Walter Lippmann and American journalism today - openDemocracy
Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was the most influential American journalist of the 20th century. Born into one of the German-Jewish "our crowd" families of New York City, he began his career as a cub reporter for Lincoln Steffens, the crusading investigative journalist, then became one of the original editors of the New Republic, and was recruited to write speeches for President Woodrow Wilson and help formulate his plan to make the world "safe for democracy", the "fourteen points". In the 1920s, Lippmann became editorial director of the New York World, then a major daily newspaper with a Democratic orientation. When it folded, the New York Herald Tribune offered him a column, which, with the Washington Post, served as his journalistic base for almost fifty years.
Lippmann wrote books on philosophy, politics, foreign policy and economics. In one of them, The Cold War, he early defined the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union while offering penetrating criticism of US policy as a "strategic monstrosity" that would lead to "recruiting, subsidizing and supporting a heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets", inevitably forcing poor choices of having to either "disown our puppets, which would be tantamount to appeasement and defeat and the loss of face", or else back them "at an incalculable cost on an unintended, unforeseen and perhaps undesirable issue." Lippmann's prophetic warning was realised in the Vietnam war, which he opposed at considerable cost to his personal and political relationships. (Anyone interested in Lippmann, or American politics, should read Ronald Steel's magisterial biography, Walter Lippmann and the American Century.)
Among his varied roles, Lippmann was the original and most prescient analyst of the modern media. His disillusioning experience in the first world war prompted the first of three books on the subject: Liberty and the News, followed in rapid succession by Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. In them Lippmann deconstructed the distortions and lies of government propaganda eagerly transmitted by a jingoist press corps, the "manufacture of consent" and the creation of "stereotypes" projected as false reality.
Liberty and the News, first published in 1920, is being reissued by Princeton University Press, and its insights into the "error, illusion, and misinterpretation" in wartime of the "news-structure" remain as fresh as ever. For this volume, I have written an afterword, using Lippmann's ideas as a prism to illuminate the current crisis of the press and its professional collapse.
A journey through ruins
From the moment he entered onto the public scene as a writer for the new journal of opinion, the New Republic, established in 1914, Walter Lippmann's precocity was apparent. He made his way almost effortlessly into the highest levels of society and politics, his uninterrupted elevation almost proof in itself of the progressive view of history. Yet his thinking, particularly about the craft of journalism, derived chiefly from experience with the curdling of American Progressivism and the end of its innocence after the first world war.
Lippmann sharpened his early disillusionment into a perfectly pitched tone of omniscience. He descended from his lofty peak as a wise man with an Olympian air of detachment, permitting mere mortals to benefit from his counsel. Oracle to the powers that be, he was also the father of modern objectivity. He never saw any contradiction between his deeds and words or felt any need to pause over any supposed conflict. Nor did any public figure suggest that there was anything untoward or unseemly in his alliances or aversions. Instead, they sought his approbation and cordiality. His immersion in politics while holding forth as a disinterested observer did not taint him as hypocritical or false. Everyone understood that he was Walter Lippmann. If there were a prevailing prejudice about him, it was a tendency to judge him by his cogency and influence.
The standards of objective journalism Lippmann painstakingly advocated in the early 20th century, and which were adopted as ideal goals by major news organisations in mid-century, have long since been traduced, trampled, and trashed. The journalistic world before the Vietnam war was, to be sure, hardly a golden age. The pliability of much of the national press in the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting smear campaigns occurred in the middle of those happy days. Golden ages glitter only in retrospect as viewed from the junkyard of the present. Nonetheless, there has been a steady degeneration of the press over the past few decades, involving both the wilful self-destruction of hard-won credibility and the rationalisation of dull incomprehension as invulnerable self-importance. The gap between Lippmann's ideals and present realities is one of the major reasons why Liberty and the News remains so pertinent - and so troubling - nearly ninety years after its publication.
"For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism", Lippmann wrote. That sentence was distilled from years of hope turned to despair. Lippmann had ferried from the offices of the New Republic, located in New York, to the White House, where he helped work on speeches forWoodrow Wilson. After the entry of the United States in the world war in 1917, Lippmann enthusiastically accepted an appointment as the US representative on the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board, with the rank of captain. But Captain Lippmann soon crossed swords with George Creel, chief of the Committee on Public Information, an official federal government agency that whipped up war support through jingoism. When Lippmann submitted a blistering report in 1918 on how the committee manipulated news to foster national hysteria, Creel sought his dismissal - and Lippmann quit his post to assist the US delegation at the Versailles peace conference. The year following the war, 1919, began with Wilson greeted as a messiah and ended with him politically broken and physically paralysed. His collapse personified the wreckage of Progressive idealism. Lippmann focused his attention on the part played by the press.
