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Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (Princeton Univ. Press 2007)(with essays by Ronald Steel & Sidney Blumenthal) 114 pp. $21.95
When I began to form my political consciousness in the early seventies, Walter Lippmann was still with us, a great venerated presence who had retreated from the nation’s main political battlefields. But traces of Lippmann could be found everywhere, his influence seemed to hang like the clouds that divided Olympus from humanity. It really seemed impossible to think of Lippmann as a “journalist.” Somehow that was too petty. He was a moral philosopher, a man whose thinking always transcended the mundane and partisan world that rose from the asphalt and sewers of Washington. Lippmann’s ideas of duty, morality and politics were very powerful. He was America’s Cicero, I thought. Like Cicero, he placed a great value on honor, on personal integrity and on the values of the republic. Firstly, on human liberty. And like Cicero’s friend Atticus, he derided those who allowed their spirits to be consumed by the world of the partisan, who became fixated with power, who lost sight of the foundational values.
Lippmann was a rare thing. True he was a journalist. And yet he transcended that calling effortlessly. The great qualities that can be associated with America as a nation in the twentieth century are Lippmann’s qualities as an individual.
Princeton University Press is about to reissue Lippmann’s Liberty and the News, a book that should be on the must-read five foot shelf of any aspiring young reporter. It reminds us of the essential role of the press and reporters in safeguarding the values of the republic. Writing in 1920, Lippmann talks about the issues which are fundamental to a free press in a democratic society. He tackles the press’s delusive self-importance, how rumor-mongering and innuendo cheapen society on one hand while timidity and abasement before powerful interests corrupt it. And at its core, Lippmann tackles the essential worry. What happens when those in power seize the press by the throat and use it to suppress criticism and spin the news. Those were vital problems for America in 1920. America’s press blossomed after that time, but more recently it has been in a tailspin.
Today I listened to a baleful account from a reporter at an important medium-sized city newspaper in North Alabama—a state whose press is truly scraping the bottom of American journalism. The reporter described how the state’s powerful and vindictive Republican Governor had spoken to the paper’s publisher to complain about a couple of articles which had reported on corruption in the administration of public contracts. The governor wanted this stopped. And immediately thereafter the publisher summoned the offending journalist, my relator’s colleague, up from Montgomery to advise him that he had a “fixation with contract corruption,” implying that this reporting must stop. The newspaper’s staff, I am told, was demoralized. They now recognized that the fix was in and that their paper’s coverage was being directly manipulated by political figures who should be its subject. Alabama’s descent into the status of an American banana republic has much to do with the mortally corrupted standards of its major papers, with only a couple of notable exceptions in the small cities. Lippmann tells us that you can hardly have a real democracy without a functioning press. Lippmann called it just right.
The Princeton edition is outfitted with a couple of impressive essays, including one by Sidney Blumenthal which has also now been posted at Salon. Blumenthal reduces the essence of Lippmann’s book in just a few paragraphs:
The standards of objective journalism Lippmann painstakingly advocated in the early twentieth century, and which were adopted as ideal goals by major news organizations in midcentury, have long since been traduced, trampled, and trashed. The journalistic world before the Vietnam War was, to be sure, hardly a golden age. The pliability of much of the national press in the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting smear campaigns occurred in the middle of those happy days. Golden ages glitter only in retrospect as viewed from the junkyard of the present. Nonetheless, there has been a steady degeneration of the press over the past few decades, involving both the willful self-destruction of hard-won credibility and the rationalization of dull incomprehension as invulnerable self-importance. The gap between Lippmann’s ideals and present realities is one of the major reasons why Liberty and the News remains so pertinent — and so troubling — nearly ninety years after its publication.
“For in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism,” Lippmann wrote. That sentence was distilled from years of hope turned to despair. Lippmann had ferried from the offices of The New Republic, located in New York, to the White House, where he helped work on speeches for Woodrow Wilson. After the entry of the United States in the world war in 1917, Lippmann enthusiastically accepted an appointment as the U.S. representative on the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board, with the rank of captain. But Captain Lippmann soon crossed swords with George Creel, chief of the Committee on Public Information, an official federal government agency that whipped up war support through jingoism. When Lippmann submitted a blistering report in 1918 on how the committee manipulated news to foster national hysteria, Creel sought his dismissal — and Lippmann quit his post to assist the U.S. delegation at the Versailles peace conference. The year following the war, 1919, began with Wilson greeted as a messiah and ended with him politically broken and physically paralyzed. His collapse personified the wreckage of Progressive idealism. Lippmann focused his attention on the part played by the press.
“Everywhere today,” Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News, “men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. Increasingly they are baffled because the facts are not available; and they are wondering whether government by consent can survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise.”
Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the “manufacture of consent” had deranged democracy. But he did not hold those in government solely responsible. He also described how the press corps was carried away on the wave of patriotism and became self-censors, enforcers, and sheer propagandists. Their careerism, cynicism, and error made them destroyers of “liberty of opinion” and agents of intolerance, who subverted the American constitutional system of self-government. Even the great newspaper owners, he wrote, “believe that edification is more important than veracity. They believe it profoundly, violently, relentlessly. They preen themselves upon it. To patriotism, as they define it from day to day, all other considerations must yield. That is their pride. And yet what is this but one more among myriad examples of the doctrine that the end justifies the means? A more insidiously misleading rule of conduct was, I believe, never devised among men.”
But brilliant as Blumenthal’s essay is, it is no substitute for Lippmann’s book. As the book was appearing and circulating, with its blistering critique of an irresponsible press and its wartime coverage, the deals which would later emerge as the Teapot Dome scandal were transpiring. They occurred and remained cloaked for so long because of the political manipulation of the press in America. It was the greatest scandal in America’s history, up to that point. And since, it has been dwarfed by scandals of the Age of Bush. The observations and lessons Lippmann offered for America in 1920 are fully applicable to us today. Only more so. And where is the Walter Lippmann of our age? Perhaps he or she is out there still unrecognized. Let’s hope for that in any event.
More from Scott Horton:
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In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”
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“Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.”