Highlights from Lippmann’s “Public Opinion”
Post from April 5, 2017 (↻ December 9, 2020), filed under Everything Else.
Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (Everything the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.
Our first concern with fictions and symbols is to forget their value to the existing social order, and to think of them simply as an important part of the machinery of human communication.
The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.
[…]it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.
[…]we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates.
The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom
[…]to suspend response until the returns are in. The response is instantaneous. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.
[…]what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. […]The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.
[…]the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.
Within a few hours those two or three hundred words would be read all over the world. They would paint a picture in men’s minds of what was happening on the slopes of Verdun, and in front of that picture people would take heart or despair.
[…]as a matter of fact, the French General Staff was not fully prepared for the German offensive. […]therefore, of letting the public act on all the facts which the generals knew, the authorities presented only certain facts, and these only in such a way as would be most likely to steady the people.
There had been no battle at Douaumont and no losses. Nor had the French troops advanced beyond it as the communiqués seemed to say. They were beyond it on either side, to be sure, but the fort was in enemy hands.
Yet from the communiqué everyone believed that the fort was half surrounded. The words did not explicitly say so, but “the press, as usual, forced the pace.”
It is necessary to remember that at this time, and in fact until late in 1917, the orthodox view of the war for all the Allied peoples was that it would be decided by “attrition.” Nobody believed in a war of movement. It was insisted that strategy did not count, or diplomacy. It was simply a matter of killing Germans. The general public more or less believed the dogma, but it had constantly to be reminded of it in face of spectacular German successes.
We have learned to call this propaganda. A group of men, who can prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to suit their purpose. That the purpose was in this case patriotic does not affect the argument
The General Staff of an army in the field is so placed that within wide limits it can control what the public will perceive. It controls the selection of correspondents who go to the front, controls their movements at the front, reads and censors their messages from the front, and operates the wires. The Government behind the army by its command of cables and passports, mails and custom houses and blockades increases the control. It emphasizes it by legal power over publishers, over public meetings, and by its secret service. But in the case of an army the control is far from perfect. There is always the enemy’s communiqué, which in these days of wireless cannot be kept away from neutrals. Above all there is the talk of the soldiers, which blows back from the front, and is spread about when they are on leave.
Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible.
The military censorship is the simplest form of barrier, but by no means the most important, because it is known to exist, and is therefore in certain measure agreed to and discounted.
The frontier between what is concealed because publication is not, as we say, “compatible with the public interest” fades gradually into what is concealed because it is believed to be none of the public’s business. The notion of what constitutes a person’s private affairs is elastic.
[…]The sale of a piece of land is not private, but the price may be. Salaries are generally treated as more private than wages, incomes as more private than inheritances.
There was a time when the affairs of all corporations were held to be as private as a man’s theology is today. There was a time before that when his theology was held to be as public a matter as the color of his eyes. But infectious diseases, on the other hand, were once as private as the processes of a man’s digestion. The history of the notion of privacy would be an entertaining tale.
It is often very illuminating
[…]to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted to see?
Every time a government relaxes the passport ceremonies or the customs inspection, every time a new railway or a new port is opened, a new shipping line established, every time rates go up or down, the mails move faster or more slowly, the cables are uncensored and made less expensive, highways built, or widened, or improved, the circulation of ideas is influenced.
The size of a man’s income has considerable effect on his access to the world beyond his neighborhood.
[…]The income of the individual, and the income of the community determine the amount of communication that is possible.
There are portions of the sovereign people who spend most of their spare time and spare money
[…]on the same old themes. They cannot really be said to suffer from censorship, or secrecy, the high cost or the difficulty of communication. They suffer from anemia, from lack of appetite, and curiosity for the human scene.
It is in the social set that ideas derived from reading and lectures and from the circle of talk converge, are sorted out, accepted, rejected, judged, and sanctioned. There it is finally decided in each phase of a discussion which authorities and which sources of information are admissible, and which not.
Usually the distinguishing mark of a social set is the presumption that the children may intermarry.
In the social set
[…]opinions encounter the canons of Family Tradition, Respectability, Propriety, Dignity, Taste, and Form, which make up the social set’s picture of itself, a picture assiduously implanted in the children.
