Now more than ever: Walter Lippmann and the need for reliable journalism

Walter Lippmann. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

The crisis we are living through is, as Walter Lippmann would have said, a crisis of journalism.*  Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”

The frequently stated truism that the public has lost trust in the news media is misunderstood. In fact, we trust the media we use, but the explosion of opinionated sources of news has led to an ideological sorting-out that has harmed democracy and civic discourse. As the Pew Research Center found a few years ago, a majority of liberals trust NPR, PBS, and the New York Times, whereas conservatives put their faith in Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It hardly needs to be said that the so-called liberal sources of news are practicing actual journalism, however imperfectly, whereas the conservative sources serve up a toxic brew of falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.

This polarized, choose-your-own-facts media environment is very different from the one proposed by Lippmann. A towering figure in 20th-century American journalism who was, among other things, a co-founder of The New Republic, Lippmann nearly a century ago reimagined newsgathering as a profession encompassing educational and ethical standards. Lippmann also conceived of the notion of objectivity, which, properly understood, refers to a “disinterested” pursuit of the truth. What matters, according to Lippmann, is a reporter’s independence: “Emphatically he ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Unfortunately, objectivity later came to be seen as balance without regard for the facts. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, “the concept of objectivity became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”

Lippmann laid out his vision in Liberty and the News (1920), a collection of essays in which he vividly described the rancid state of journalism in the early part of the 20th century as well as his prescription for making it better. No one is likely to improve on his description of journalism’s importance in a democratic society:

The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper, is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.

He added: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

Lippmann’s main concern was public opinion and how it is produced, for it is what we think of events, rather than the events themselves, that forms the basis of politics and policy. He takes us through philosophers from John Milton to John Stuart Mill, who espoused various forms of toleration for opinions, and he acidly observes that their indulgence of toleration tended to be in direct proportion to the inoffensiveness of those opinions. In that view, ideas are fine as long as they pose no threat to the established order. Which is to say that ideas that truly matter are not fine at all.

A better basis for public opinion, Lippmann argued, is fact — and that’s where an improved, more substantive journalism comes in. Journalists trained to use authoritative sources of information, to make sense of the torrent of news and non-news being spewed in every direction, and to report truthfully and with the proper context are vital to self-government, he wrote.

Interestingly, Lippmann predicted that if the news media could not reform themselves, they faced the specter of government regulation. “There is everywhere,” he wrote, “an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.” Some things never change. Yet, at the time Lippmann was writing, the Supreme Court was about to embark on a series of rulings that had the effect of greatly expanding freedom of speech and of the press by erecting high barriers for prior restraint, allowing virtually all criticism of the government, and making it nearly impossible for public officials and public figures to win frivolous libel suits.

***

Around the time that Lippmann was writing, the news business began adopting professional standards, partly in response to his ideas, partly as a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexity and specialization of the industrial age. Codes of ethics were promulgated, the organization that became the Society of Professional Journalists was founded, and schools of journalism were established at many universities. This was elite journalism designed to lead public opinion — a prospect that met with Lippmann’s approval. He disparaged the typical newsroom as comprising men for whom “reporting is not a dignified profession” but was, rather, an “underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles.” He added:

How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.

In Liberty and the News, Lippmann balanced his fundamental elitism with his concern for the informational needs of the public. In his later writings, though, the balance tipped in favor of elitism at the expense of the public. As described by Jay Rosen in What Are Journalists For? (1999), Lippmann, starting with his best-known book, Public Opinion (1922), argued that the purpose of journalism was to mold opinion — to “manufacture consent” — for a public that lacked the time and the inclination to seek out the truth for itself. Public opinion, Lippmann wrote, was “an irrational force,” adding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically.”

Speaking up in opposition to this pessimistic view, Rosen wrote, was the philosopher John Dewey, who answered Lippmann in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). In Dewey’s view, the role of journalism was not to shut out public participation but, rather, to find ways for the public to participate, especially at the community level. “Democracy for Dewey,” according to Rosen, “meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how study and discuss it.”

Today we can see the harmful effects of Lippmann-style elitism run amok. For one thing, “elite” has long since entered the vocabulary as a dirty word. Expertise itself is denigrated, and the so-called wisdom of the common people is held up as a virtuous alternative to decadent journalists and intellectuals who are allegedly out of touch with the concerns of everyday life. If we had followed Dewey instead of Lippmann, that alienation might not exist.

Here’s how the media scholar James W. Carey, in his essay “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’” (reprinted in his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1989), summarized Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann: “Public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment [as Lippmann would have it], even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life.” Imagine if journalism were a participatory process rather than a monologue driven from the top — the promise, still unfulfilled, of internet-based news. If we were in better touch with the public we ostensibly serve, it might be more apparent that the Washington Post is not the liberal equivalent of Fox News but, rather, is engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise.

***

Lippmann lived a long and influential life. As David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be (1979), Lippmann urged Katharine Graham to consider hiring Ben Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post, a move that transformed the paper into a serious rival of the New York Times and helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. As a syndicated columnist, Lippmann supported the Vietnam War and later turned against it once it became clear that the experts of whom he was so enamored had promoted a ruinous policy.

Despite Lippmann’s embrace of elitism, he remained convinced that the public needed reliable news. In 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were under fire for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, Times columnist James Reston quoted at length from a speech his old friend had given eleven years earlier about the role of the press.

“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed,” Lippmann said, “then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. … Here we correspondents perform an essential service. In some field of interest, we make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. …

“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do, but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it, and to be glad that it is our work.”

Yet Lippmann could be withering about journalism that fell short of his standards. In 1920 he and Charles Merz published an in-depth analysis of how the New York Times had covered the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They found that the Times had consistently skewed coverage in favor of what its editors wished would happen — that the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.

“In the large,” they wrote, “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” They added: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.”

Lippmann would be dispirited to see that these flaws are still with us, and that they have played out to disastrous effect over and over again. That was especially true during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when most news organizations accepted at face value the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. You could also see it in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a private email server was held up as an example of wrongdoing equal to Donald Trump’s racism, his boasts of sexual assault, and his corrupt dealings with his family’s charitable foundation.

Ninety-nine years after the publication of Liberty and the News, journalists are better educated, have higher professional standards, and are more likely to adhere to basic ethical rules. Lippmann surely played an important role in those developments. Yet deference to power and false notions of objectivity continue to plague the press, leading to coverage that falls short of serving even that portion of the public that seeks journalism rather than propaganda. Lippmann’s hopes remain unfulfilled.

*About a week and a half after this essay was published, I was paging through Thomas E. Patterson’s Informing the News when I came across this quote from Liberty and the News: “In an exact sense the present crisis in Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” I have revised my lead sentence to credit Lippmann. Obviously I had seen the sentence and it had stuck in my head, but not so completely that I had remembered where I got it. Not surprisingly, Lippmann put it far better than I could have.

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