Freedom of the Press Is Guaranteed Only to Those Who Own One

A. J. Liebling? H. L. Mencken? Norman Woelfel? Arthur Calwell?

press07Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a famously sardonic remark about the media and control. Here are four versions:

1) Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
2) Freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.
3) Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
4) Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

The underpinnings of this adage may be shifting because of the ubiquity of the internet, but I still think it is compelling. These words have been attributed to commentator H. L. Mencken and journalist A. J. Liebling. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: An exact match to the fourth expression was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine in 1960. A. J. Liebling wrote an essay titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” that included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The best thing Congress could do to keep more newspapers going would be to raise the capital-gains tax to the level of the income tax. (Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.) There are irresistible reasons for a businessman either to buy or to sell, and anybody who owns the price of a newspaper nowadays must be a businessman.

The motivation of Liebling’s stylistic choice to place the statement between parentheses was not completely clear. It was possible that he was repeating an existing adage. Nevertheless, the top reference works today credit Liebling based on this 1960 citation. 2 3

Interestingly, strong thematic matches appeared in the 1940s as shown below, but the phrasing was not as elegant and compact. Also, these earlier comments did not display a humorous edge.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1941 the American educator Norman Woelfel published an essay titled “The Fourth and Fifth Estate” that included a pertinent comment about newspapers and radio broadcasts: 4

It is foolish to assume, because in America we do not have an official propaganda agency dictating what shall be broadcast, that American radio is free. Like the press which is free for those who own and control it, the radio is free for those who can buy equipment, hire technicians and talent, and secure profitable advertising contracts.

In 1944 the Australia politician Arthur Calwell was unhappy that some newspapers were not following wartime censorship restrictions. Calwell ultimately served more than thirty years in the Australian House of Representatives from 1940 to 1972. Back in 1944 he employed an instance of the saying while criticizing newspaper owners: 5

All this vaunted freedom of the press on the part of newspaper magnates will not permit views to be published which they do not desire to be published. There is no such thing as freedom of the press, except for those who own and control the newspapers of Australia.

In 1945 Arthur Calwell made another matching statement about the press while sparring in the Australian House of Representatives: 6

I have neither the inclination nor the ambition to attend any world conference of the free press because, as I have repeatedly said in this House, there can be no such thing as freedom of the press, except for the owners and editors of newspapers, while capitalism lasts.

The adage under investigation was not universally embraced. Indeed, before Liebling’s statement was published, an idealistic negation of the notion was already in circulation. Here is a saying that was printed in 1952 in a box in the upper right corner of the front page of a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania newspaper. The same statement appeared as a filler item in a Canonsburg, Pennsylvania newspaper: 7 8

GOOD EVENING
Freedom of the press belongs to the people of a nation, not to the owners of publications.

In 1960 A. J. Liebling wrote the following parenthetical remark in the pages of the “The New Yorker” as noted previously in this article: 9

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

In 1968 the quotation collector Evan Esar printed the following anonymous humorous statement in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 10

Freedom of the press is mostly freedom of the press agent.

Over time the wording of the statement has diverged. For example, in 1976 a columnist in a Nebraska newspaper employed a slightly altered instance while crediting Liebling: 11

. . . A. J. Liebling’s immortal aphorism: “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” . . .

In 1979 “The Book of Quotes” assembled by Barbara Rowes included another slightly different version of the adage: 12

Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
—A. J. Liebling

In 2002 a newspaper editor named James G. Bellows released a memoir that included an instance of the saying with yet another phrasing: 13

A. J. Liebling, who loved newspapers, famously said that freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.

In more recent times, the saying has been reassigned to the prominent commentator H. L. Mencken. The next excerpt was printed in the 2010 book “Macs in the Ministry”: 14

Newspaper reporter and essayist H. L. Mencken once wrote, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” In other words, it is ultimately those who own the newspapers and media outlets who determine what information gets published.

In conclusion, A. J. Liebling can be credited with the statement he wrote in 1960; however, thematically similar remarks were made by the 1940s. The linkage to H. L. Mencken is unsupported.

Image Notes: Picture of a printing press cutter from Nemo at Pixabay. Newspaper page and magnifying glass from PDPics on Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1960 May 14, The New Yorker, “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” by A. J. Liebling, Start Page 105, Quote Page 109, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section A. J. Liebling, Quote Page 459, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 172 and 319, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1941 January 15, Frontiers of Democracy, Volumes 7, The Fourth and Fifth Estate by Norman Woelfel, Start Page 112, Quote Page 114, Published by Progressive Education Association, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1944, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, Official Hansard, Seventeenth Parliament, Second Session, First Period, Date: November 24, 1944; Speaking: Mr. Calwell (Arthur Calwell), Start Page 2146, Quote Page 2147, Published by Australian Commonwealth Govt. Printer, Canberra, Australian. (Hansard Parliament of Australia)
  6. 1945, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, Official Hansard, Seventeenth Parliament, Third Session, First Period, Date: June 13 1945, Speaking: Mr. Calwell (Arthur Calwell), Start Page 2947, Quote Page 2947, Published by Australian Commonwealth Govt. Printer, Canberra, Australian. (Hansard Parliament of Australia)
  7. 1952 May 2, The Gettysburg Times, (Saying in box titled “Good Evening” in upper right corner of front page), Quote Page 1, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1952 May 7, The Daily Notes, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1960 May 14, The New Yorker, “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” by A. J. Liebling, Start Page 105, Quote Page 109, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  10. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Section: Press Agent, Quote Page 629, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1976 November 20, The Lincoln Star, The Internal Threats by Charles B. Seib, Quote Page 4, Column, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Section: Media, Quote Page 120, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 2002, The Last Editor by James G. Bellows, Quote Page 186, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, Missouri. (Google Books Preview)
  14. 2010, Macs in the Ministry by David Lang, Series Editor: ‎Michael Lawson, Quote Page 47, Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview)