No Comment — October 26, 2007, 12:18 am

Walter Lippmann, Remembered

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.”

teapot-dome

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of cast members of the movie Predator who have run for governor:

3

A Georgia Tech engineer created software that endows unmanned aerial drones with a sense of guilt.

Roy Moore, a 70-year-old lawyer and Republican candidate for the US Senate who once accidentally stabbed himself with a murder weapon while prosecuting a case in an Alabama courtroom, was accused of having sexually assaulted two women, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson, while he was an assistant district attorney in his thirties and they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today