Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America


January 27, 2023
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America by Jordan E. Taylor (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022)

Almost every book that discusses the rise of revolutionary fervor in colonial America includes the role of newspapers. The impact of the press on the way that events unfolded in North America in the second half of the eighteenth century was enormous, and it is fitting that this impact is widely recognized.

Was has long been missing is a study not of the impact of newspapers, but of the nature of the news itself that the papers carried, and interaction between the influence of news on events, and the influence of events on news. Jordan E. Taylor’s book Misinformation Nation: Foreign News and the Politics of Truth in Revolutionary America tackles this topic in a masterful way, examining the nature of news and the factors that affected it, from the advent of revolution through the rise of federalism.

This was an era without reporters, news networks, syndicates or press corps. Newspaper printers were largely limited to two sources for information from afar: official communications from government, and whatever correspondence willing travelers or recipients made available for public consumption. A major source of news was other newspapers. This made for a world where published news was highly unreliable, often inaccurate and sometimes overtly false; it also cultivated a readership that was ever-suspicious of the news media. Nonetheless, readers craved news and eagerly consumed whatever was available in print, either by reading it directly or hearing it read and discussed by others.

Taylor introduces his subject by examining the role of newspapers in American society as what he calls mediators of information – an appropriate term for print media. Information flowed to publishers from various sources, especially overseas sources in the form of letters and foreign newspapers; the publishers, in turn, printed selected portions of this news and distributed it to their readers, filtering the information that became widely available. As such, publishers could shape American perceptions of world events, and especially of British political events that directly affected American colonists. Foreign news was particularly valuable not only because newspapers were the main source of it, but because local and colonial news was likely to reach its audience by word of mouth and post before the weekly newspapers could carry it; foreign news was the life blood of the early American press.

But this dependence on foreign sources severely limited the quantity and quality of news that was available. Weather and war affected the rate at which ships carrying news arrived, and the places that they arrived from. As American revolution gave way to American independence, and then French revolution, and varying tensions and harmonies with Great Britain, the amount of English-language foreign news ebbed and flowed. American opinions on British foreign policy were largely dependent upon what newspapers had to say about foreign affairs, so these changes in the availability of news could have significant impact. Misinformation Nation is the first book to take a detailed look at this critical aspect of American history.

Sprinkled through the book are statistics that reveal the meticulous research conducted by the author. For example, the author compares the number of American newspaper items copied from British newspapers, before and during a period when maritime commerce between the United States and England was restricted, quantifying the impact of the restrictions on the type of news that was available to American readers. This sort of quantitative information appears throughout the book, but is included in the narrative in such a way as to reinforce arguments without detracting from readability. By doing this, the author leaves no room for doubt about the detailed research behind the book’s conclusions.

Misinformation Nation is thorough yet accessible, detailed yet readable, comprehensive yet well-paced. Most of all it is thought provoking. Given the widely-accepted importance of newspapers in pushing American public sentiment towards independence, and in the new nation’s finding its place in the world, it is vital for historians to understand how this news was transmitted, filtered and influenced. Misinformation Nation provides this understanding, making it an essential source for modern studies of the American Revolution and founding era.

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