Walter Lippmann on liberty and the news: A century-old mirror for our troubled times

One of the benefits of moving my office from a top corner of the Poynter Institute downstairs to its library is the serendipitous discovery of particular books. In a back storage room, I found myself before several shelves of  rare books about journalism, some more than a century old.

One caught my eye: "Liberty and the News," a thin volume containing two magazine articles written in 1919 by Walter Lippmann. My doctoral degree is in English Literature, not Journalism and Communication, so I had no occasion for a formal study of Lippmann or his philosophical adversary, John Dewey.

I had bumped into Lippmann, or course, including his definition of news in his most famous book "Public Opinion," in which he distinguishes news from truth, news being the signifier of an event, and truth being a larger picture of the world upon which human beings can act. This was heady stuff to be derived from the study of the work of ink-stained wretches.

At the time of his death in 1974, Lippmann had achieved a special status among newspaper columnists. He won two Pulitzer Prizes. His opinion was sought out by presidents and thought leaders across the globe. He was a founding editor of The New Republic. Most important, he took journalism seriously, not as a trade or even a profession, but as an instrument of democracy.  He coined the phrases Cold War, and the manufacture of consent, and the use of the metaphor “stereotype” to describe thoughtless generalizations.

The copy of Liberty and the News was old enough that its dust jacket began to crumble in my hands. Under the title was this blurb: “Freedom, in the modern world, depends upon untrammeled access to all the news. This book is a cool, clear and informed exposition of how deeply public opinion has become involved in a web of propaganda, and suggests the possibility of a press properly informed and really free.”

“Wow,” I thought when I read that. “We need that now!”

In a single day I read the text, making notes about almost every page. What I learned startled me, like discovering an ancient scroll meant to be found a century into the future, unearthed just in time to rescue a civilization from catastrophe.

I know enough about Lippmann now to understand the basic elements of his debate with John Dewey.  By analogy Lippmann was Plato: His republic would be led by a special class of thoughtful leaders. The public could just not know enough to make good decisions about politics or policies.  Dewey had a more democratic view, that with the proper education, communities of knowledge could be formed to achieve self-government.

Lippmann writes in the immediate aftermath of the Great War and the Russian Revolution, at a time when scientific enlightenment was challenging the world view presented by traditional religions. His attachment to objectivity and empiricism has been criticized countless times over the past century. But I came away from his arguments with a powerful sense that the “disinterested report” — the one that attaches itself to no particular partisan view — deserves reconsideration, especially in light of the world-wide fact-checking movement advancing as an antidote to misinformation and propaganda.

What follows are excerpts from the book, introduced by the occasional brief subhead from me, offering context for our own times:

[Lippmann begins with a quote from Benjamin Harris, editor of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, published in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690:

That something may be done toward the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best Fountains for our Information.  And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.  Moreover, the Publisher of these Occurrences is willing to engage, that whereas, there are many False Reports, maliciously made, and spread among us, if any well-minded person will be at the pains to trace any such false Report, so far as to find out and Convict the First Raiser of it, he will in this Paper (unless just Advice be given to the contrary) expose the Name of such Person, as a malicious Raiser of a false Report.  It is suppos’d that none will dislike this Proposal, but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a Crime.

[Lippmann on the need for what we call “transparency”]:

“I have made no criticism in this book which is not the shoptalk of reporters and editors.  But only rarely do newspapermen take the general public into their confidence. They will have to sooner or later.  It is not enough for them to struggle against great odds, as many of them are doing, wearing out their souls to do a particular assignment well. The philosophy of the work itself needs to be discussed; the news about the news needs to be told.”

[On what we call “confirmation bias]:

“We are peculiarly inclined to suppress whatever impugns the security of that to which we have given our allegiance.”

[Public confusion from the helter-skelter flow of news]:

“What men who make the study of politics a vocation cannot do, the man who has an hour a day for newspapers and talk cannot possibly hope to do. He must seize catchwords and headlines or nothing.”

“News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable confusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them. Any lawyer with a sense of evidence knows how unreliable such information must necessarily be.”

[Escape from responsibility of misinformation]:

“If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor’s cow, I can go to jail.  But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible.”

[The problem of fixing truth when the news is complex and subtle]:

“The mechanism of the news-supply has developed without plan, and there is no one point in it at which one can fix the responsibility for truth. The fact is that the subdivision of labor is now accompanied by the subdivision of the news-organization. At one end of it is the eye-witness, at the other, the reader.  Between the two is a vast, expensive transmitting and editing apparatus.  This machine works marvelously well at times, particularly in the rapidity with which it can report the score of a game or a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch, or the result of an election.  But where the issue is complex, as for example in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people — that is to say, where the real answer is neither yes or no, but subtle, and a matter of balanced evidence — the subdivision of the labor involved in the report causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, and even misrepresentation.”

