Walter Lippmann - Career

Career

Lippmann was a journalist, a media critic and a philosopher who tried to reconcile the tensions between liberty and democracy in a complex and modern world, as in his 1920 book Liberty and the News.

In 1913, Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and Walter Weyl became the founding editors of The New Republic magazine. During World War I, Lippmann became an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and assisted in the drafting of Wilson's Fourteen Points speech. He sharply criticized George Creel, whom the President appointed to head wartime propaganda efforts at the committee on Public Information. While he was prepared to curb his liberal instincts because of the war saying he had "no doctrinaire belief in free speech", he nonetheless advised Wilson that censorship should "never be entrusted to anyone who is not himself tolerant, nor to anyone who is unacquainted with the long record of folly which is the history of suppression."

Walter Lippmann examined the coverage of newspapers and saw many inaccuracies and other problems. He and Charles Merz, in a 1920 study entitled A Test of the News, stated that The New York Times' coverage of the Bolshevik revolution was biased and inaccurate. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize-winning column "Today and Tomorrow," he published several books. Lippmann was the first to bring the phrase "cold war" to common currency in his 1947 book by the same name.

It was Lippmann who first identified the tendency of journalists to generalize about other people based on fixed ideas. He argued that people—including journalists—are more apt to believe "the pictures in their heads" than come to judgment by critical thinking. Humans condense ideas into symbols, he wrote, and journalism, a force quickly becoming the mass media, is an ineffective method of educating the public. Even if journalists did better jobs of informing the public about important issues, Lippmann believed "the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation." Citizens, he wrote, were too self-centered to care about public policy except as pertaining to pressing local issues.

Lippmann saw the purpose of journalism as "intelligence work". Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era and some critics argue the model needs rethinking in post-industrial societies.

Though a journalist himself, he did not assume that news and truth are synonymous. For Lippmann, the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”

To his mind, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that the stability the government achieved during the patronage era of the 19th century was threatened by modern realities. He wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges.

The basic problem of democracy, he wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. By seeing first, he argued, it is possible to sanitize polluted information. Lippmann argued that seeing through stereotypes (which he coined in this specific meaning) subjected us to partial truths. Lippmann called the notion of a public competent to direct public affairs a "false ideal." He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain.

Early on Lippmann said the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality." This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as "elites," were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the "omnicompetent citizen". Later, in The Phantom Public (1925), he recognized that the class of experts were also, in most respects, outsiders to any particular problem, and hence, not capable of effective action. Philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) agreed with Lippmann's assertions that the modern world was becoming too complex for every citizen to grasp all its aspects, but Dewey, unlike Lippmann, believed that the public (a composite of many “publics” within society) could form a “Great Community” that could become educated about issues, come to judgments and arrive at solutions to societal problems.

Following the removal from office of Henry A. Wallace in September 1946, Lippmann became the leading public advocate of the need to respect a Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, as opposed to the containment strategy being advocated at the time by people like George F. Kennan. In July 1959 Lippman denied that Castro's regime will be allied with the USSR saying: "It would be a great mistake even to intimate that Castro's Cuba has any real prospect of becoming a Soviet satellite."

Lippmann was an informal adviser to several presidents. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson presented Lippmann with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He later had a rather famous feud with Johnson over his handling of the Vietnam War, of which Lippmann had become highly critical.

Lippman retired from his syndicated column in 1967, and died in 1974.

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