[…]the social superior is likely to be imitated by the social inferior, the holder of power is imitated by subordinates, the more successful by the less successful, the rich by the poor, the city by the country. But imitation does not stop at frontiers.
The powerful, socially superior, successful, rich, urban social set is fundamentally international throughout the western hemisphere, and in many ways London is its center.
[…]in this Highest Society the big decisions of war and peace, of social strategy and the ultimate distribution of political power, are intimate experiences within a circle of what, potentially at least, are personal acquaintances.
[…]in truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious, and open-hearted. […]We are concerned in public affairs, but immersed in our private ones.
It is doubtful whether a supreme master of style could pack all the elements of truth that complete justice would demand into a hundred word account of what had happened in Korea during the course of several months. For language is by no means a perfect vehicle of meanings.
The child has no sense of time, and almost none of space
No wonder that the magazines with the large circulations prefer the face of a pretty girl to any other trade mark, a face, pretty enough to be alluring, but innocent enough to be acceptable. For the “psychic level” on which the stimulus acts determines whether the public is to be potentially a large or a small one.
Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe.
For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
[…]out of trained observers writing a responsible account of a scene that had just happened before their eyes, more than a majority saw a scene that had not taken place. What then did they see? […]They saw their stereotype of such a brawl. All of them had in the course of their lives acquired a series of images of brawls, and these images flickered before their eyes.
[…]physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice, or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a “South European.” He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man.
Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real. They come, we imagine, directly to us without human meddling, and they are the most effortless food for the mind conceivable. Any description in words, or even any inert picture, requires an effort of memory before a picture exists in the mind. But on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you.
[…]we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.
Our stereotyped world is not necessarily the world we should like it to be. It is simply the kind of world we expect it to be.
[…]when a system of stereotypes is well fixed, our attention is called to those facts which support it, and diverted from those which contradict. So perhaps it is because they are attuned to find it, that kindly people discover so much reason for kindness, malicious people so much malice.
[…]power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion.
[…]it […]so dangerous to generalize about human nature. A loving father can be a sour boss, an earnest municipal reformer, and a rapacious jingo abroad.
The orthodox theory holds that a public opinion constitutes a moral judgment on a group of facts. The theory I am suggesting is that, in the present state of education, a public opinion is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts.
The longest duration which we immediately feel is what is called the “specious present.” It endures, according to Titchener, for about six seconds.
[…]“All impressions within this period of time are present to us at once. This makes it possible for us to perceive changes and events as well as stationary objects. The perceptual present is supplemented by the ideational present. Through the combination of perceptions with memory images, entire days, months, and even years of the past are brought together into the present.”
[…]vividness, as James said, is proportionate to the number of discriminations we perceive within it. Thus a vacation in which we were bored with nothing to do passes slowly while we are in it, but seems very short in memory. Great activity kills time rapidly, but in memory its duration is long.
If the future is long enough, the human will might turn what is just conceivable into what is very likely, and what is likely into what is sure to happen. James called this the faith ladder
The more untrained a mind, the more readily it works out a theory that two things which catch its attention at the same time are causally connected.
[…]our apprehension is deeply controlled by our stereotypes […].
In a superstitious mind
[…]emotion is a stream of molten lava which catches and imbeds whatever it touches. When you excavate in it you find, as in a buried city, all sorts of objects ludicrously entangled in each other. Anything can be related to anything else […].
We cannot be much interested in, or much moved by, the things we do not see.
[…]a person can often steer his own life with the utmost grace by virtue of his intuitions […].
[…]there are two forms of exercise which far transcend all others, both as to ease with which they are aroused, and eagerness with which stimuli for them are sought. They are sexual passion and fighting, and the two have so many associations with each other, blend into each other so intimately, that a fight about sex outranks every other theme in the breadth of its appeal.
[…]in order to make politics popular, issues have to be found, even when in truth and justice, there are none […].
If the plot lacks suspense:
Add an antagonist,
Add an obstacle,
Add a problem,
Emphasize one of the questions in the minds of the spectator.
