Lippmann and the News

Lippmann and the News

In the early 1900s Walter Lippman laid the groundrules for public debate in America. Have the US media followed his prescriptions?


The “present crisis of western democracy,” the 30-year-old Walter Lippmann announced in 1920, “is a crisis in journalism.” A co-founder of The New Republic in 1914, a Wilson Administration confidant and Army captain with responsibility for propaganda in Europe during World War I, Lippmann spoke with authority. And originality. His view of the crisis was an unhappy one because, as he went on to argue in Liberty and the News, which was recently reissued as a slim and attractive paperback, journalism could never–unaided–provide an accurate account of reality for purposes of democratic self-government. But whereas other critics of wartime news coverage sought a journalism not beholden to advertisers or governments, Lippmann saw the core of journalism’s corruption elsewhere–in its own smug assurance of knowledge and its eagerness to assert opinion rather than provide facts. Even so, Lippmann offered suggestions for what editors and reporters could do better. He urged them to commit themselves to the cardinal virtue of “truthful reporting” and recognize that opinionmongering, or what polite society might call “edification,” cannot become a “higher law than truth.” In fact, he wrote, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

The “crisis” Lippmann detected in both democracy and journalism arises because the sheer volume of political affairs in an interconnected national and global world–the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in the capital of a small Slavic country, after all, had drawn American farmboys into a world war–surpasses the capacity of even the most conscientious citizens to monitor. “I know of no man, even among those who devote all of their time to watching public affairs, who can even pretend to keep track, at the same time, of his city government, his state government, Congress, the departments, the industrial situation, and the rest of the world,” he wrote. We depend on the press in our attempts to make sense of politics–and we are vulnerable to its weaknesses: “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.”

For Lippmann, veracity is not easy to attain, nor is its enemy in journalism primarily or necessarily a matter of government pressure or corporate ownership. The same year he published Liberty and the News, Lippmann, assisted by fellow New Republic editor Charles Merz, published a forty-two-page supplement to the August 4 issue of The New Republic called “A Test of the News,” which dissected the New York Times‘s coverage of the Russian Revolution. Lippmann and Merz concluded that the coverage was vastly distorted, most of all by the hopes and fears of reporters and editors themselves, who saw in the Bolsheviks what they wanted to see. The Times assured readers on ninety-one occasions that the revolutionary regime was near collapse.

Who is to know what is and what is not a lie, Lippmann asks in Liberty and the News, “where all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses.” In Liberty and the News, this is a telling observation; in Public Opinion, two years later, it is a treatise–still unsurpassed. The book that made “stereotype” part of everyday usage, Public Opinion demonstrated how much people–all people–see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear, and act in the world based on “the pictures in our heads.” When these pictures come from distant places, brought to us by a press without much self-discipline or sophistication or intellectual weight, our actions–our votes, our choices–are at the mercy of the flawed picture of the world that various media provide.

The “liberty” of Liberty and the News is the oddest and most idiosyncratic term in the book. Lippmann is not talking about the liberty of opinion or free expression that John Milton defended in Areopagitica (1644). In fact, Lippmann takes Milton to task for conceding free expression only to Protestant views, whose variations he was indifferent to, while condemning Catholic positions out of hand. Lippmann argues that liberty is the effort to protect for public use access to a factual record. It is the freedom to be roped to the mast of reality and to be freed from allegiance to one or another orthodoxy, preconception or lie. Liberty “is not so much permission as it is the construction of a system of information increasingly independent of opinion.” As for opinion journalism, he is caustic. Veracity must come first, not “edification”–and this from a man who was a regular contributor to The New Republic, who in 1923 became the editorial page editor of the New York World and wrote hundreds of editorials in his years there, and who in the 1930s took on national prominence as a syndicated opinion columnist. The monuments of placing one’s opinion first, Lippmann writes in Liberty and the News, are “the Inquisition and the invasion of Belgium.”

Lippmann looked beyond journalism for a way out of its impasse. He held out some hope for journalism schools, and though he had no specific design for educating reporters he believed that “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.” Yoke the reporters’ education to its only legitimate goal: “a professional training in journalism in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal.”

Lippmann also found reason for hope in the emergence of semi-official institutes of government research and more “specialized private agencies which attempt to give technical summaries of the work of various branches of the government.” These “political observatories,” as he called them, could improve reporting by interposing an “expert political intelligence” between the reality of government and those who reported on it. Even in the darker view of Phantom Public, which Lippmann published in 1925, he saw a flicker of light in the fact that “we live at the mere beginnings of public accounting.” There, not in the newsroom, lies hope for an informational system adequate to democracy’s needs, although Lippmann offers no real analysis of why the observatories would themselves be immune to opinion.

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.

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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy