In many books of quotations and on thousands of websites H.L. Mencken is credited with the famous quote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Most sources fail to mention that this “quote” by “The Sage of Baltimore” is actually the traditional paraphrase of what Mencken actually wrote — not a true quote.
It’s based on something the acerbic journalist, editor and social critic said in his column in the September 18, 1926 edition of Baltimore’s major daily newspaper, The Sun.
Mencken’s column was syndicated and published in many other newspapers after appearing in The Sun. The next day, September 19, 1926, it appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune and other newspapers around the country.
Mencken titled that entry in his column “Notes on Journalism.”
His topic was a recent trend in the American newspaper business: “tabloid newspapers” that were geared toward uneducated readers, including those Mencken described as “near-illiterates.”
Mencken noted that tabloids had several advantages over traditional daily newspapers like The Baltimore Sun.
They were lighter and less bulky than daily newspapers, which had “two or three sections and weigh a pound or more.”
Thus, in addition to being less formal and easier to read than most dailies, tabloids could be “distributed much more quickly than the larger papers.”
“A boy on a motorcycle,” Mencken wrote, “can carry a hundred copies of even the bulkiest of them to a remote junction in ten or twenty minutes, but the old style papers have to go by truck, which is slower.”
In his usual dry way, Mencken also poked fun at the idea that most people wanted the content of newspapers to be more substantive and intellectual than what tabloids typically offered.
He opined that when a tabloid became successful the owner often tried to make it more respectable and “reach out for customers of a higher sophistication.”
Mencken said that was a mistake and, near the end of column, summed up why by writing the words that were later turned into the shorter famous “quote” about underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
His actual words were:
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Over time, this longer quote came to be paraphrased and misquoted, most commonly in the form “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
In the column, Mencken continued his thoughts about the public’s choices in reading matter and politicians by adding:
“The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”
Looking around at the media and political landscape today, Mencken’s opinion might be deemed more prescient than ever.
Editor’s note: Thanks to reader James C. Morrison Jr. for the note clarifying publication dates of Mencken’s “Notes on Journalism” column!
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Related reading, listening and a Mencken quote coffee mug…