What will be accepted as true, as realistic, as good, as evil, as desirable, is not eternally fixed. These are fixed by stereotypes, acquired from earlier experiences and carried over into judgment of later ones.
“The hero and heroine must in general possess youth, beauty, goodness, exalted self-sacrifice, and unalterable constancy.”
[…]the skillful propagandist knows that while you must start with a plausible analysis, you must not keep on analyzing, because the tedium of real political accomplishment will soon destroy interest. So the propagandist exhausts the interest in reality by a tolerably plausible beginning, and then stokes up energy for a long voyage by brandishing a passport to heaven.
Sometimes an artist of compelling skill will force us to enter into lives altogether unlike our own
[…]. In almost every story that catches our attention we become a character and act out the role with a pantomime of our own. The pantomime may be subtle or gross, may be sympathetic to the story, or only crudely analogous; but it will consist of those feelings which are aroused by our conception of the role.
[The individual] does not take his personal problems as partial samples of the greater environment. He takes his stories of the greater environment as a mimic enlargement of his private life.
Nobody confronts every situation with the same character.
We have learned to note many selves, and to be a little less ready to issue judgment upon them. We understand that we see the same body, but often a different man, depending on whether he is dealing with a social equal, a social inferior, or a social superior; on whether he is making love to a woman he is eligible to marry, or to one whom he is not; on whether he is courting a woman, or whether he considers himself her proprietor; on whether he is dealing with his children, his partners, his most trusted subordinates, the boss who can make him or break him; on whether he is struggling for the necessities of life, or successful; on whether he is dealing with a friendly alien, or a despised one; on whether he is in great danger, or in perfect security; on whether he is alone in Paris or among his family in Peoria.
In the repertory of characters
[…]there is a whole range of selves, from that one at the top which we should wish God to see, to those at the bottom that we ourselves do not dare to see. […]Some never come out into public view. Others are called out only by exceptional circumstances. But the characters take their form from a man’s conception of the situation in which he finds himself.
Murderous hate is, for example, controlled in civil life. Though you choke with rage, you must not display it as a parent, child, employer, politician. You would not wish to display a personality that exudes murderous hate. You frown upon it, and the people around you also frown. But if a war breaks out, the chances are that everybody you admire will begin to feel the justification of killing and hating.
[…]in a world falsely conceived, our own characters are falsely conceived, and we misbehave. So the moralist must choose: either he must offer a pattern of conduct for every phase of life, however distasteful some of its phases may be, or he must guarantee that his pupils will never be confronted by the situations he disapproves. Either he must abolish war, or teach people how to wage it with the greatest psychic economy; either he must abolish the economic life of man […]or he must investigate all the perplexities of economic life and offer patterns of conduct […]. But that is just what the prevailing moral culture so generally refuses to do.
[…]men’s ideas of all things and of themselves are not instinctive. They are acquired.
[…]the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.
[…]in trying to explain a certain public opinion, it is rarely obvious which of a man’s many social relations is effecting a particular opinion. Does Smith’s opinion arise from his problems as a landlord, an importer, an owner of railway shares, or an employer? Does Jones’s opinion, Jones being a weaver in a textile mill, come from the attitude of his boss, the competition of new immigrants, his wife’s grocery bills, or the ever present contract with the firm which is selling him a Ford car and a house and lot on the instalment plan? Without special inquiry you cannot tell. The economic determinist cannot tell.
A man’s various economic contacts limit or enlarge the range of his opinions. But which of the contacts, in what guise, on what theory, the materialistic conception of politics cannot predict.
There is no fixed set of opinions on any question that go with being the owner of a factory
[…]. The determinist can predict that in cases out of a hundred the owner will resist attempts to deprive him of ownership, or that he will favor legislation which he thinks will increase his profits. But since there is no magic in ownership which enables a business man to know what laws will make him prosper, there is no chain of cause and effect described in economic materialism which enables anyone to prophesy whether the owner will take a long view or a short one, a competitive or a cooperative.
