Walter Lippmann – Father of Modern Journalism


I decided to find the original sources for many of Chomsky’s quotes from Lippmann’s works. Turns out Chomsky was right.

Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889 – December 14, 1974) was an American writer, reporter, and political commentator famous for being among the first to introduce the concept of Cold War, coining the term “stereotype” in the modern psychological meaning, and critiquing media and democracy in his newspaper column and several books, most notably his 1922 book Public Opinion.

Lippmann was also a notable author for the Council on Foreign Relations and played a notable role in Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I board of inquiry, as its research director. He has also been highly praised with titles ranging anywhere from “most influential” journalist of the 20th century, to “Father of Modern Journalism”.

Michael Schudson writes that James W. Carey considered Walter Lippmann’s book Public Opinion as “the founding book of modern journalism” and also “the founding book in American media studies”.

Lippmann wrote in his 1922 book Public Opinion:

Chapter 15: Leaders and the Rank and File, Pg. 248

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power…. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

Lippmann’s theory of democracy divides citizens into two groups: The “bewildered public” and the “responsible men”. Notice how these terms are a use of propaganda itself. These are the ruling elites vs the lower classes. Our founding fathers would recognized and relate to these terms immediately.

In The Phantom Public, published in 1925, Lippmann writes:

Chapter 2: The Unattainable Ideal:

If the voter cannot grasp the details of the problems of the day because he has not the time, the interest or the knowledge, he will not have a better public opinion because he is asked to express his opinion more often. He will simply be more bewildered, more bored and more ready to follow along.

Chapter 13: The Principles of Public Opinion:

Democracy, therefore, has never developed an education for the public. It has merely given it a smattering of the kind of knowledge which the responsible man requires. It has, in fact, aimed not at making good citizens but at making a mass of amateur executives. It has not taught the child how to act as a member of the public. It has merely given him a hasty, incomplete taste of what he might have to know if he meddled in everything. The result is a bewildered public and a mass of insufficiently trained officials. The responsible men have obtained their training not from the courses in “civics” but in the law schools and law offices and in business. The public at large, which includes everybody outside the field of his own responsible knowledge, has no coherent political training of any kind.

These critics have seen that the important decisions were taken by individuals, and that public opinion was uninformed, irrelevant and meddlesome. They have usually concluded that there was a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many.

The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land.

A personal favorite of mine comes from Chapter 14 which is aptly titled: Society in its Place:

A false ideal of democracy can lead only to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny.

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd.

Chapter 16: The Realms of Disorder:

I have conceived public opinion to be, not the voice of God, nor the voice of society, but the voice of the interested spectators of action. I have, therefore, supposed that the opinions of the spectators must be essentially different from those of the actors.

The term “propaganda,” incidentally, did not have negative connotations until the second World War when it became associated with Nazi Germany. In this period, the term propaganda just meant information.


Public Opinion (1922) PDF

The Phantom Public (1925) PDF

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