Lippman on the Media

Walter Lippmann was an astute political philosopher, journalist, and economist. He (rightly) viewed competent journalists as critical to democracy, while ignorant journalists, and ignorance of journalism, was a threat to democracy.

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.

Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 1920

The journalist, Lippman believed, was the interpreter between policymakers and the public. While the people had the right to know about national policies, defense policy, he singled out, should not be shaped by public opinion.

These views probably motivated Lippmann to engage in the information wars of the time as he went to Europe in 1918 on behalf of the War Department and the State Department. The two agencies, along with the Navy Department, were behind the Committee for Public Information. Lippmann, however, was involved primarily with the foreign section of the CPI, which was run differently, at times diametrically, to how CPI operated within the United States.

Under orders from the War Department, which Lippmann biographer Craufurd Goodwin believes were drafted by Lippmann, he goes to Europe. In a letter to General “Blackjack” Pershing, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote:

Captain Walter Lippmann has been commissioned to assist the War Department in the dissemination of propaganda… the vigorous prosecution of his work on behalf of the Inquiry [a project working closely with Wilson’s advisor Col. House and the State Department] and the State Department will aid us in the preparation of the material to be used as propaganda.

The modern mind may cringe at the use of propaganda, but then the term was innocuous. It required a qualifier: good, bad, ours, theirs, etc. Contemporary American English dictionaries were only starting to define the word beyond the scientific distribution of seed and plants (“to propagate”).

At the time, the European information space remained nearly shuttered to any news about the United States, whether political or cultural, as a result of a global news cartel. British Reuters and French Havas were disinterested in knowledge about American policies and society moving beyond America’s shores and into Europe. At times, even after America entered the war, news about the U.S. was limited to such useless information like the former U.S. Ambassador to France having eye surgery.

The “propaganda” that Lippmann was involved with would be about getting news about the United States out, to allies, neutrals, and adversaries alike. The information included news stories written by CPI’s foreign section and the delivery of stories from the U.S. private press and wire services. The goal was to have the allied publics better informed of the realities of the day, and of their ally across the Atlantic. This work was done, in the proverbial “last three feet” by Public Affairs Officers.

The PAO was a role and title established by the foreign section that eventually migrated into the State Department. The irony, to some, is that the PAO came about because of State’s refusal to do the work. But that is another story that does not include Lippmann.