Steel, Ronald (May 1, 1999). Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0765804646.
The press (had become) literally the "bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct." But was the press providing the reliable information the public needed? Lippmann's propaganda work had made him realize how easily public opinion could be manipulated, and how often the press distorted the news. To test his theory that the public was being denied access to the facts, he decided to conduct an experiment. Enlisting his friend Charles Merz, he examined press coverage of a crucial and controversial event, the Bolshevik revolution, for a three year period beginning with the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917. They used the New York Times as their source because of it reputation for accurate reporting.
Their study, which the called "A Test of the News" came out as a forty two page supplement to the New Republic in August 1920 and demonstrated that the Time's coverage was neither unbiased nor accurate. The paper's news stories, the concluded, were not based on facts, but were "dominated by the hopes of the men who composed the news organizations." The paper cited events that did not happen, atrocities that never took place, and reported no fewer than ninety-one times that the Bolshevik regime was on the verge of collapse. "The news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see," Lippmann and Merz charged. "The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors." The reporters, in other words, relied on hearsay and their imagination; the editors allowed their prejudices to infect the news columns. Even though few newsmen had deliberately tried to suppress the truth, most were guilty of a "boundless credulity, an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions a downright lack of common sense." Their contribution to public knowledge at a time of supreme crisis was "about as useful as that of an astrologer an alchemist."
Having learned from his wartime propaganda how the facts could be distorted and suppressed, he realized that distortion was also embedded in the very workings of the human mind. The image most people have of the world is reflected through the prism of their emotions, habits and prejudices. One man can look in a Venetian canal and see rainbows, another only garbage. People see what they are looking for and what their education and experience have trained them to see. "We do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see," Lippmann wrote. Since no man can see everything, each creates for himself a reality that fits his experience, in effect a "pseudo environment" that helps impose order on an otherwise chaotic world.
We define, not at random, but according to "stereotypes" demanded by our culture. The stereotypes, while limiting, are essential. Man could not live without them. They provide security in a confusing world. They serve as a "guarantee of our self-respect…the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value." But if stereotypes determine not only how we see but what we see, clearly our opinions are only partial truths. What we assume to be "facts" are often really judgments. "While men are willing to admit that there are tow sides to a 'question'" Lippmann noted in one of his more disturbing assertions, "they do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as a 'fact.'"
Using the analogy of Plato's cave, where people who have been chained all their lives imagine that the shadows they see are real figures, he argued that the average citizen's contact with the world was second hand. For most people the world had become literally "out of reach, out of sight, out of mind." This posed no serious problems in a small community where the decisions each citizen had to make rarely went beyond what he could directly experience. This was the world that the eighteenth century fathers of democratic theory had written about. But modern man did not live in that world. He was being asked to make judgments about issues he could not possibly experience firsthand: the tariff, the military budget, questions of war and peace. What was reasonable in a Greek city-state was impossible in a modern technological society. The outside would had grown too big for the "self-centered man" to grasp. This posed a political dilemma, for classic democracy "never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people's heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside." They did not correspond for a number of reasons—stereotyping, prejudice, propaganda. The result was to erode the whole foundation of popular government. It was no longer possible. Lippmann asserted, to believe in the "original dogma of democrat: that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs come up spontaneously from the human heart."
The malady was fundamental, and the press could not provide the answer. The defects of democracy could not be cured, as he had earlier believed, by better reporting, "trustworthy news, unadulterated data." This was asking too much of the press and too much of the public. The press could not carry the burden of institutions; it could not supply the truth democrats believed was inborn. At best it could draw attention to an event. It could not provide "truth", because truth and news are not the same thing. "The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts," he underlined in a crucial distinction. The press, if it did its job well, could elucidate the news. It was, he observed in a striking metaphor, "like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision." This was a worthwhile task but a limited one. The press count not correct flaws in democratic theory; en "cannot govern by episodes, incidents, and eruptions."
Even if the press were capable of providing an accurate picture of the world, the average man had neither the time nor the ability to deal with a perplexing barrage of information. The Enlightenment conception of democracy—based on the assumption that every man had direct experience and understanding of the world around him—was totally inadequate to a mass society where men had contact with only a tiny part of the world on which they were being asked to make decisions. What was possible in an eighteenth-century rural community was unworkable in great cities.
