Walter Lippmann's "Public Opinion" at 100Historians in the News
tags: public opinion, Walter Lippmann, Political theory
One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.
Public Opinion’s publication year, 1922, is a significant one. The book came out after four years of global war followed by four years of civil war in the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, a period in which information had been weaponized to a previously unimaginable extent. The government and the press, especially in the United Kingdom, had collaborated in ginning up support for the war through the publication of a number of astonishing lies—the Angels of Mons and infamous “corpse factories” being only the most flagrant. The full sense that the world had entered a new era in which reality was fragmented and the truth impossible to know was starting to be felt. Lippmann had enlisted as an intelligence officer when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, and witnessed the intimate relationship between news reporting and the war effort in France—the second chapter of Public Opinion opens with a striking account of how a roomful of French generals spent hours tinkering with the wording of a press release during the disastrous third day of the Verdun offensive. It seems the experience raised some serious doubts about the function of journalism during wartime, because upon being discharged in 1919 Lippmann immediately went to work on a series of essays castigating the press for its failure to report the news accurately and objectively.
“A Test of the News” is a famous 1920 study of the New York Times’s coverage of the Russian Revolution that Lippmann co-wrote and published in the magazine he helped found, the New Republic. In it, Lippmann and co-writer Charles Merz showed that America’s flagship paper had reported events that never took place—including atrocities that never happened—and that it had claimed at least ninety-one times that the Bolsheviks were on the brink of collapse. The conclusion, to Lippmann and Merz, was obvious: “The news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” For Lippmann, this was a grave dereliction of duty. How could citizens and legislators, especially in the democratic countries, make informed judgments if they were being fed lies, hearsay, and gross exaggerations of fact? If people didn’t know the truth, how could they be free?
Initially, Lippmann hoped that journalism could be reformed—that by pointing out errors, he and others could help raise standards of truth-telling across the industry, leading to greater accuracy and objectivity in reporting. But the more he studied the problem, the more complex it seemed to become. It wasn’t simply that powerful political and economic interests influenced how the news was reported (though this was often the case); it was that the transmission of information itself was subject to a huge number of disparate pressures. Politicians made political calls based on how they would be perceived in the press; the press was beholden to its readers; the readers wanted the press to cover matters they were interested in, but also wanted to experience drama and titillation, to have their deepest fears exorcized, their convictions reflected, their prejudices affirmed. To make things even more complicated, these readers were not a united body, but a motley of cliques and demographic groups with very different preconceptions of reality. The wide range of newspapers, trade journals, and periodicals available in Lippmann’s time reflected the stunning diversity of the public as well as its fragmentation. And yet there were moments—World War I had furnished many—when this fragmented public fell in line behind a single narrative, often with disastrous consequences.