Bryan Caplan  

Jefferson Against Newspapers

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When I was reading some famous quotes about newspapers, I came across Jefferson's famous line that, "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."

Literally speaking, I agree with this quote, but most people interpret it as an ode to newspapers. So I was surprised to learn that all of Jefferson's other famous newspaper quotes are extremely critical:

Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.
I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.
And best of all:
The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.
Wow, Ansolabehere, Snowberg, and Snyder should have put that quote at the head of their paper.

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The author at Auspundits in a related article titled Keeping Good Company writes:
    With Thomas Jefferson that is. He [apparently said]( >The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. Apparently, the market thinks li... [Tracked on March 28, 2008 9:47 PM]
The author at Health Care BS in a related article titled JEFFERSON ON THE MEDIA writes:
    The inaccurate and disingenuous reporting that¬†characterizes¬†21st-century “news” reporting is nothing new. Here’s an¬†observation made two centuries ago by Thomas Jefferson: The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than t... [Tracked on March 31, 2008 11:47 AM]
The author at The New Liberty in a related article titled Thomas Jefferson and the MSM writes:
    Bryan Caplan at Econolog was surprised to see what seems to be contradictory statements by Thomas Jefferson about newspapers, but it is difficult to understand some quotes when the full context is missing. Dissemination of news and opinion in Jefferson... [Tracked on March 31, 2008 7:29 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Mason writes:

Strange quotes from a man who became president.

But as I recall he spoke out strongly against slavery as well....

On a related note to what degree do blogs = newspapers?

And something that's been bothering me, what kind of horrible selection bias is going in the comments? Who is available to read and post comments in the middle of the day? I'm going to go out on a limb; not the most productive people. (Unfortunately throwing myself in that pile, new job starts in June :)

Not strange at all. It showed how contemptuous of government he (rightly) was, and his becoming President only showed that he was a true statesman -- and probably the last one we ever had -- since he thought it too important to make sure his opponent not be in office than that he do what he truly wanted in remaining a private citizen. I would love it if we only ever elected people who didn't want to be in office. I just don't know how to pull that off.

TGGP writes:

Jefferson was a great champion of liberty out of office. He was not a very good President though.

We typically think of great Presidents as those who DO something. But think about most of our so-called great Presidents. Andrew Jackson -- the White House was trashed during his inauguration party and he's responsible for the Trail of Tears. FDR -- whose governmental actions made the Great Depression continue for years longer than it had to and caused unemployment to jump from 8% (the year he finally passed the New Deal) to 25% (the year we entered WWII). Kennedy got us into Vietnam. Johnson brought us the disaster known as the War on Poverty that has nearly bankrupted this country and did nothing to actually help the poor.

I wish that more Presidents would do like Jefferson and not just do something, but sit there!

Unit writes:


what do you mean by Jefferson just sat there? And the Louisiana purchase? And the very first mid-east intervention to Tripoli? and the Lewis and Clark expedition? Maybe he did nothing in his second term, but my understanding was that despite his rhetoric against Adams, once in power he pursued many of Adams programs to reinforce central federal powers.

SheetWise writes:

I remember being dumbfounded when reading Nassim Taleb write that the more newspapers you read, the less informed you are. That one took me a while to process. It also eased my guilt at having gone from three a day in the '80's to less than one at present. I think a lot of us traded newspapers for the Internet -- and I don't think the "more-is-less", hotel journalism homogeny is nearly as evident online. It's just as dangerous a place to be drown in confirmation, but it's more likely to inform us if we're truly doing research.

Jefferson was a real cutting-edge sort of guy ;)

Getting a good deal to expand the country considerably was a good thing. The Tripoli expedition eliminated a piracy problem. So what was the problem? First there was the complaint that he did nothing, and now there's the complaint that he did things. Make up your mind (and also recognize a joke when you see one -- I reversed "Don't just sit there do something!").

Personally, I would love it if Presidents did so much good doing so little. Give me a President that expands our country through a peaceful purchase and whose military excursion was to solve a piracy problem any election cycle.

Unit writes:

I hadn't caught the joke. Sorry.

But to summarize: J did things, he didn't just sit there. But you think they were good things. I'm inclined to agree, but I don't know. What about the war of 1812? Was any of that due to J's policies?
After all Jackson came pretty close to losing the battle of New Orleans. Things could have turned out differently.

Niclas Berggren writes:

Bryan: On this very theme, and relating to your book, see the new paper "Press Coverage and Political Accountability." Abstract:

In this paper we estimate the impact of press coverage on citizen knowledge, politicians' actions, and policy. We find that a poor fit between newspaper markets and political districts reduces press coverage of politics. We use variation in this fit due to redistricting to identify the effects of reduced coverage. Exploring the links in the causal chain of media effects -- voter information, politicians' actions and policy -- we find statistically significant and substantively important effects. Voters living in areas with less coverage of their U.S. House representative are less likely to recall their representative's name, and less able to describe and rate them. Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress.
Matt writes:

Nothing at all? Thomas was prone to exaggerations. Any attempt at pure libertarianism come with a bit of anxious humor.

Snark writes:
So I was surprised to learn that all of Jefferson's other famous newspaper quotes are extremely critical

Why do you find this surprising? It seems perfectly consistent to me for Jefferson to have been critical of newspapers, but even more so of government (which I'm sure he considered the worst of the two evils).

waldo writes:

Jefferson appeared oblivious of a scheme by the French ambasador, to purchase ships here and use American coastal ports as a staging areas for attacks on British shipping. No proof of his party to that scheme, but he made little effort to mask his anti-British sentiments.

SheetWise writes:

I believe it was Mark Twain who said --

"If you do not read a newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read a newspaper, you are misinformed."

Among many other things about newspapers.

Tim writes:

I did find it interesting that he said the only
truths to be found were in the advertisements.

I wonder if that view had any connection to his ongoing financial problems?

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