Enough with the misuse of the Jefferson-on-newspapers line

You know that quote from Thomas Jefferson? The one invoked in so many defense-of-newspapers essays of late—the one in which the Founding Father declares that he’d rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers?

Yes. Well. A modest request: could we please—please, please—stop using it?

I’m asking because, in his speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner this weekend, President Obama didn’t merely have fun at the expense of, among others: Rahm “most foul-mouthed ballerina ever” Emanuel, John “person of color” Boehner, Tim “the fire hydrant” Geithner, Larry “napophile” Summers, Joe “gaffe-o-phile” Biden, Michael “in the heezy” Steele, Hillary Clinton, the Fox News Network, and himself (“In the next hundred days,” Obama said, “I will strongly consider losing my cool”); he also, as per tradition, shared some kind words about, you know, The Role of the Press in American Democracy. And in doing so, the President of the United States—a man known for his soaring eloquence and, as Maureen Dowd noted in her otherwise bizarre Times column this weekend, for a “supple mind” that is “nourished by news and books” (and a man, by the way, who has an extensive and highly educated speech staff at his disposal)—officially joined the legions of newsophiles who have quoted Thomas Jefferson’s own kind words about newspapers.

“Thomas Jefferson once said,” Obama declared, “that if he had the choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter. Clearly Thomas Jefferson never had cable news to contend with, but his central point remains: a government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts, is not an option for the United States of America.”

Oh, my. How rousing. Which is probably why the government/newspapers choice in question—excerpted from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1787 to his fellow Virginia statesman, Edward Carrington—is a line that has, recently, also been used by: Senator Benjamin Cardin, announcing his Newspaper Revitalization Act in The Washington Post; David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, making a case for newspaper endowments in The New York Times; Dana Milbank in the Post; Timothy Egan in the Times; and a host of others defending papers of record in non-paper-of-record publications.

But: it’s wrong.

Or, at least, it’s completely misleading. In the days of the infant republic, “newspapers” and “journalism” were essentially interchangeable propositions; as such, Jefferson’s line wasn’t a defense of newspapers so much as a defense of journalism generally. More to the point, Jefferson would have been referring, in particular, to the only newspapers that existed at his time: the products of a deeply partisan press—the party-organ papers that the writer Samuel Miller, writing about the Eighteenth century early in the Nineteenth, would deem “immense moral and political engines” that helped thrust the colonies into nationhood. Newspapers, in other words, were synonymous in Jefferson’s time with “opinion” much more than “information.” (A few years after he made his observation to Carrington, Jefferson would prove the newspapers-as-opinion rule by rejecting it. At the height of a presidency that saw him the victim, again and again, of Federalist attacks on him in the press, Jefferson would bitterly declare, “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”)

The line to Carrington is also regularly taken out of context, its final sentence simply lopped off. Here, via Jay Rosen, is the full quote:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

That last sentence, of course, changes the entire meaning of the thing. To the extent that Jefferson was talking about newspapers in his observation to Carrington, he was also talking about Americans’ ability to read them in the first place. The Founder was defending not just the right to free expression, but also—and, apparently, more so—literacy itself (and the connected institutions of public education and civic conversation) as bulwarks against tyranny. Which is a great sentiment, to be sure (and still frighteningly relevant today)…but one quite different from the glib and misleading “Jefferson liked newspapers!” line of logic that is now so common as to be a matter of cliché.

So, to repeat: could we please (please, please) collectively agree to put the kibosh on Jefferson’s quote? Or, at least, to stop using it so misleadingly? Because each time the line is run—truncated, out of context—it serves as an indictment, rather than an endorsement, of the Fourth Estate.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.