Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Propaganda Tsar George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (1917-19) on the "Opinionists" and Censorship

Note for a Planned Article
"Creel, Lippmann, and the Origins of American Public Diplomacy"
(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)

"Creel never abandoned his faith in 'the fact,' but as the war went forward, the CPI [Committee on Public Information] strayed ever farther away from its original, exclusively informational mission and increasingly took on the character of a crude propaganda mill."

--David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society – Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University PFress, 2004, p61.

From: "Makers of Opinion [:] Personal Impressions of Mark Sullivan and Other Widely Read Reporters for the American Press by George Creel," Collier’s May 15, 1920, Vol. 65, no. 16 pp. 20 ff ; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Box OV 7:
By reporter I mean one who is willing to give time and energy to the pursuit of facts, and who presents these facts without bias and without color, leaving it to the reader to draw his own conclusions and to form his own opinions. Always an important function, it was never more so than to-day, when a thousand and one intricate problems of reconstruction press for intelligent decision. Yet at the very time when good, honest reporting is virtually a necessity, the reporter elects to list himself among the missing. In his place we have Opinionists, men who have small interest in facts, choosing to deal entirely in Conclusions, Charges, Persuasions, and Cocksure Certitudes.
A flood of dope poisons the wells of public opinion until it would seem that the only salvation is to amend the antinarcotic laws and have them take in the daily and periodical press. Information -- plain, straight, old-fashioned information – is increasingly difficult to get. People are not fools. They can do their own thinking if put in possession of the facts. And it is facts that are being kept from them. The printed word, for the most part, is no longer concerned with the dissemination of facts, but is a spoon-feeding device.
The Easier Life has something to do with it. This is peculiarly the day of short cuts. Facts are generally at a distance, while opinions are always with one. A reporter has to use his legs, while an Opinionist does not have to leave his desk.
A more fundamental cause, perhaps, is to be found in the press’s conception of what constitutes news. Year by year, slowly but not surely, information has been crowded out, and news has come to be defined as the satisfaction of curiosity. Since curiosity is seldom concerned with anything but the obvious, all emphasis is placed on the obvious. Facts lie deeper. As a consequence, there are few schools for the training of a reporter, and the professions suffers the fate of every trade that neglects its apprentices. 
Creel image from
As for editorial writers, they are, and have always been, without the slightest reportorial value. Opinionists of the most confirmed type, the worst of it is that their opinions are always invariably based upon facts that another man has gathered and into the truth of which they have not inquired. Either this or they sit in solemn seclusion and spin out of themselves like so many silkworms. …
I have worked with scores of men who looked upon reporting merely as a stepping-stone to “literature.” Although invariably the story took shape in their minds before they approached the facts, with the inevitable result that they tried to make the facts fit their prepared form instead of fitting the form to the facts. …
The opinionist rarely asks questions and listen even more rarely. He tells about himself, what he likes, what he thinks, and, having exhausted these subjects, darts off to write a story based upon such of his own assertions as you have not had the spirit or time to challenge. …
It is the common thing, of course, to blame the censorship for failures in reporting. As a matter of fact, there was never any censorship in the United States save a simple voluntary agreement, without force of law, that pledged the papers to conceal the arrival and departure of ships, the movement of troops, etc. … The great wide sweep of the war, with its tangle of related problems in every country, was open to anyone who cared to write. Few wrote be such articles called for reportorial ability rather than for the chronicle of the obvious.

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