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.