“To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer ‘by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.’ Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood.
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day.
I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.
General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, but no details can be relied on. I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. divide his paper into 4. chapters, heading the 1st. Truths. 2d. Probabilities. 3d. Possibilities. 4th. Lies. the 1st. chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. the 2d. would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. this however should rather contain too little than too much. the 3d. & 4th. should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.
Such an editor too would have to set his face against the demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces. defamation is becoming a necessary of life: insomuch that a dish of tea, in the morning or evening, cannot be digested without this stimulant. even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complacence to their auditors, and, instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves. it seems to escape them that it is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it’s real author.
Thomas Jefferson, 1807
Excerpt from letter to John Norvell, 11 June 1807
Link to the rest at MYZ
Link to the entire original HERE
4 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson on Newspapers and its optimum organization, 1807”
Newspapers, radio, television, orators, media “influencers”… Mssr. Jefferson would cast them all out to starve!
It’s a little disconcerting to see that either Thomas Jefferson himself or the author of the OP didn’t understand “it’s” is never possessive and is always a contraction for “it is.”
American 19th century written english was nowhere as formalized as the 20th century version until Webster’s Dictionary. And even then it took decades.
As for spoken english it was a whole different language until the late gilded age. Some woukd say it still is.
Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. divide his paper into 4. chapters, heading the 1st. Truths. 2d. Probabilities. 3d. Possibilities. 4th. Lies
Sounds a lovely idea, but who is going to decide into which chapter the information is placed? I’m sure that Mr. Putin regards the idea that Ukraine is swarming with Nazis# as a “Truth” but most Europeans would correctly call it a “Lie” (save for those who assume he’s referring to the Russian troops). But Mr. Putin gets to control what the Russian papers say …
For that matter, when the esteemed Mr. Jefferson told a newspaper editor in August 1812 that “The acquisition of Canada this year … will be a mere matter of marching” he would no doubt have expected it to at the very least be treated as a probablity, though it turned out to be a lie (or at least an untruth resulting from a delusional view of the World).
Of course we now have professional fact checkers but this only raises the question “Who fact checks the fact checkers?” and so on, ad infinitum (it’s turtles all the way down).
# and why the sudden concern about Nazis? Anyone who has read Russian memoirs of WW2 knows that the enemy they are killing are always fascists (as in “we slaughtered 100 fascists”) despite that fact that their enemies were actually (normally) Germans and thus Nazis? When did the enemy change?
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