Why did he go wrong? Why did his greatest disciple, Lenin, go wrong? Because the Marxians thought that men’s economic position would irresistibly produce a clear conception of their economic interests. They thought they themselves possessed that clear conception, and that what they knew the rest of mankind would learn. The event has shown, not only that a clear conception of interest does not arise automatically in everyone, but that it did not arise even in Marx and Lenin themselves. After all that Marx and Lenin have written, the social behavior of mankind is still obscure.
assumes the existence of a specific class interest. That assumption is false. A class interest can be conceived largely or narrowly, selfishly or unselfishly, in the light of no facts, some facts, many facts, truth and error. And so collapses the Marxian remedy for class conflicts. That remedy assumes that if all property could be held in common, class differences would disappear. The assumption is false.
[…]when you consider that all the important tendencies of the creature, his appetites, his loves, his hates, his curiosity, his sexual cravings, his fears, and pugnacity, are freely attachable to all sorts of objects as stimulus, and to all kinds of objects as gratification, the complexity of human nature is not so inconceivable.
[…]There is no prima facie case then for supposing that because persons crave some particular thing, or behave in some particular way, human nature is fatally constituted to crave that and act thus. The craving and the action are both learned, and in another generation might be learned differently.
[…]the emotions and ideas in the members of a group do not disclose anything so simple and so crystalline as the formula which those same individuals will accept as a true statement of their Public Opinion.
are often better teachers than the virtuoso to whom the art is so much second nature that he himself does not know how he does it. The statement that those who can, do; those who cannot, teach, is not nearly so much of a reflection on the teacher as it sounds.
[…]the candidate says that correct principles ought to be applied. Everybody believes in correct principles, and everybody, of course, believes he possesses them.
[…]by letting the words mean all things to all men, the speech passes for a while to safer ground.
[…]what cannot be compromised must be obliterated, when there is a question on which we cannot all hope to get together, let us pretend that it does not exist.
[…]if a man is trying to compare two complicated situations, he soon finds exhausting the attempt to hold both fully in mind in all their detail. He employs a shorthand of names and signs and samples. He has to do this if he is to advance at all, because he cannot carry the whole baggage in every phrase through every step he takes. But if he forgets that he has substituted and simplified, he soon lapses into verbalism, and begins to talk about names regardless of objects.
People differ widely in their susceptibility to ideas. There are some in whom the idea of a starving child in Russia is practically as vivid as a starving child within sight. There are others who are almost incapable of being excited by a distant idea. There are many gradations between. And there are people who are insensitive to facts, and aroused only by ideas.
[…]you may be able to unite if you can find some symbol which is the antithesis of what they all hate. […]The symbol in itself signifies literally no one thing in particular, but it can be associated with almost anything. And because of that it can become the common bond of common feelings, even though those feelings were originally attached to disparate ideas.
When political parties or newspapers declare for Americanism, Progressivism, Law and Order, Justice, Humanity, they hope to amalgamate the emotion of conflicting factions which would surely divide, if, instead of these symbols, they were invited to discuss a specific program. For when a coalition around the symbol has been effected, feeling flows toward conformity under the symbol rather than toward critical scrutiny of the measures.
[…]there is no power in the symbol, except that which it acquires by association in the human mind.
Since the offering of symbols is so generous, and the meaning that can be imputed is so elastic, how does any particular symbol take root in any particular person’s mind? It is planted there by another human being whom we recognize as authoritative. If it is planted deeply enough, it may be that later we shall call the person authoritative who waves that symbol at us. But in the first instance symbols are made congenial and important because they are introduced to us by congenial and important people.
Except on a few subjects where our own knowledge is great, we cannot choose between true and false accounts. So we choose between trustworthy and untrustworthy reporters.
Theoretically we ought to choose the most expert on each subject. But the choice of the expert, though a good deal easier than the choice of truth, is still too difficult and often impracticable. The experts themselves are not in the least certain who among them is the most expert. And at that, the expert, even when we can identify him, is, likely as not, too busy to be consulted, or impossible to get at.
If we could not take practically everything for granted, we should spend our lives in utter triviality.
In the hierarchy each is dependent upon a superior and is in turn superior to some class of his dependents. What holds the machine together is a system of privileges.
[…]you can break up a particular machine by abolishing its privileges.
“No one,” says Bryce,
[…]“can have had some years’ experience of the conduct of affairs in a legislature or an administration without observing how extremely small is the number of persons by whom the world is governed.”
