day, and it is, as Fox News advertises, fair and balanced. Although you get a sense of Burns’ writing style from his spoken words, he is much more elegant in print than FNW allows him to be.

Infamous Scribblers is a substantial book, more than 400 pages, plus copious notes and the bibliography. My progress has been slow, so far, given the realities of vacationing in a place with so many distractions accompanied by a wife and three people 21 years of age and younger. I am barely one-fifth of the way through it.

Infamous Scribblers is not my first foray into the origins of journalism; that came about when I began pursuing a masters degree in communications, a goal I abandoned when the opportunity to publish a newspaper came along. Nevertheless, Burns has added substance to the sketchy beginnings of American news journalism I had studied: It was a ponderously slow evolutionary process that began in 1690 with a single publication created not from a drive within the publisher to inform the public, but as a means of earning a living, and it was the product not of people schooled in how to objectively and fairly present essential information to a needy public, but of people looking to advance a personal agenda and make a buck in the process. And if you think about it, it could not have been otherwise, given the circumstances of the times and the state of journalism brought to the colonies from England. Unfortunately, efforts to increase readers, and thus advertisers, meant that early news organs were often sensationalistic and not infrequently blatantly untruthful, and more than three hundred years of practice has not moved the profession very far in that regard.

Today’s news journalists are mostly the product of J-schools and communications programs where the evolved state of the journalistic art includes a set of ethics and standards intended to instill objectivity, honesty, forthrightness, fairness and balance in their students, qualities that did not exist, and could not have existed, in Colonial American news journalism. It is disturbing to find so great an inability of reporters and news organs to adhere to those standards today that so resembles news journalism in the years after 1690, when no standards yet existed.

But regardless of the poor state of journalism today, Burns’ Infamous Scribblers gives an interesting view of the days prior to the first newspaper and the early developments, and his descriptions of the first colonial publisher, Benjamin Harris, and a later publisher named Benjamin Franklin, and a few notables in between, give us a lively perspective on the origins of our current media. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

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