To celebrate the 300th anniversary of newspaper journalism in America, historians took a look at this country's first newspapers and found them to be bad role models: elitist, racist, venomous, biased and worshipful of kings.
"Outrageously partisan," is how David Paul Nord, associate professor of journalism at Indiana University, characterized them at a daylong discussion on the roots of the American press this week.And troublemaking. When the people of this continent looked for "treason, sedition, fragmentation, dissension, disintegration, degeneration, disunion, anarchy or chaos," he said, "they usually saw it first in the newspaper."
He said the New York Evening Post, forerunner of today's New York Post, was founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton's faction of the Federalist Party for a single purpose: to destroy Thomas Jefferson, who won the presidency in the election of 1800.
"If that purpose required the editor to vilify his party's opponents as liars and traitors, to attack the president as a moral degenerate with a slave harem, or to shoot a Republican dead in the street in a duel, so be it," said Nord. "That was what newspaper work was all about in 1801."
Moreover, said historian Charles E. Clark of the University of New Hampshire, the earliest newspapers, written for the elite by elitists, shared some assumptions that were far from democratic.
They believed, he said, in the superiority of the white race over the colored races; of the English over other nationalities, especially the French; of Protestantism over Catholicism; in capital punishment and in "male governance of the family as necessary for effective social order." And, "they adored the king."
The session, for scholars and journalists, was sponsored by the Gannett Foundation and the American Antiquarian Society to commemorate the appearance of the first American newspaper, "Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick."
It was issued in Boston by printer Benjamin Harris on Sept. 25, 1690, eight decades before the American Revolution.
Publick Occurrences promised to come out once a month "or, if any glut of occurrences happen, oftener," but didn't live up to the promise. Issue No. 1 was the last. The authorities of Massachusetts colony suppressed it as unlicensed, printed "without the least privity or countenance of authority."
What's more, they said, it contained "sundry doubtful and uncertain reports." No more newspapers were published here until 1704.
For all the early press' weaknesses, two contemporary journalists - author Patricia O'Brien, former political correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and Les Payne, assistant managing editor at Newsday - found some useful linkages between early and contemporary journalism.
O'Brien said Benjamin Harris could serve as a model because of his "audacity" in printing without government permission in the first place and his "lack of reliance on official sources," a lack she said barely exists in Washington journalism today.