Nowhere is the idyllic theory of democracy realized.
[…]by mass action nothing can be constructed, devised, negotiated, or administered. […]It may win, for example, the right to joint control. But it cannot exercise the right except through an organization. A nation can clamor for war, but when it goes to war it must put itself under orders from a general staff. […]
The professional politicians learned this long before the democratic philosophers. And so they organized the caucus, the nominating convention, and the steering committee, as the means of formulating a definite choice. Everyone who wishes to accomplish anything that requires the cooperation of a large number of people follows their example.
[…]the leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd.
“Above all things,” says Bagehot, “our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it.”
The disintegration of a symbol, like Holy Russia, or the Iron Diaz, is always the beginning of a long upheaval.
The question of a proper fare on a municipal subway is symbolized as an issue between the People and the Interests, and then the People is inserted in the symbol American, so that finally in the heat of a campaign, an eight cent fare becomes un-American. The Revolutionary fathers died to prevent it.
[…]the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand.
[…]when quick results are imperative, the manipulation of masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done.
[…]when two conflicting opinions, though one happens to be right, are more perilous than one opinion which is wrong. The wrong opinion may have bad results, but the two opinions may entail disaster by dissolving unity.
[…]where masses of people must cooperate in an uncertain and eruptive environment, it is usually necessary to secure unity and flexibility without real consent. The symbol does that. It obscures personal intention, neutralizes discrimination, and obfuscates individual purpose. […]It renders the mass mobile though it immobilizes personality. The symbol is the instrument by which in the short run the mass escapes from its own inertia, the inertia of indecision, or the inertia of headlong movement […].
Leaders often pretend that they have merely uncovered a program which existed in the minds of their public. When they believe it, they are usually deceiving themselves. Programs do not invent themselves synchronously in a multitude of minds. That is not because a multitude of minds is necessarily inferior to that of the leaders, but because thought is the function of an organism, and a mass is not an organism.
[…]the mass is constantly exposed to suggestion. It reads not the news, but the news with an aura of suggestion about it, indicating the line of action to be taken. […]Thus the ostensible leader often finds that the real leader is a powerful newspaper proprietor.
So when a new policy is to be launched, there is a preliminary bid for community of feeling
Provided they think publicity will not strengthen opposition too much, and that debate will not delay action too long, they seek a certain measure of consent. They take, if not the whole mass, then the subordinates of the hierarchy sufficiently into their confidence to prepare them for what might happen, and to make them feel that they have freely willed the result.
It takes stupendous and persistent blundering, plus almost infinite tactlessness, to start a revolution from below. Palace revolutions, interdepartmental revolutions, are a different matter.
[…]all leaders are not statesmen, all leaders hate to resign, and most leaders find it hard to believe that bad as things are, the other fellow would not make them worse.
[…]the number of people to whom any organization can be a successful valet is limited, and shrewd politicians take care to attend either the influential, or somebody so blatantly uninfluential that to pay any attention to him is a mark of sensational magnanimity. The far greater number who cannot be held by favors, the anonymous multitude, receive propaganda.
[…]since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist.
[…]it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. 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 would have been visionary to suppose that a time would come when distant and complicated events could conceivably be reported, analyzed, and presented in such a form that a really valuable choice could be made by an amateur. That time is now in sight. There is no longer any doubt that the continuous reporting of an unseen environment is feasible.
“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention… and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”—Madison
[…]the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen is for most practical purposes true in the rural township. Everybody in a village sooner or later tries his hand at everything the village does.
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” wrote Madison
[…]“the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
[…]the Constitution was, in spirit, rewritten. Partly by actual amendment, partly by practice, as in the case of the electoral college, but chiefly by looking at it through another set of stereotypes, the facade was no longer permitted to look oligarchic.
The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such. They owe that fiction to the victory of Thomas Jefferson, and a great conservative fiction it has been.
[…]the districts always sent their wisest men, the sum or a combination of local impressions is not a wide enough base for national policy, and no base at all for the control of foreign policy.