This ruthless analysis left Lippmann with the conclusion that democracy could work only if men escaped from the "intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must require a competent opinion about public affairs." The task of acquiring such competent opinions had to be left to those specially trained, who had access to accurate information, whose minds were unclouded by prejudice and stereotypes. These people would examine information, not through murky press reporting, but as it came from specially organized "intelligence bureaus" untainted by prejudice and distortion. With their advice the legislature and the executive would be ale to make intelligent judgments to submit to the citizens for approval or rejection. The average man, the "outsider" in one of Lippmann's most telling phrases, could ask the expert whether the relevant facts were duly considered, but could not for himself decide what was relevant or even what due consideration was.
This was a sweeping rejection of traditional theories of democracy and the role of the press. Where once Lippmann had thought that intellectuals could be philosopher-kings, now he saw them mere technicians furnishing information to "insiders." Disillusioned with mass democracy and wary of propaganda and a n unreliable press, he could see no alternative: "The common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class."
The analysis was provocative, the prescription unsettling. With some reason John Dewy called Public Opinion "perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned." Decades later the book still continues to stir controversy. The strength of Lippmann's analysis lies in a lucidly conceived and relentlessly argued thesis: the weakness, in a conclusion that looks to a "specialized class" for salvation. Even if the average "self-centered" man is a victim of his own stereotypes, one must ask, do not the "experts," like all human beings, have their own stereotypes? Do they too not have "pictures in their heads"? And if they provide information for a specialized class, in what sense could it be said that the people rule? Lippmann was not quite ready to face this dilemma. He still wanted to find a way of reconciling a lingering faith in human goodness with the gloomy conclusion of his argument. Not until three years later, with the publication of The Phantom Public, would he face the full implications of his own analysis.
The critics were impressed, but not quite sure what to make of the book. Most hailed Public Opinion as a major breakthrough, revealing problems that few political scientists even knew existed. While conservatives liked its pessimism about the wisdom of the "people," liberals were troubled for the same reason. Harold Laski spoke for many in describing it as "brilliantly written," with a "space, nervous strength in his style that obviously reflects great mental power," Yet "what does it say at the end," he asked Justice Holmes. "The truth will be easier to obtain if we have objective measurement of fact." The equivocal conclusion did not bother Holmes, who found the book "really extraordinary…Perhaps he doesn't get anywhere in particular," the justice told his English friend Sir Frederick Pollack, "but there are dew living I think, who so discern and articulate the nuances of the human mind."
Judge Learned Hand, while admiring the analysis, was nonetheless troubled by thee conclusion, "I want not to have to deal with homo sapiens at all in the bulk," he wrote Lippmann. "I want someone with power who will select you and me to rule. That you admit is insoluble." Hand wondered about the "hopeless proclivity of us all to enjoy getting discharged emotionally, the glorious reality of a welter of the good old reliable manly reflexes…How in hell are we ever going to get rid of the delights of these?" Lippmann recognized the delights of the "good old reliable manly reflexes," but hoped that a way could be devised to insulate them from politics. "Have we the right to believe that human reason can uncover the mechanism of unreason, and so in the end master it?" he replied to Hand.
In the Phantom Public…[Lippmann] revealed a good many of his personal anxieties and the loss of his prewar idealism. The book was, a as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has written, a "brilliant exercise in skepticism" in which "every universal patter, every central perspective seemed to have washed out from under him." First when socialism, then his faith in science, then his belief that the majority was fit to rule. Last to go, but go it did, was his trust in experts. No longer did he assume they knew best: only that they might know better than the common fold. "The problems that vex democracy," Lippmann wrote ruefully, "seem to be unmanageable by democratic methods."
In a review of the book, H. L. Mencken described Lippmann as one who "started out life with high hopes for democracy and an almost mystical belief in the congenital wisdom of the masses," and had come around to the conclusion that the masses were "ignorant and unteachable." Mencken exaggerated, as always, but was not totally off the mark. He had misjudged only the beginning. As early as 1911 Lippmann, still in his socialist phase, had urged liberals to accept "once and for all the limitations of democracy," and to "recognize clearly that the voting population is made up of people, pretty busy with their affairs." Such people should no more become political specialists than professors of theology, he explained. "they haven't a lifetime to devote to the study of the complicated machinery of government. What they have time for, what the must find time for if they haven't, is the making of judgments as to the direction which the machine shall take." But the details, he underlined, should be left to "specially trained men" who should be judged by their "human result" rather than their "professional technique."