Lippmann and the News | The Nation


Lippmann and the News

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Why republish this old book? In its new format, it features an introduction by Lippmann biographer Ronald Steel, who economically places the book in the context of its day. There's also an afterword, nearly half as long as Lippmann's book, by the journalist, former Clinton Administration insider and newly appointed Clinton (Hillary, that is) adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Blumenthal begins by briefly and perceptively characterizing Lippmann's Olympian stance (at once in and above journalism) and then launches into a lament about the "steady degeneration of the press over the past few decades." He offers no evidence of "degeneration" (which would require comparing a deficient present with a measurably better past) but instead only vents his frustration that today's media largely parroted Bush Administration propaganda during the run-up to the Iraq War.

About the Author

Michael Schudson
Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and at the...

There is no denying Blumenthal's central point, especially since the New York Times itself apologized, in an editorial note of May 26, 2004, for coverage that was "not as rigorous as it should have been." But such journalistic failings--and there were many, at the Times and other outlets--do not demonstrate a "steady degeneration" of the news media. The press was slow to criticize the Vietnam War, too; in both the media and in public opinion, there was a reflexive back-our-boys-in-harm's-way patriotism that did much to secure a relatively pliant press years into that war. A study of media coverage of forty-two foreign policy crises between 1945 and 1999 (written by political scientists John Zaller and Dennis Chiu) found the media to be consistently, as the article's title puts it, "government's little helper." The study suggests that docile news coverage was a result of "source indexing," in which news represents or "indexes" the range of opinions of leading government officials in the executive and the Congress, and "power indexing," in which news emphasizes most of all the views of those with the greatest capacity to "foretell future events." Coverage is normally docile, in other words, because it concentrates on the views of government officials whose hands are on or close to the levers of power.

Was this any different between 2001 and 2003? Why would it have been, when the conditions for giving the Administration the benefit of the doubt were so strong? Consider the obstacles to skepticism: Saddam Hussein was indefensible; 9/11 was traumatizing, and it produced shock and awe from which we have yet to recover. The Democrats in the Senate backed the Iraq War. Colin Powell, the Administration official with the greatest public trust, personally made the case for war. And yes, just as Lippmann would have expected, journalists accompanying the troops into Baghdad in those first euphoric days were led by their hope into believing that maybe, just maybe, the Bush Administration had known something the rest of us did not.

Blumenthal hopes for a revitalized journalism as "part of a general reawakening of American democracy," though he doesn't bother to offer any details about how such a revitalization might occur or what it would actually entail. Lippmann, in contrast, was not in the general-reawakening business, although near the end of Liberty and the News he suggests that substantial change can come "only if organized labor and militant liberalism set a pace which cannot be ignored." But what he wishes from such a mobilization is the establishment of nonpartisan information agencies. Journalism did not have the horsepower or the moral discipline to picture the political scene accurately on its own.

If there is a rationale for republishing Liberty and the News, it surely must be to give Lippmann's diagnosis and prescriptions a further airing. If we do, we see not only new energy in journalism education (the effect of which is not easy to know) but clear evidence that Lippmann's political observatories have taken hold. We have a Freedom of Information Act (passed in 1966); we have inspectors general (most of them instituted only in 1978). Whether one looks at the inspector general at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose report in November 2005 led instantly to the resignation of the conservative hack Kenneth Tomlinson, or the recent reports from the FBI IG and the CIA IG, which have provided the news media and Congress fodder for criticism, further investigation and closer surveillance of these agencies, journalists have an array of tools institutionalized within and outside government that, in 1920, Lippmann could only have dreamed of.

Journalism today has many of the allies Lippmann longed for. Congress has some of the independent assistance he hoped it would gain in struggling against the executive's informational advantage--the Congressional Budget Office, the Governmental Accountability Office and the inspectors general. In "A Test of the News," Lippmann even applauded interest groups (citing the Interchurch World Movement and the Popular Government League) for their reports on media coverage of topics of special concern to them. In these instances Lippmann heralded the emergence of "a powerful engine of criticism...appearing in the community which will no longer naively accept the current news on contentious questions." He may as well have been talking about the blogosphere.

How effective are the accounting and monitorial agencies inside the government? How valuable are the various partisan and nonpartisan nongovernmental watchdogs and think tanks that have proliferated since the 1960s? How useful have universities been in attending to questions of public policy? (Lippmann thought they could help only by getting away from thinking that "terminates in doctor's theses and brown quarterlies.") Can the media give the best of these political observatories greater attention? Can Congress? Or are there so many political observatories across the landscape now that they no longer illuminate the night sky but block it by the lights of their own self-advertisement?

This is where an inquiry in the spirit of Walter Lippmann should begin--by evaluating whether the reforms he prescribed, all of which have come to pass, have improved the press as he thought they would. If journalism remains as bad as ever despite the emergence of numerous skillful and bold political observatories, then Lippmann's reform agenda, and probably his analysis, is proven wrong. On the other hand, if the flaws Lippmann saw in journalism have been corrected by the reforms he proposed and journalism still failed to give due warning that deliberate lies, executive hubris and an administration's unembarrassed disregard for veracity were leading the United States into a blunder of gigantic proportion, then Liberty and the News mistakes the location of the crisis of democracy.

I favor this second view, for in the end Liberty and the News is naïve. It expresses astonishing faith in the notion that if objective fact is protected and honestly communicated to the general public, democracy will work because decisions will be based on public understandings anchored in fair media renderings of reality. This simplifies the informational requirements of democratic governance beyond recognition. It gives no place to the micropolitics of communication--to a leadership driven by ambitions or by fears it is unable or unwilling to communicate honestly to the public or to put on the table to Congress for discussion and revision; to an executive branch cowed into deference by a bullying White House; to the strong inclination of citizens to mold perception of facts (did we find WMDs in Iraq? did Osama bin Laden conspire with Saddam on the 9/11 attacks?) to their political preferences; and to the polarization of party politics so that a conservative evangelical base is all but unwavering in support of a conservative born-again President while independents and moderates are confused and divided.

Nothing in Liberty and the News predicts or prevents or pretends to understand any of this. True, much of our best journalism failed us--and when it did not, there were not sufficiently strong forces to take up the facts and force their full consideration. Journalistic failure is not independent of failures of other institutions with an obligation to speak truth to power, and to speak it again if no one listens the first time: the opposition (especially Democrats in Congress), intelligence and military officers who believe the President is making a mistake, university scholars who sometimes support military interventions and so may have credibility in opposing the intervention at hand. Yes, some individuals said the sky was falling, but most of us had heard that before, and did not see the sky fall, and we had few resources for recognizing it when it did.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.