April 23, 2009
That Jefferson Quote Newspaper Journalists Always Use and the Part They (Almost Always) Leave Out

This is what Jefferson said:

“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.”

Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787

And this how journalists typically truncate it.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that if asked to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The leading lights of the current Congress evidently have a different view.

The House Judiciary Committee called a hearing yesterday to study the decline of the newspaper business, but it quickly deteriorated into a press-bashing session. Ideologues of the left and right made no effort to conceal their yearning for a day without journalists, when public officials would no longer be scrutinized.

Dana Milbank, Washington Post

On the lobby wall of the newspaper where I got my first reporting job are the Thomas Jefferson words that journalists like to trot out as Independence Day nears:

“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.”

Of course, Jefferson also said the only reliable truths in newspapers were the advertisements, and that he was happiest when not reading the papers.

But as to his iconic quote, it’s no secret that we’re trending toward the former. And anyone who cheers the collapse of the newspaper industry should consider why Jefferson put aside his distaste for the vitriol and nonsense of the press for the larger principle of healthy democracies needing informed citizens.

Timothy Egan, New York Times

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.”

When Thomas Jefferson made this observation in 1787, he made two assumptions.

One, that there would be newspapers. And two, that those papers would contain both a critical mass of information that citizens of a democracy would use in governing themselves, and serve as a check and balance on the power and reach of government itself.

More than two centuries later, both of Jefferson’s assumptions are being put to the test.

Gene Policinsk of the Freedom Forum at the Newseum site.

So even a museum wields the scissors of convenience.  The part left out… But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them… complicates the Jefferson-derived case for newspapers, connecting it to things like public education, universal literacy and free or low cost information. Which is probably why it’s left out.

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    This is terrific and also a reminder of why newspapers alone are not the authority.
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