The manufacturers of consent
"Everywhere today", Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News, "men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. Increasingly they are baffled because the facts are not available; and they are wondering whether government by consent can survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise."
Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the "manufacture of consent" had deranged democracy. But he did not hold those in government solely responsible. He also described how the press corps was carried away on the wave of patriotism and became self-censors, enforcers, and sheer propagandists. Their careerism, cynicism, and error made them destroyers of "liberty of opinion" and agents of intolerance, who subverted the American constitutional system of self-government. Even the great newspaper owners, he wrote, "believe that edification is more important than veracity. They believe it profoundly, violently, relentlessly. They preen themselves upon it. To patriotism, as they define it from day to day, all other considerations must yield. That is their pride. And yet what is this but one more among myriad examples of the doctrine that the end justifies the means? A more insidiously misleading rule of conduct was, I believe, never devised among men."
Public opinion was not a free marketplace of ideas, but was channelled and polluted by the managers of news. They concentrated their power at the expense of accurately informing the public, whose fears and hatreds they exploited. Reason was impossible to sustain in the whirlwind. Lippmann wrote:
"Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information', then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people."
A year before Liberty and the News appeared, the famous muckraking journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, published The Brass Check, the first contemporary exposé of the press as a corrupt special interest. Sinclair asserted that the press simply reflected its big business ownership and did its bidding. Lippmann's analysis, though, was at once more subtle and more penetrating, elucidating a form of corruption that ran to the foundations of the nation's politics.
By substituting propaganda for truth, brandishing jingoism to enforce conformity, and asserting arrogance and certainty over skepticism and humility, Lippmann contended, the manufacturers of consent confounded democracy. "In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil."
A zealous conformism
Woodrow Wilson waged war to make the world "safe for democracy" and to establish an international order based on collective security. Nearly a century later, President George W Bush appropriated Wilson's rhetoric as a gloss on pre-emptive war and unilateralism. Neo-conservatism stood Wilsonianism on its head, and, had he lived to see the day, Lippmann might have rubbed his eyes like Rip van Winkle at how much had changed. Yet Lippmann also would have discovered a depressingly familiar press corps on a bandwagon of jingoism, disseminating falsehoods leaked by government officials, engaging in ruthless self-censorship, and preening in careerist triumphalism. ...
Two years after writing Liberty and the News, Lippmann published Public Opinion, perhaps the most important book on American journalism in the 20th century. It opened with an invocation, a long quotation from Plato's Republic, of the famous scene of cave-dwellers who discern reality only as shadows dancing on the walls. Americans, Lippmann wrote, inhabited a cave of media misrepresentations of "the world outside", stereotypes, distortions of distortions - "not a mirror of social conditions, but the report of an aspect that has obtruded itself." Journalism became a media phantasmagoria, he wrote: "There are no objective standards here. There are conventions." He argued that a professional "intelligence bureau" of "expert reporters" that would present "a valid picture" of "the relevant environment" should be created, "interposing some form of expertness between the private citizen and the vast environment in which he is entangled." Disillusioned with politics, Lippmann turned to experts to act as arbiters of reality. He hoped that these anti-political engineers would "disintegrate partisanship," establishing "footholds of reason." With that, Lippmann composed a Magna Carta for professional journalistic objectivity. ...
"Without protection against propaganda, without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation", Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News. "The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information." Yet Lippmann assumed that the people were passive, acted upon by politically motivated elites. Today, about one-third of the public actively chooses sources of information that play to their prejudices. The readers, listeners, and viewers of the Drudge Report, the Rush Limbaugh show, and Fox News have consciously selected "the quack, the charlatan, the jingo" to seal themselves from objective information. The "breakdown of the means of public knowledge", as Lippmann called it, rests on a carefully cultivated preference for crank opinion over unsettling fact. The more reality defies this public's understanding, the more fervently it redoubles its resistance to it, embracing the distorted stereotype as the only true account. ...
"From our recent experience", wrote Lippmann, "it is clear that the traditional liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation." Journalism must reconstruct itself for a new age, at least as urgently as in Lippmann's time. So far it has failed the tests of the new century. Nearly ninety years after Lippmann first assayed the crisis of journalism, it finds itself back at ground zero - or in Lippmann's cave. Even some of the impassioned amateurs of the internet have been more factually reliable on central issues than the most august news organisations. Their fear - as readers, viewers, and influence seep away in the face of new technology - has provoked more anxiety than self-examination. But journalism may yet be revitalised, as part of a general reawakening of American democracy that discovers new forms of expression and forces new debate to achieve its ends.