- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

There is much talk about bias these days, but “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism” author and “Fox News Watch” host Eric Burns says the press has come a long way since Boston Tea Party organizer Samuel Adams was involved.

“He’s probably the ultimate example of the least-ethical journalist this country has ever seen,” Mr. Burns said in an interview.

“His ends were as noble as anyone could imagine. But what biographers don’t tell you — none of them — is how vile the man was. He told so many lies and incited violence through the press.”

For example, Mr. Burns said, Adams made up “out of whole cloth” charges that British soldiers had committed atrocities against Boston civilians. He also organized from his newspaper offices vigilante actions against pro-British Colonists, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns has written a history of journalism in the United States covering the period surrounding the American Revolution. Along the way, he found some similarities between past and present presidential press relations.

“From the first president to the present president, there has been dissatisfaction with media coverage,” he said.

Mr. Burns, however, said the frustrations of President Bush do not compare with how George Washington was treated.

“I call him the most vilified man in the history of American journalism. The horrible things said about him are unbelievable. You end up feeling an emotion for him you’d never expect: sympathy.”

“The only example I’ve seen of Washington [openly] uttering an expletive was when he was responding to the press. Washington didn’t admit it much, and when he did admit it, he did it privately, but he was disturbed by the press.”

Even if he found the press disturbing, Washington recognized its importance.

“Washington is considered to be the first news leak. He would buy them a few drinks, pass along information that was, ‘for your eyes or lips only,’” Mr. Burns said.

Within Washington’s administration, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson played dual roles in politics and the press.

“Hamilton and Jefferson were both press barons. They were bitter rivals, and both used government money to fund newspapers. But at least Hamilton was helping administration causes with a certain ideological consistency.”

Mr. Burns said Jefferson used State Department money to fund papers critical of the Washington administration. He also leaked memos to the press and downplayed his own role when Washington confronted him.

“Jefferson really could be a terribly devious man. He was a deeply flawed man. Jefferson lied right to Washington’s face.” Mr. Burns said.

So, are today’s press standards truly stronger than in the past?

“I do know that it’s better today than it was in Colonial times. I do believe things have, perhaps, taken some steps backwards because of certain people on talk radio and on all-news cable. Still, it doesn’t compare with what a lot of people wrote during Colonial times.

“Bias isn’t the problem it once was because it’s so easy to spot,” Mr. Burns said. “A lot of people want political bias. They choose certain shows or publications because they want their views reinforced.

“We have enough shows that are clearly identified as opinion shows. I think there are more grievous sins that have to do with superficiality, accuracy and sensationalism.”

Still, Mr. Burns said, even if the modern model of journalism is flawed, it should not retreat to the times chronicled in his book.

“There’s something noble in the attempt of fairness. Just because there are sometimes examples of bias, that’s no reason to stop trying to be objective,” he said.

Mr. Burns will be at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore tonight at 7 to read from and sign copies of “Infamous Scribblers.”

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