May 13, 2009, 05:57AM

Setting the Record Straight

Jefferson on 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.”
Rousing words. 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 other people 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. p;#8221;)

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