The reputation of the fourth estate has waxed and waned over the course of American's history, sometimes thanks to the criticisms of public figures — including members of the press itself — complaining of its shortcomings and, according to them, undue influence on the electorate.
Novelist, humorist, and sometime newspaperman Mark Twain is an example of a journalist who displayed sharply mixed feelings about the profession. On the one hand, he was of the firm opinion that the press — particularly the rambunctious, freewheeling American press of the late nineteenth century — was essential to the defense of a free society.
"The devil's aversion to holy water is a light matter compared with a despot's dread of a newspaper that laughs," Twain wrote in his 1888 essay, "The American Press."
At the same time, he warned of the excesses of the press and their deleterious effect on ordinary people. "There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press," he said in an 1873 speech.
In an even stronger statement that has been making the Internet rounds since the early 2000s, Twain allegedly urges readers to "fear the media":
"Do not fear the enemy, for your enemy can only take your life. Fear the media, for they will take your HONOR..." -- Mark Twain
— Henry_in_Texas (@henry_in_poc) May 19, 2018
In a longer version of the quote, Twain supposedly goes on to deride journalists as "ignorant, self-complacent simpletons":
Do not fear the enemy, for your enemy can only take your life. It is far better that you fear the media, for they will steal your honor. That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.
What we found when we attempted to source the quote, however, is that there is no public record of Mark Twain ever writing or uttering the words "fear the media." In fact, there is no evidence that he ever used the phrase "the media" in the sense we're familiar with today (i.e., denoting means of mass communication) — which would have been an anachronism, in any case.
When Twain was writing and speaking (in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries), there was only one form of mass communication — the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers — and that's how he referred to them. Twain died in 1910. No one would speak of "the media," as we now understand the term, until the 1920s, at the earliest.
Media historian John Nerone (author of The Media and Public Life: A History, published in 2015) writes:
Mass penetration of media had been achieved in the most advanced countries by the 1920s. Accompanying this fact was a new language of talking about the media, including the use of the word "media," then its variant "mass media" or "media of mass communication."
Although some believe that the term "media was coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, it actually has a much older history. John Peters notes that in the nineteenth century it was used to refer to agents of communication with the spirit world. It was also used to refer to the biological media used to culture germs and to the physical media through which light passed. Architects and artists began to use the word to refer to the materials they used to make things. Then, around the beginning of the 1920s, the word began to be used by advertising agencies to refer to the things that carried ads. "Media" replaced "space" as a term of art in advertising because agencies began to place ads on radio programs as well as in newspapers and magazines. From there, the term came to be used by social scientists in the 1930s. Around the same time, the terms "mass media" and "mass communication" became used to refer collectively to newspapers, magazines, radio, and motion pictures.
We therefore cannot credit Mark Twain with the exhortation, "Fear the media, for they will take your honor."
Who did say it? We don't know. The earliest instances of the quote we've found go back to 2003, when it first turned up on the Internet, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, sometimes to "Unknown." We suspect it was fabricated.
The longer version of the quote does contain sentences uttered by Twain during a speech entitled "License of the Press," delivered in Hartford, Connecticut in March 1873. It was the same speech in which he bemoaned the fact that there are laws protecting freedom of the press, but none protecting people from the press. His criticism of the journalistic profession (of which he himself was a member) was unsparing:
That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse. I am personally acquainted with hundreds of journalists, and the opinion of the majority of them would not be worth tuppence in private, but when they speak in print it is the newspaper that is talking (the pygmy scribe is not visible) and then their utterances shake the community like the thunders of prophecy.
Yet he delivered this condemnation with a wink and a nod. As we noted above, Twain had mixed feelings about journalism. amply expressed in his closing statement:
But I will not continue these remarks. I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet.
There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.