[How the habits of news gatherers can limit access to truth]:

“Now the reporter, if he is to earn his living, must nurse his personal contacts with the eye-witnesses and privileged informants.  If he is openly hostile to those in authority, he will cease to be a reporter unless there is an opposition party in the inner circle who can feed him news.  Failing that, he will know precious little of what is going on.”

[Journalists are rarely eyewitnesses.  News is filtered many times before it reaches citizens.]

“Most people seem to believe that, when they meet a war correspondent or a special writer from the Peace Conference, they have seen a man who has seen the things he wrote about. Far from it.  Nobody, for example, saw this war.  Neither the men in the trenches nor the commanding general. The men saw their trenches … sometimes they saw an enemy trench, but nobody, unless it be the aviators, saw a battle. What the correspondents saw, occasionally, was the terrain over which a battle had been fought; but what they reported day by day was what they were told at press headquarters, and of that only what they were allowed to tell.”

[Limits on editors who exercise news judgments]:

“When the report does reach the editor, another series of interventions occurs. The editor is a man who may know all about something, but he can hardly be expected to know all about everything. Yet he has to decide the question which is of more importance than any other in the formation of opinions, the question where attention is to be directed.”

[Newspaper as the “bible of democracy”]

“The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy.  For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of what a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read.  It is the only book they read every day.”

[Editors inherit routines and responses that limit their vision of the news]:

“Once you know the party and social affiliation of a newspaper, you can predict with considerable certainty the perspective in which the news will be displayed. This perspective is by no means altogether deliberate. Though the editor is ever so much more sophisticated than all but a minority of his readers, his own sense of relative importance is determined by rather standardized constellations of ideas.  He very soon comes to believe that his habitual emphasis is the only possible one. “

“But we shall not be far wrong if we say that [the editor] deals with the news in reference to the prevailing mores of his social group. These mores are of course in a large measure the product of what previous newspapers have said; and experience shows that, in order to break out of this circle, it has been necessary at various times to create new forms of journalism, such as the national monthly, the critical weekly, the circular, the paid advertisements of ideas, in order to change the emphasis which had become obsolete and habit ridden.”

[Propaganda and its consequences defined]:

“Into this … increasingly disserviceable mechanism, there had been thrown, especially since the outbreak of war, another monkey-wrench — propaganda. The word, of course covers a multitude of sins and a few virtues. The virtues can be easily separated out, and given another name, either advertisement or advocacy.”

“Thus, if the National council of Belgravia wishes to publish a magazine out of its own funds, under its own imprint, advocating the annexation of Thrums, no one will object.  But if, in support of that advocacy, it gives to the press stories that are lies about the atrocities committed in Thrums; or, worse still, if those stories seem to come from Geneva, or Amsterdam, not from the press-service of the National Council of Belgravia, then Belgravia is conducting propaganda.”

“Now, the plain fact is that out of the troubled areas of the world the public received practically nothing that is not propaganda.  Lenin and his enemies control all the news there is of Russia, and no court of law would accept any of the testimony as valid in a suit to determine the possession of a donkey.”

[The limited perspectives of media elites]:

“Theodore Roosevelt … [has] told us to think nationally. It is not easy.  It is easy to parrot what those people say who live in a few big cities and who have constituted themselves the only true and authentic voice of America. But beyond that it is difficult. I live in New York and I have not the vaguest idea what Brooklyn is interested in.”

[The abysmal way the country and the news view the immigrant (!)]

“We do not think nationally because the facts that count are not systematically reported and presented in a form we can digest. Our most abysmal ignorance occurs where we deal with the immigrant. If we read his press at all, it is to discover ‘Bolshevism’ in it and to blacken all immigrants with suspicion. For his culture and his aspirations, for his high gifts of hope and variety, we have neither eyes nor ears. The immigrant colonies are like holes in the road which we never notice until we trip over them. Then, because we have no current information and no background of facts, we are, of course, the undiscriminating objects of any agitator who chooses to rant against ‘foreigners.’”

[Danger of the demagogue]:

“Now, men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where all the news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. ... The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”

[Birth of the echo chamber]:

“And so, since they are deprived of any trustworthy means of knowing what is really going on, since everything is on the plane of assertion and propaganda, they believe whatever fits most comfortably with their prepossessions.”

