Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippman is one of the most important early 20th century writers and thinkers about media and the formation/direction of public opinion. Along with men like Edward Bernays and Carl Jung, Lippmann helped shape the modern practices of advertising, public relations, and propaganda. Although his techniques could be used to noble or wicked ends, Lippmann personally chose the latter, according his skills to the treasonous Council on Foreign Relations, which advocates a "scientific dictatorship" (i.e. oligarchical collectivism) to "coordinate" mankind's controlled growth and use of resources, over the messier and less structured processes of democracy and self-governance. Lippmann's Public Opinion focuses on media manipulation techniques, with special attention to how it affects the political process. There is plenty in this book which I find repugnant, but there are also many valuable lessons.

Drinking from a firehose
The introductory chapters explain that democracy depends on an informed, engaged public. The system has a lot of vulnerabilities: money, secrecy, cronyism and greed conspire to undermine free and open society. Lippmann concludes, dubiously, that these challenges become an insurmountable obstacle to democracy in large, complex social structures.
"Why?", you might ask. Why can't a large and populous nation support an engaged public eager to learn the relevent issues of their community, and able to make informed decisions? According to Lippmann, there is just too much to know, and there is just too much nuance lost in the way information is disseminated. I'll give him this much: there is a lot of nuance lost in the "infotainment" and opinion shows of today.
Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter

Lippmann observes that people tend to distill complicated issues down into stereotypes and short, reductive soundbites- precluding them from truly understanding the world around them. That sounds pretty cynical, but I must admit this tendency exists in all of us. We are inundated with information every day. There has to be a filtering process in place, to help us deal with it all, and that fact does pose a challenge to functioning democracies. At times, it may feel like a losing battle, but obviously, it is one worth fighting. What's the alternative? Live in a dictatorship, so we don't have to worry about all this bothersome information?

The best democracy money can buy
Pressing on, Lippmann is incredulous that a profit-driven press could ever be trusted to deliver neutral, relevant and accurate information to the voting public. In these days of extreme media consolidation, I can see his point.

Media Consolidation

The way our media is structured, profits are linked to attracting listeners/readers/viewers (in order to sell advertising). That means that sensationalism and pandering often outcompete thoughtful discussion. Informative reporting often loses out to information-poor "infotainment" and divisive opinion shows. But on the other hand, thoughful programs and genuinely investigative journalism do exist. It seems there is a monetizable demand out there for the ugly, unfun truth. To give Lippmann his due, it is true that democracies do face challenges to (1) get the electorate engaged in issues, (2) to get voters informed on the issues they are voting on, and (3) to help individuals in their struggle to divine where the public interest actually lies. Personally, I believe people thrist for the truth in as real a sense as we hunger for food. Unless you suffer some mental pathology, it is only natural to prefer knowledge over ignorance, and truth over lies. This is why the importance of a quality education system cannot be overstated. By developing students' critical thinking skills, schools arm them with the tool they need to seperate the wheat from the chaff in the media around us. Thus, two excellent books to read along with Lippmann's Public Opinion are [book:The Underground History of American Education A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation of the Problem of Modern Schooling] and [book:The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America|225849].

Kicking it up a notch
Infotainment is just the weakest threat a media lacking a sense of civic duty poses to democracy. There's manipulation and outright lies. To an extent, we've grown (too) comfortable with manipulation. We certainly accept it as a given in commercial advertising:

Skittles Sexplosion

Cola blowjob

Lippmann only goes into this a little bit, although it seems obvious he has given the subject quite a bit of thought, and I get the feeling he is probably holding back. Where the gloves really come off is when he turns to media manipulation for political purposes. He's not apologetic describing the great majority of humanity as a "bewildered heard", whose ordained role is to be domesticated and subjugated by a minority ruling Elite, whom he defines as “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” After constructing this worldview, Lippmann reveals that media is best used as a tool to assist these Elites in the process of enslaving "the masses" (i.e. you). Naturally, image manipulation techniques employed in advertising can also be applied to political themes.


Mission Accomplished

But there is much more to Public Opinion than this. The term "manufacture of consent" was popularized by Noam Chomsky, but originally coined by Lippmann. The real centerpiece of this book is his discussion of various techniques for influencing public opinion. Some of these are well-known, and maybe intuitive: controlling debate; guilt-by-association; demonizing opposition; using vagaries and euphemisms to escape uncomfortable details; creation of angels, demons and scapegoats; etc. Some of it was less known to me, but is quite apparent in current day, if you are sensitized to it.

I found this part to be fascinating. Part of this is well known. A coordinated media campaign conducted over months to years can incrementally mold public opinion. The run-up to the Spanish American War entailed several years of propaganda buildup, largely on the part of newspaper mogul William Hearst. His San Francisco Examiner harshly criticized Spanish governance of Cuba. As public sentiment trended against Spain, Hearst introduced the idea that Cubans should revolt and throw off the chains of their Spanish masters. When this became widely-held opinion, Hearst addended "...and maybe we should help them" By the time the U.S.S. Maine sank, the public had already been brought most of the way to the decision to go to war with Spain. More subtle sort of preconditioning exists when opinion-shapers collude with entertainments media... periodical journals, "dime novels" and radio in Lippmann's day, but movies and television today. When the public is repeatedly exposed to fictional stories with a certain theme or plot line, it can powerfully shape their response to real-life events which bear resemblance to the fiction.

The big finale
After reading over 200 pages of Lippmann's extensive menu of manipulative techniques, I started to form the entirely reasonable impression that he is a manipulative person, and not to be trusted. Surely Lippmann must have anticipated this reaction. Why would he believe this was an opportune time to trot out his "recommendations" to improve the quality of American news reporting?
Well, that's exactly what he does.

Walter Lippmann would like to replace our free press with an elaborate cadre of supposedly indifferent, professional information collectors, working for a central governmental agency whose only desire is to present our elected representatives with pure, complete, and unbiased information. Yeah, right. Nothing Lippmann says suggests this new system would be less vulnerable than our current system to corruption, inefficiency, bias, or incompetence. In fact, this monopolistic, monolithic approach to news investigation and reporting sounds like State journalism of totalitarian regimes.

Write What You're Told

Am I really supposed to believe this is a plan to renew democracy? Clearly it's a scheme to deconstruct democracy and replace it with something else. Over the course of the final chapters, Public Opinion is revealed as a sort of manual, or maybe something like a "vision statement" for autocrats and others to exploit shortcomings in the free press system, and weaknesses in our political system. We DO need a better-informed, more skeptical, more demanding electorate. We DO need a less-centralized, freer, more aggressive and independent press to function as a vital Fourth Estate. We DO need to recognize the complexity of many of the most important issues facing the voting public, and need to reject the superficial, thoughtless, manipulative soundbite format that most information is presented to us in. Overcoming those obstacles is a Herculean task, but not impossible. I cannot accept the tenet that complexity precludes democracy, but Lippmann apparently has, and seems to thrown his lot in with would-be fascists.

Keeps Me Stupid

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