Infotainment Traced to Historical Figure
By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Benjamin Franklin, one of our country's founding fathers, also was the founding father of infotainment, that ever-popular blend of information and entertainment, according to Tom Leonard, associate dean of the Graduate School of Journalism.
Even as a youngster, Leonard says, Franklin was writing ballads that incorporated details from daily newspaper reports about events such as the pirate Blackbeard's beheading. Franklin then would hawk copies of the songs on the streets of Boston.
In a recent issue of "The New England Quarterly," Leonard proves that 13-year-old Franklin wrote and helped his brother James publish a ballad, "The Downfall of Piracy," in 1719. The Franklin brothers later used their newspaper to advertise broadsides -- sheets of paper on which was printed a song on a topical subject. The young Franklin's ballad recalls the last day in the life of Captain Edward Teach, a rogue and Romeo commonly known as Blackbeard, the pirate who plundered the Atlantic coast.
Such ballads "are among the earliest indicators of what news would be, who would control it, and how it could support a business," Leonard wrote in the periodical.
Leonard also linked specific details in the ballad with historic fact, showing that the song predates by three years the Silence Do-good letters of 1722, which scholars have long considered the earliest surviving writings of Franklin.
Previous investigations of the song conceded that the ballad could have been Franklin's, but failed to make a definitive finding, said Leonard.
Recognizing "Downfall" as Franklin's earliest work, the one that the statesman-inventor-writer in his old age called "wretched Stuff," sheds new light on the media's evolution, he added.
While American newspapers of the time were in their infancy and generally carried dull but informative reports of happenings, broadsides, or broadsheets, contained not only songs but accounts of military maneuvers and even political material.
But as ballads grew more popular, entrepreneurs such as the Franklin brothers realized the profit potential of connecting them with spin-offs, said Leonard.
"The Franklins, astute businessmen that they were," wrote Leonard, "lost no time in exploiting the entertainment potential of news."
The brothers launched the New England Courant in Boston in 1721 and drew on news they reported to give detail to punctuate the broadsheets they printed and, in turn, promoted in their newspaper.
Leonard is author of "News For All: America's Coming-of-Age with the Press." He is working on a book about notorious Americans and how bad character is remembered.