If You Don’t Read the Newspaper You Are Uninformed, If You Do Read the Newspaper You Are Misinformed

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Fuller? Orville Hubbard? Ezra Taft Benson? Apocryphal?

twain11Dear Quote Investigator: A cynical attitude toward the media is widespread today, but this is not a new development. Supposedly, Mark Twain made the following remark:

If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.

Are these really the words of the famous humorist?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said this. It is not listed on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt. 1 In addition, QI has been unable find an instance in key compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 2 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 3

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a message posted in 2000 to an international discussion system named Usenet within a newsgroup called israel.francophones. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 4

As Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The prominent English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller recognized the dangers of being uninformed or misinformed, and he mentioned them in his posthumous 1662 treatise on “The History of the Worthies of England”. Fuller preferred to withhold information when he doubted its veracity: 5

For my own part, I had rather my Reader should arise hungry from my Book, than surfeited therewith; rather uninformed than misinformed thereby; rather ignorant of what he desireth, than having a falsehood, or (at the best) a conjecture for a truth obtruded upon him.

The statement above provided a weak partial match. The two key vocabulary items uninformed/misinformed and their relationship were referenced.

In 1807 statesman Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter complaining about the misinformation in newspapers: 6

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day

Jefferson provocatively suggested the advantages of not reading the newspaper:

I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Jefferson’s words provided an interesting thematic match.

Thomas Fuller’s words have continued to circulate for centuries. For example, in 1892 the 1662 passage further above was included in a compilation titled “Wise Words and Quaint Counsels of Thomas Fuller”. 7

Mark Twain did construct a quip using the word “misinformation” and employed it as a chapter epigraph in his 1897 travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, but the saying was not similar to the statement under examination: 8

Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

In 1955 Orville Hubbard who was the controversial mayor of Dearborn, Michigan was quoted in an article titled “How to Play Politics and Keep Out of Jail” published in “The Detroit Reporter”: 9

Hubbard also had an opinion on Detroit’s strike-bound newspapers.
“I haven’t missed them myself,” he said. “It’s better to be uninformed than misinformed. I even doubt some of the pictures I see in the papers.”

Hubbard’s remark used the two key terms uninformed/misinformed and applied them to the consumption of a newspaper. Hence, his statement provided an interesting partial match to the saying under scrutiny.

In 1969 Hubbard was still the mayor of Dearborn when his words were reported in an Associated Press news story. Hubbard credited a statement to Thomas Jefferson that QI hypothesizes was derived directly or indirectly from the sentiments expressed in the 1807 letter: 10

Hubbard terms his system “Fact Check”. He said he agreed with the late Henry Ford that “‘history is bunk — it’s all about generals, popes and kings,'” and with Thomas Jefferson’s view that “it is better to be uninformed than misinformed.”

In 1979 Ezra Taft Benson delivered a speech at Brigham Young University that contained a partial match. Benson later became the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 11

The less newspapers have to say of value and of truth, the more pages they seem to take to say it. Usually a few minutes is more than sufficient to read a paper. One must select wisely a source of news; otherwise it would be better to be uninformed than misinformed.

In 1984 “Detroit Free Press” printed a remark by an unhappy local prosecutor: 12

According to a newspaper report, Oakland County Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson, while giving a speech in Lapeer last month, said: “I don’t read the Detroit Free Press because I would rather be uninformed than misinformed.”

In 1998 a message critical of CNN appeared in a Usenet newsgroup called talk.politics.misc: 13

Pat sez: I am interested in the facts as given in your post and will research same. But don’t ask me to watch CNN. I had rather be uninformed than misinformed.

In 2000 the statement ascribed to Twain appeared in the Usenet newsgroup israel.francophones as mentioned previously:

As Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

In 2002 “The Jerusalem Post” printed a comment from the radio news anchor Reuven Dovid Miller who credited Twain with the saying: 14

Miller is candid in assessing his chosen profession. “It is impossible to give complete coverage in a minute and a half with a 40-second sound bite. People are fooled into thinking that they understand things. This creates a false impression of what is happening. I always tell people what Mark Twain said: Those who do not read the news are uninformed while those who do are misinformed.”

In 2003 “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Your Civil Liberties” by Michael Levin cited the book “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain, but QI has determined that the quotation was not present in that work: 15

The Law of the Land
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
—Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

In 2004 “The Day” newspaper of New London, Connecticut shared the expression with its readers: 16

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” – Mark Twain

In 2009 the saying appeared in the pages of the “Congressional Record”: 17

Mr. SMITH of Texas. Mr. Speaker, Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Both might be true for those who rely on the national media for all the facts.

In conclusion, QI conjectures that the modern saying evolved from expressions of the form used by Orville Hubbard and Ezra Taft Benson. The creator is currently unknown. There is no significant support for assigning the statement to Mark Twain. Future researchers may discover more.

Images Notes: Picture of a person reading a newspaper from kaboompics at Pixabay. Portrait of Mark Twain in his Doctor of Letters academic dress circa 1907; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Vivian Cheng and Daniel Gackle whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Jim Cina who told QI about the 1807 letter from Jefferson. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Update History: On December 4, 2016 the 1807 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched December 3, 2016) link
  2. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. November 2, 2000, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: israel.francophones, From: tsip…@my-deja.com, Subject: Reagir/Presse. (Google Groups Search; Accessed November 28, 2016)
  5. 1662, Title: The History of the Worthies of England who for Parts and Learning Have Been Eminent in the Several Counties, Author: Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), Publication: Printed by J. G. W. L. and W. G. for Thomas Williams at al. (Early English Books Online)
  6. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, Date: June 11, 1807, Page 2 of 3, Source Collection: The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Series 1: General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Microfilm Reel: 038, (Accessed loc.gov on December 4, 2016) link
  7. 1892, Wise Words and Quaint Counsels of Thomas Fuller, Selected and Arranged by Augustus Jessopp, Quote Page 201, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Epigraph of Chapter LIX), Quote Page 567, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link
  9. 1955 December 10, The Detroit Reporter (Detroit Free Press), Orvie’s Recipe: How to Play Politics and Keep Out of Jail, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1969 January 18, The News-Palladium, Hubbard To Censor the News: Dearborn Mayor Upset by Reporter (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Benton Harbor, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  11. Website: BYU Speeches, Speech title: In His Steps, Speech author: Ezra Taft Benson, Date on website: March 4, 1979, Website description: Archive of Brigham Young University (BYU) Speeches; BYU is located in Provo, Utah. (Accessed speeches.byu.edu on December 3, 2016) link
  12. 1985 February 6, Detroit Free Press, Mr. Patterson: This is to inform you about… by Jim Fitzgerald, Quote Page 10D, Column 1, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1998 December 7, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: talk.politics.misc, From: Robert P. Kelso @coes.latech.edu, Subject: Zepp sed/Pat sez re: Ollie. (Google Groups Search; Accessed December 3, 2016) link
  14. 2002 December 27, The Jerusalem Post, Section: Features, Article: A religious reader, Author/Byline: Gail Lichtman, Quote Page 4, Israel. (NewsBank Access World News)
  15. 2003, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Your Civil Liberties by Michael Levin, Quote Page 40, Alpha Books, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Preview)
  16. 2004 November 28, The Day, Edition: North, Section: Perspective, Article: The Day On Trial, (Epigraph of article), Quote Page 1C, New London, Connecticut. (NewsBank Access World News)
  17. 2009, Congressional Record, House of Representatives, Proceedings and Debates of the 111th Congress, First Session, Volume 155, Part 13, Date: July 10, 2009, Uninformed or Misinformed, Quote Page 17461, Column 1, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. Google Books Preview) link