The cleverest and most industrious representative cannot hope to understand a fraction of the bills on which he votes. The best he can do is to specialize on a few bills, and take somebody’s word about the rest.
Modern democracy and the industrial system were both born in a time of reaction against kings, crown government, and a regime of detailed economic regulation.
Coercion is the surd in almost all social theory, except the Machiavellian. The temptation to ignore it, because it is absurd, inexpressible, and unmanageable, becomes overwhelming in any man who is trying to rationalize human life.
experience in the shop at best brings only aspects of the whole to his attention. His opinion of what is right within the shop he can reach by direct knowledge of the essential facts. His opinion of what is right in the great complicated environment out of sight is more likely to be wrong than right if it is a generalization from the experience of the individual shop.
[…]the public opinions of a shop about its rights and duties in the industry and in society, are matters of education or propaganda, not the automatic product of shop-consciousness.
[…]there is also the man who is uninstructed and does not know that he is, or care. He can always be gotten to the polls, if the party machinery is working. His vote is the basis of the machine.
Because the art of successful self-government is not instinctive, men do not long desire self-government for its own sake. They desire it for the sake of the results. That is why the impulse to self-government is always strongest as a protest against bad conditions.
For no matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source.
If you try to control government wholly at the source, you inevitably make all the vital decisions invisible.
This casual and one-sided relationship between readers and press is an anomaly of our civilization. There is nothing else quite like it, and it is, therefore, hard to compare the press with any other business or institution. It is not a business pure and simple, partly because the product is regularly sold below cost, but chiefly because the community applies one ethical measure to the press and another to trade or manufacture. Ethically a newspaper is judged as if it were a church or a school. But if you try to compare it with these you fail
The citizen will pay for his telephone, his railroad rides, his motor car, his entertainment. But he does not pay openly for his news.
He will, however, pay handsomely for the privilege of having someone read about him. He will pay directly to advertise. And he will pay indirectly for the advertisements of other people, because that payment, being concealed in the price of commodities is part of an invisible environment that he does not effectively comprehend.
A newspaper which angers those whom it pays best to reach through advertisements is a bad medium for an advertiser.
A newspaper can flout an advertiser, it can attack a powerful banking or traction interest, but if it alienates the buying public, it loses the one indispensable asset of its existence.
A newspaper that can really depend upon the loyalty of its readers is as independent as a newspaper can be, given the economics of modern journalism. (
[…]“It is an axiom in newspaper publishing—‘more readers, more independence of the influence of advertisers; fewer readers and more dependence on the advertiser.’ It may seem like a contradiction (yet it is the truth) to assert: the greater the number of advertisers, the less influence they are individually able to exercise with the publisher.”—Adolph S. Ochs […]) A body of readers who stay by it through thick and thin is a power greater than any which the individual advertiser can wield, and a power great enough to break up a combination of advertisers.
[…]each of us tends to judge a newspaper, if we judge it at all, by its treatment of that part of the news in which we feel ourselves involved.
Begin with a clear conception that the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors.
Reporting, which theoretically constitutes the foundation of the whole institution, is the most poorly paid branch of newspaper work, and is the least regarded. By and large, able men go into it only by necessity or for experience, and with the definite intention of being graduated as soon as possible.
[…]this economic principle operates with such peculiar violence in journalism that newsgathering does not attract to itself anything like the number of trained and able men which its public importance would seem to demand.
All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world.
There are lucky shots but the number of men who can make them is small. Usually it is the stereotyped shape assumed by an event at an obvious place that uncovers the run of the news. The most obvious place is where people’s affairs touch public authority.
It will be found, I think, that there is a very direct relation between the certainty of news and the system of record.
Were reporting the simple recovery of obvious facts, the press agent would be little more than a clerk. But since, in respect to most of the big topics of news, the facts are not simple, and not at all obvious, but subject to choice and opinion, it is natural that everyone should wish to make his own choice of facts for the newspapers to print.
[…]if the publicity man wishes free publicity he has, speaking quite accurately, to start something. He arranges a stunt: obstructs the traffic, teases the police, somehow manages to entangle his client or his cause with an event that is already news.
