Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy

Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy

Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy

Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy


A new breed of journalists came to the fore in post-revolutionary America--fiercely partisan, highly ideological, and possessed of a bold sense of vocation and purpose as they entered the fray of political debate. Often condemned by latter-day historians and widely seen in their own time as a threat to public and personal civility, these colorful figures emerge in this provocative new book as the era's most important agents of political democracy.

Through incisive portraits of the most influential journalists of the 1790s--William Cobbett, Benjamin Franklin Bache, Philip Freneau, Noah Webster, John Fenno, and William Duane--Scandal and Civility moves beyond the usual cast of "revolutionary brothers" and "founding fathers" to offer a fresh perspective on a seemingly familiar story. Marcus Daniel demonstrates how partisan journalists, both Federalist and Democratic-Republican, were instrumental in igniting and expanding vital debates over the character of political leaders, the nature of representative government, and, ultimately, the role of the free press itself. Their rejection of civility and self-restraint--not even icons like George Washington were spared their satirical skewerings--earned these men the label "peddlers of scurrility." Yet, as Daniel shows, by breaking with earlier conceptions of "impartial" journalism, they challenged the elite dominance of political discourse and helped fuel the enormous political creativity of the early republic.

Daniel's nuanced and penetrating narrative captures this key period of American history in all its contentious complexity. And in today's climate, when many decry media "excesses" and the relentlessly partisan and personal character of political debate, his book is a timely reminder that discord and difference were essential to the very creation of our political culture.


In a column for the New York Times published during the presidential primary campaigns of 2008, the conservative William Kristol declared that Senator Barack Obama’s efforts to package himself as a man of unique political integrity and character had failed. “The more you learn about him,” wrote Kristol, “the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign.” Behind the lofty rhetoric about the “audacity of hope,” he argued, lurked more mundane interests: “the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit—all covered with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different.” Kristol’s comments revealed a deep skepticism about the reliability of words, as well as his belief that political “reality” was constituted not in the realm of language and ideas but in the realm of private interest and personal advancement. According to Kristol, Obama’s “character” rather than his rhetoric was the key to understanding his political motives and behavior, and once this character was revealed by stripping away the carefully fashioned “construction of artifice” that concealed it, the spellbinding power of his oratory would be broken.

Kristol’s attack on Obama probably persuaded few readers of the liberal New York Times, but his emphasis on character and his skepticism about the self- presentation of political leaders extend across the political spectrum. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without a new example of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that dominates American public life. In election after election, candidates for office vie with each other to establish their own authenticity and sincerity and to impugn the authenticity and sincerity of their political rivals. Twenty-four-hour news channels like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox have created an entire industry devoted to tracking the slippage between public and private expression, speech and action, persona and self, and to exposing the true character of the men and women who . . .

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