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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 … 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.
To John Norvell, June 14, 1807
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders can get a little cynical after years of criticism.
The somewhat jaded Jefferson was near both the end of his Presidency and decades as a public man. In last Friday’s post, July 12, 2013, he revealed 18 years earlier how painful criticism was to him, even that without basis. Much of that criticism had come through the press.
Elsewhere in this letter, Jefferson explains that “general facts” can be obtained from the papers, such as “Bonaparte has been a successful warrior.” He warned, though, “no details can be relied on.” Since those who read the newspapers tended to believe both the general facts and the details, they were worse off than those who didn’t read the papers at all.
There was no such thing as an objective press in Jefferson’s day. Newspapers were mouthpieces for political parties, causes and individuals. The press was far nastier than anything we know today.
“… your presentation brought to life not only the spirit of Thomas Jefferson,
but also the sense of commitment to discovery and exploration …”
Executive Director, Association of Partners for Public Lands
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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
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Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739