There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.
"If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you do read it, you're misinformed." — Denzel Washington https://t.co/lD4EimFjcr
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) December 7, 2016
In the era of #fakenews, it’s not surprising that this quote is rising the ranks of social media fodder. To Denzel’s credit, he did not offer an attribution, though many who reported on his statements did…to his point. This aphorism, adaptable to so many polemical circumstances, demonstrates, once again, how eager we are to appropriate Twain to our causes:
To paraphrase Twain, If you don’t watch MSNBC you are uninformed, if you do watch MSNBC you are misinformed!
— whiterockradio (@whiterockradio) January 12, 2018
If you don't watch Fox news you are uninformed….no enlightened, if you do do watch fox news you are misinformed. Modern Mark Twain
— Rod Campbell (@Roddee) August 23, 2010
As the always dependable Garson O”Toole has pointed out, there’s no evidence Twain ever said anything of the sort. The earliest attributions of the quote to his name do not appear until 1998 or later, and these are hardly from reliable sources. O’Toole finds versions of this sentiment in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Orville Hubbard. He also notes that Evra Taft Benson, who would become President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, told a congregation at Brigham Young University in 1979,
“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.”
Given the ongoing theme of mistrust in mass media within this sermon and Benson’s other writings, it’s likely he had outsized influence on the popularization of the logic to which was added a rhetorical flare befitting Twain.
It is also possible that Benson was borrowing, ironically, from a newspaper columnist. A few year earlier, the widely-syndicated Tom Anderson had written a spirited anti-intellectual rant against “eggheads,” speculating that it was “better to be uninformed than misinformed.”
For reasons that remain unclear, the attribution to Twain became common practice in 2007. Over the next couple years, the aphorism was repeatedly used as a crutch for lazy columnists. Thus emerges a meta-irony which Twain would undoubtedly have appreciated: newspaper writers writing in newspapers about the unreliability of newspaper writing and citing an unreliable source to testify to that unreliability.
The aphorism made the leap to social media soon thereafter:
— Paavani (@paavani) November 27, 2009
Twain was, undeniably, quick to make a joke at the expense of fellow journalists. He pokes fun at the unreliability of the press more or less continuously throughout his career (see, for instance, “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” ). But, from his exposes of San Francisco police in 1864 to the posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger, the printing press is always associated with an ability to strike fear in the hearts of the powerful. Though he was critical of both institutions, Twain would undoubtedly agree with Jefferson, who wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”