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Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer rightly screams about the quote-approval practice that has sullied some of the New York Times’–among others–coverage of government and politics. His column has appeared all over the Web the last couple of days and in print in numerous papers, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which used the headline “Political Handlers as Editors” (above).
However, he falls into the trap of linking a well-oiled quote to George Orwell (right)–without mentioning that the authorship appears to be in question.
The quotation–which makes journalistic hearts quiver and flutter in appreciation–usually goes like this:

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

The trouble is that it’s not all that clear that Orwell wrote that, as far as I can tell–despite what you might be told by sites like quotevadis.com
One place I turned this morning to find out more is the Orwell quotations entry at wikiquote.org.
Here some people are seeking proper attribution and sourcing for the quotation. The search continues. One contributer compares it to something attributed to William Randolph Hearst:

“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”

I certainly have no problem with Mr. Polman using the quotation. It’s relevant to his topic and thought-provoking, too. However, instead of putting it in Orwell’s mouth and saying bluntly that he “once wrote” it, he should say the statement is, instead, often merely attributed to Orwell.
Even so, the error is not worth reporting to the Ministry of Truth.
I look forward to finding the source some day.

8 Responses to “Even if it looks, sounds, walks, and quacks like an Orwell quote, it still might NOT be an Orwell quote”

  1. [...] backlash towards Mantel puts me in the mind of the Orwell (or was it Hearst) quote: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is [...]

  2. Tom says:

    Did people commonly speak of “public relations” in the current sense in Orwell’s day? Seems improbable.

    • frank.herron says:

      Actually, the term was in fairly wide use before World War II. Edward Bernays wrote Crystallizing Public Relations in 1923. There are likely older examples.

      • Alex Harris says:

        The question is not whether the term was in use, but whether the term as it was used 80 or 90 years ago carries the same meaning as it does today. I wonder this myself, because if it does this is really not a very insightful statement. I’m here because someone attributed it to Orwell, and believing Orwell was much smarter than this I had to think that it had either been taken out of context or Orwell was just flat-out wrong. I’m glad to find that Orwell really may not have said it at all.

  3. [...] paraphrase the famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell: transparency is publishing something you would prefer the world [...]

  4. Michael G says:

    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/20/news-suppress/

    goes into some history of the phrase

  5. Keith says:

    I share Tom’s gut feeling. Even though ‘public relations’ was in the vocabulary, that does not mean this very British writer would have employed that American expression. There is – to me – something wrong with this quotation that points away from Orwell being the author. Firstly, the writing is lacking in Orwell’s art. Secondly, I don’t think Orwell would have equated journalism with printing.
    A newspaper proprietor like Hearst was in the unique position of owning the presses, employing the journalists and exercising editorial direction, so I can believe he might have written it.
    Finally, the quotation is a variation of the “all the rest is detail” trope and I don’t think Orwell would have referenced that trope in this way.

  6. Bridget Smith says:

    Found your site because I didn’t think the quote sounded like Orwell, but this quote about news and PR was on a pop out dialogue box from Truthdig with that attribution. I like the quote and hope you will find its author some time soon. If I figure it out, I’ll return and see if you’ve found the answer. Thanks for the great web site!

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