In 1807, my great great grandfather John Norvell, then a 17 year-old boy, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, then president of the United States, asking him about his opinion of journalism as a future career.
Danville, K[y]. May 9, 1807
Some benevolent writer observes, that happy is the person who has an instructor to point out to him those books which ought, and those which ought not to be read, and the manner in which they ought to be read. Feeling the force of the observation, and believing that you would take please in giving good advice, I take the liberty to ask your opinions respecting some subjects, of which no person, perhaps, has a greater knowledge then yourself.
It is well known that your time is employed in more important and beneficial concerns, but it is fondly hoped, that you will find a leisure moment to confer a benefit and favor on a an individual.
I should be glad to have your advise of the proper method to be pursued in the acquisition of sound political knowledge. Is it essential that much history should be read? And if it be, be so kind as to mention those authors which should be read; as likewise those writers on political subjects, who may be studied to the greatest advantage. And any other advise on those points would be gratefully acknowledged.
It was a maxim of the great and good Dr. Franklin, that “time is money,” and my situation, being such as enables me to devote but a small portion of time and attention to books, has been the principle cause of my taking the liberty to trouble you.
It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.
Accept venerable patriot, my warmest wishes for your happiness.
Today is it hard to fathom anyone writing the President of the United States for career advice, let alone a 17 year old boy from Kentucky.
Yet Jefferson answered his letter in what has become his most famous prouncement on the role of newspapers in American life and politics. Dumas Malone, the noted biographer of Jefferson, discussed the incident in his fifth volume on Jefferson’s life, Jefferson the President, Second Term 1805-1807. This, Malone says, was the darkest period in Jefferson’s relations with the press. Political rhetoric was particularly vehement and Jefferson, believing the press was given over to excess, had become very disillusioned about the role of the press in American politics.
In a very long letter to young Norvell, in which he discusses history, and politics, Jefferson notes:
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vessel. 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. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens who, reading the newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what had been passing in the world in their time; whereas, the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true as of the present except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, etc. etc.; but no details can be relied upon, I will add, that the man who never looks upon a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind in filled with falsehoods and errors.
In many ways Jefferson could be talking about the internet today and what can be found on it and its relation to truth. Still this did not deter young John Norvell and he went on to be a political editor of several newspapers, was the co-founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, and later politician and US Senator from Michigan.