“From the vantage point of the twentieth century, journalism historians look back on the period between 1789 and 1808 as the ‘dark ages’ of the American newspaper.” This great line leads the third chapter — titled Weapons in the Great Debate — of John Tebbel’s Compact History of the American Newspaper.
“The golden age of America’s founding was the gutter age of American politics,” said Eric Burns, author of Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, during a C-SPAN presentation on his book. According to Burns, when Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Adams were creating this country, journalism was more vile than ever before or ever since.
Tebbel and Burns are primarily referring to The Gazette of the United States and the National Gazette, which were the 18th century equivalent of MSNBC and FOX NEWS. The Aurora General Advertiser, Porcupine’s Gazette and New York Evening Post are three other titles often included in the dark ages.
The Gazette of the United States, edited by John Fenno, supported the Federalist party, which wanted a big, central government and weak states. Alexander Hamilton was the party’s symbolic figurehead. National Gazette, edited by Philip Freneau, represented the Republicans, who wanted more state power and weak central government. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were the Republican’s symbolic figureheads.
According to Burns, Hamilton and Jefferson both used government money — funds from the State Department — to launch their respective Gazettes, which provided as much competitive back-and-forth entertainment as an Agassi-Sampras tennis match. For examples of the barb exchanges watch chapter 14 of Burns’ C-SPAN presentation (starts at 29:52).
As you’ll learn from Burns, Thomas Jefferson had a very devious side to him. “Jefferson would leave the door to the state dept unlocked at night on occasion and he would leave documents on the desk which, if taken out of context or willfully misinterpreted, could make the Washington administration look bad. Phillip Fernau was the editor of the National Gazette, Jefferson’s paper, and he’s the one who would sneak into the office late at night, copy down these documents and publish articles about them in the National Gazette a few days later.” Jefferson lied to George Washington on at least one occasion when Washington asked Jefferson if he knew anything about how the National Gazette was obtaining its information.
UPDATE: Via Twitter, @woodpainter asked us to provide a source for Hamilton and Jefferson using State Department money to found their respective Gazettes. Below are the specific sources, time logs and page numbers with excerpts:
According to Burns’ C-SPAN presentation about Infamous Scribblers (starting at 27:14):
Hamilton appropriated or, if you will, misappropriated government money to start a newspaper. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He took funds from the State Department and created a newspaper called The Gazette of the United States. And he thought that was just fine because he was using government money to promote government positions… Jefferson, however, took State Department money and used it to fund a paper which savaged the government of which Jefferson was one of the main decision makers.
Beyond that, on page 267-8 of Infamous Scribblers, Burns writes:
But it was Hamilton who made [Fenno's newspaper] possible, Hamilton who raised the money to get the Gazette started… He saw to it that all of the Treasury Department’s advertising went to the Gazette of the United States and encouraged friends and firms that did business with various governmental agencies to put their own ads in the paper, the implication being that Hamilton would consider such transactions a favor and that favors were more often than not returned… In addition, Hamilton arranged for Fenno to get as many of Treasury’s printing contracts as possible… In fact, as Ron Chernow points out, Fenno ‘was even listed in the 1791 Philadelphia directory as an officer of the U.S. government.’ Such a relationship between journalism and government could not exist today, not openly at least, and would be scandalous if revealed.
Burns quotes the July 25, 1792 issue of the Gazette of the United States on page 282 of Infamous Scribblers and continues onto pages 283-4:
‘The editor of the National Gazette receives a salary from the government,’ readers are informed in a back-page letter, which then asks how such a publication can be trusted… But was Hamilton not guilty of the same thing? Was he not in fact as much a hypocrite as Jefferson, pursuing his own political ends at the expense of taxpayers… The Gazette of the United States was using government money to support government positions, Hamilton explained, and he believed that to be a perfectly legitimate expense… As late as 1796, Hamilton was still writing in the Gazette of the United States about Jefferson’s having ‘conferred a sinecure office in [the State] department… on Mr. Freneau to induce him to remove to Philadelphia, and set up a newspaper at the seat of the government called the National Gazette.