It follows that in the reporting of strikes, the easiest way is to let the news be uncovered by the overt act, and to describe the event as the story of interference with the reader’s life. That is where his attention is first aroused, and his interest most easily enlisted.
The news is an account of the overt phases that are interesting, and the pressure on the newspaper to adhere to this routine comes from many sides. It comes from the economy of noting only the stereotyped phase of a situation. It comes from the difficulty of finding journalists who can see what they have not learned to see. It comes from the almost unavoidable difficulty of finding sufficient space in which even the best journalist can make plausible an unconventional view. It comes from the economic necessity of interesting the reader quickly, and the economic risk involved in not interesting him at all, or of offending him by unexpected news insufficiently or clumsily described. All these difficulties combined make for uncertainty in the editor when there are dangerous issues at stake, and cause him naturally to prefer the indisputable fact and a treatment more readily adapted to the reader’s interest. The indisputable fact and the easy interest, are the strike itself and the reader’s inconvenience.
[…]the hardest thing to report is chaos […].
Every newspaper when it reaches the reader is the result of a whole series of selections
[…]. There are no objective standards here. There are conventions.
“It has been said” writes Walter Bagehot
[…]“that if you can only get a middle class Englishman to think whether there are ’snails in Sirius,’ he will soon have an opinion on it. It will be difficult to make him think, but if he does think, he cannot rest in a negative, he will come to some decision. And on any ordinary topic, of course, it is so. A grocer has a full creed as to foreign policy, a young lady a complete theory of the sacraments, as to which neither has any doubt whatever.”
Yet that same grocer will have many doubts about his groceries, and that young lady, marvelously certain about the sacraments, may have all kinds of doubts as to whether to marry the grocer
If we assume with Mr. Sinclair, and most of his opponents, that news and truth are two words for the same thing, we shall, I believe, arrive nowhere.
The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.
[…]The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at those points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide. That is a comparatively small part of the whole field of human interest.
[…]if there is one subject on which editors are most responsible it is in their judgment of the reliability of the source.
It is possible and necessary for journalists to bring home to people the uncertain character of the truth on which their opinions are founded
[…]the press deals with a society in which the governing forces are so imperfectly recorded. The theory that the press can itself record those forces is false. It can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion […].
If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail. It is not possible to assume that a world, carried on by division of labor and distribution of authority, can be governed by universal opinions in the whole population. Unconsciously the theory sets up the single reader as theoretically omnicompetent, and puts upon the press the burden of accomplishing whatever representative government, industrial organization, and diplomacy have failed to accomplish.
The Court of Public Opinion, open day and night, is to lay down the law for everything all the time. It is not workable. And when you consider the nature of news, it is not even thinkable. For the news, as we have seen, is precise in proportion to the precision with which the event is recorded.
[…]on the whole, the quality of the news about modern society is an index of its social organization. The better the institutions, the more all interests concerned are formally represented, the more issues are disentangled, the more objective criteria are introduced, the more perfectly an affair can be presented as news. […]
The press is no substitute for institutions. It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions.
[…]The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy. It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen, in the decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis.
[…]the social scientist cannot begin to offer the assurance of a laboratory test, and if his advice is followed, and he is wrong, the consequences may be incalculable. He is in the nature of things far more responsible, and far less certain.
has little inner certainty about his own work. He only half believes in it, and being sure of nothing, he can find no compelling reason for insisting on his own freedom of thought.
[…]His data are uncertain, his means of verification lacking.
The physical scientists achieved their freedom from clericalism by working out a method that produced conclusions of a sort that could not be suppressed or ignored.
[…]The social scientist will acquire his dignity and his strength when he has worked out his method. He will do that by turning into opportunity the need among directing men of the Great Society for instruments of analysis by which an invisible and made intelligible .
[…]all large forms of human association must, because of sheer practical difficulty, contain men who will come to see the need for an expert reporting of their particular environment […].
It is no accident that the best diplomatic service in the world is the one in which the divorce between the assembling of knowledge and the control of policy is most perfect.
[…]when begins to care too much, he begins to see what he wishes to see, and by that fact ceases to see what he is there to see.
