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Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities & Lies

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation [of his newspaper] in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first 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.
To John Norvell, June 11, 1807

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
For leaders, the media can be a blessing, a curse, or both.
Norvell had inquired about publishing a newspaper. Much of Jefferson’s reply was a lament about the sorry state of that medium as a source of reliable information. An earlier post from this letter suggested one was more informed about the truth if he did not read the newspaper.
Newspapers of the time were strictly mouthpieces for the political views of its publisher. There wasn’t a hint of objectivity. Now, near the end of his Presidency and 40 years of dealing with an oppositional slanderous press, he had a cynical (and, rare for him, slightly humorous) suggestion about how a newspaper should be organized.

“I have also seen him perform as Thomas Jefferson,
and that, too, is a very impressive program.”
Director, Missouri Division of Employment Security

Thomas Jefferson stands ready to impress your audience.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739

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Who is to blame for trashy media?

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 complaisance [Webster’s 7th Collegiate: “a disposition to please or oblige”] to their auditors [ibid, “one that hears or listens’], 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.
To John Norvell, June 14, 1807

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Does this sound like 2014 to you?
Jefferson was on a rant about slander in the newspapers. In an earlier post from this letter, he summarized four categories for newspaper content, “Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Lies.” He said the first category would be the smallest, the last the largest.
The language in this excerpt is a bit confusing. Here’s a summary:
1. Reading another’s trashed reputation had become such a stimulant that people could not begin or end their day without it.
2. Even those who didn’t believe the lies read them anyway, to please those who did read them.
3. Instead of having a “virtuous mind,” horrified by lies, they “betray a secret pleasure” that others may actually believe the slander, even though they don’t.
4. Who is to blame, then, for slander? Not the one who offers the slander but the one who pays for it. (By reading it. Or watching it. Or listening to it.)

“Thank you so much for your enormous contribution
to the success of our recent workshop … “
The Smithsonian Associates, Washington, D. C.
Mr. Jefferson desires to contribute to the success of your meeting!
Invite him to speak. Call Patrick Lee, 573-657-2739
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