[On power and importance of objective fact]:

“The cardinal fact always is the loss of contact with objective information. Public as well as private reason depends upon it. Not what somebody says, not what somebody wishes were true, but what is so beyond all our opining, constitutes the touchstone of our sanity.”

“For, in the last analysis, the demagogue, whether of the Right or the Left, is, consciously or unconsciously an undetected liar.”

“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”  

“It may be bad to suppress a particular opinion, but the really deadly thing is to suppress the news. In time of great insecurity, certain opinions acting on unstable minds may cause infinite disaster.”  

“The desire to know, the dislike of being deceived and made game of, is a really powerful motive, and it is that motive that can best be enlisted in the cause of freedom.”

[Democracy depends upon an agreed upon method of knowing]:

“There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours.  It is unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of the disciplined experiment. … With a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact, differences may become a form of cooperation and cease to be an irreconcilable antagonism.”

“In this view liberty is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act.”

“True opinions can prevail only if the facts to which they refer are known; if they are not known, false ideas are just as effective as true ones, if not a little more effective.”

“The task of liberty … falls roughly under three heads, protection of the sources of the news, organization of the news so as to make it comprehensible, and education of human response.”

[More on transparency and responsibility from news tellers]:

“How far is it useful to go in fixing personal responsibility for the truthfulness of news? Much further, I am inclined to think, than we have ever gone. We ought to know the names of the whole staff of every periodical. While it is not necessary, or even desirable that each article should be signed, each article should be documented, and false documentation should be illegal.”  

[The importance of self-policing in response to public distrust]

“There is everywhere an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens. … If publishers and authors themselves do not face the facts and attempt to deal with them, some day Congress, in a fit of temper, egged on by an outraged public opinion, will operate on the press with an ax.”

[Importance of building the professionalism of practitioners of news]

“How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.”

“The run of the news is handled by men of much smaller caliber. It is handled by such men because reporting is not a dignified profession for which men will invest the time and cost of an education, but an underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles. Merely to talk about the reporter in terms of his real importance to civilization will make newspaper men laugh. … No amount of money or effort spent in fitting the right men for this work could possibly be wasted, for the health of society depends upon the quality of the information it receives.”  

[Dignity of a journalism career]

“The better course [than requiring a journalism education] is to make up our minds to send out into reporting a generation of men [and now, women, of course] who will by sheer superiority, drive the incompetents out of business.  That means two things.  It means a public recognition of the dignity of such a career, so that it will cease to be the refuse of the vaguely talented. With this increase of prestige must go a professional training in journalism in which the idea of objective testimony is cardinal.”

[The “science” of journalism]

“The cynicism of the trade needs to be abandoned, for the true patterns of the journalistic practice are not the slick persons who scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is. It does not matter that the news is not susceptible of mathematical statement. In fact, just because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest of the scientific virtues. They are the habits of ascribing no more credibility to a statement than it warrants, a nice sense of the probabilities, and a keen understanding of the quantitative important of particular facts.”

[Why words matter to journalism and democracy]

“Closely akin to an education in the test of credibility is rigorous discipline in the use of words.  It is almost impossible to overestimate the confusion in daily life caused by sheer inability to use language with intention. We talk scornfully of ‘mere words.’ Yet through words the whole vast process of human communication takes place. The sights and sounds and meaning of nearly all that we deal with as ‘politics,’ we learn not by our own experience, but through the words of others.  If those words are meaningless lumps charged with emotion, instead of the messengers of fact, all sense of evidence breaks down. … It is a measure of our education as a people that so many of us are perfectly content to live our political lives in this fraudulent environment of unanalyzed words. For the reporter, abracadabra is fatal.  So long as he deals in it, he is gullibility itself, seeing nothing of the world, and living, as it were, in a hall of crazy mirrors.”  

[What purposeful objectivity looks like]

“… [The] reporter needs a general sense of what the world is doing. Emphatically he ought not be serving a cause, no matter how good. In his professional activity it is no business of his to care whose ox is gored. … There is room, and there is need, for disinterested reporting….While the reporter will serve no cause, he will possess a steady sense that the chief purpose of ‘news’ is to enable mankind to live successfully toward the future.”  

[What it means to fight for truth]:

“I am convinced that we shall accomplish more by fighting for truth than by fighting for our theories. It is a better loyalty. It is a humbler one, but it is also more irresistible. Above all it is educative. For the real enemy is ignorance, which all of us, conservative, liberal, and revolutionary, suffer.”  

“The administration of public information toward greater accuracy and more successful analysis is the highway of liberty.”

[Dropping the mic]:

“We shall advance when we have learned humility; when we have learned to seek the truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.”  

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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