All governing agencies will tend to organize bodies of research and information, which will throw out tentacles and expand, as have the intelligence departments of all the armies in the world. But the experts will remain human beings. They will enjoy power, and their temptation will be to appoint themselves censors, and so absorb the real function of decision. Unless their function is correctly defined they will tend to pass on the facts they think appropriate, and to pass down the decisions they approve. They will tend, in short, to become a bureaucracy.
The only institutional safeguard is to separate as absolutely as it is possible to do so the staff which executes from the staff which investigates.
[…]introduce into the existing machinery, wherever you can find an opening, agencies that will hold up a mirror week by week, month by month. You can hope, then, to make the machine visible to those who work it […].
[…]of asking ourselves whether we believe in competition, we should ask ourselves whether we believe in that for which the competitors compete.
[…]the difference between the higher and the lower motives is not, as men often assert, a difference between altruism and selfishness. […]It is a difference between acting for easily understood aims, and for aims that are obscure and vague.
So the more you are able to analyze administration and work out elements that can be compared, the more you invent quantitative measures for the qualities you wish to promote, the more you can turn competition to ideal ends.
would pretty soon become a focus of information of the most extraordinary kind. And the men in it would be made aware of what the problems of government really are. They would deal with problems of definition, of terminology, of statistical technic, of logic; they would traverse concretely the whole gamut of the social sciences. It is difficult to see why all this material, except a few diplomatic and military secrets, should not be open to the scholars of the country. It is there that the political scientist would find the real nuts to crack and the real researches for his students to make. The work need not all be done in Washington, but it could be done in reference to Washington. The central agency would, thus, have in it the makings of a national university.
You cannot take more political wisdom out of human beings than there is in them.
In real life no one acts on the theory that he can have a public opinion on every public question, though this fact is often concealed where a person thinks there is no public question because he has no public opinion.
[…]the outsider, and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgment. It is on the men inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administrations of society must rest.
[…]the practice of appealing to the public on all sorts of intricate matters means almost always a desire to escape criticism from those who know by enlisting a large majority which has had no chance to know. The verdict is made to depend on who has the loudest or the most entrancing voice, the most skilful or the most brazen publicity man, the best access to the most space in the newspapers.
Only by insisting that problems shall not come up to him until they have passed through a procedure, can the busy citizen of a modern state hope to deal with them in a form that is intelligible. For issues, as they are stated by a partisan, almost always consist of an intricate series of facts, as he has observed them, surrounded by a large fatty mass of stereotyped phrases charged with his emotion.
[…]the dialectic in modern life must be done by men who have explored the environment as well as the human mind.
[…]the teacher cannot hope to prepare men fully for the world they will find. What he can do is to prepare them to deal with that world with a great deal more sophistication about their own minds. He can, by the use of the case method, teach the pupil the habit of examining the sources of his information. He can teach him, for example, to look in his newspaper for the place where the dispatch was filed, for the name of the correspondent, the name of the press service, the authority given for the statement, the circumstances under which the statement was secured. He can teach the pupil to ask himself whether the reporter saw what he describes, and to remember how that reporter described other events in the past. He can teach him the character of censorship, of the idea of privacy, and furnish him with knowledge of past propaganda. He can, by the proper use of history, make him aware of the stereotype, and can educate a habit of introspection about the imagery evoked by printed words. He can, by courses in comparative history and anthropology, produce a life-long realization of the way codes impose a special pattern upon the imagination. He can teach men to catch themselves making allegories, dramatizing relations, and personifying abstractions. He can show the pupil how he identifies himself with these allegories, how he becomes interested, and how he selects the attitude, heroic, romantic, economic which he adopts while holding a particular opinion. The study of error is not only in the highest degree prophylactic, but it serves as a stimulating introduction to the study of truth.
[…]there is an inherent difficulty about using the method of reason to deal with an unreasoning world.
Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences.
[…]the rate at which reason, as we possess it, can advance itself is slower than the rate at which action has to be taken. In the present state of political science there is, therefore, a tendency for one situation to change into another, before the first is clearly understood, and so to make much political criticism hindsight and little else.
[…]where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous, and it is necessary to live as if good will would work. […]hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion.
Read the whole book: Public Opinion.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs. Available at Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.