Book Review: “Liberty and the News” by Walter Lippmann

There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies (38).

For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct.  It is the only serious book most people read.  It is the only book they read every day.  Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind (28).

For Lippmann, the press has a responsibility to the people that it has forgotten in its pursuit of profit and influence.  His experience in the propaganda departments of the United States government during WWI revealed to him the malleability of public opinion and the ease by which false ideas could permeate a society.  Without accurate information, the public is denied an authentic view of issues as it is manipulated by the voices of the media, themselves acting out of personal agendas.  Thus, a press that promotes opinion and sensationalism is a threat to democracy, and this is one of Lippmann’s main points.

Lippmann narrows the task of liberty to three dimensions:  the protection of the sources of news, organization of the news as to make it comprehensible, and education of human response (42-43).  For journalism specifically, this means employing people who take their roles in democracy seriously, and consider it a moral obligation.  Their reporting should focus on raw facts and avoid opinions (Lippmann’s suggestion for a high level of objectivity would have a strong impact on journalism practice in the U.S.) in order for the public to draw their own conclusions.  Without reliance on raw data, Lippmann believes that public opinion will not be democratic, and it will be impossible for individuals to make informed judgments about the best course of action for the country.  He points out that in the confused environment of the press it is easy for boisterous opinions to influence an audience and distract them from any nuance; “the more cocksure [the average American is] the more certainly is he the victim of some propaganda” (31).

Both the authors of the preface and afterward to this book comment on its relevance today.  And truly, the issues it reckons with are still prevalent.  However, what is striking to a reader is the idealness that has vanished from discourse today.  Lippmann not only diagnoses the problem, but he is anxious to suggest possible solutions (such as better journalism programs, government committees to hold newspapers responsible for their content, etc).  Today, it seems to me that most people have given up, thrown their hands in the air, and walked away.  Perhaps when the media was smaller, less pervasive, and had more proponents like Lippmann, something could be done.  However, one gets the feeling that someone like Lippmann who identified the critical deficiencies in the press and its role in American democracy today would quickly be suppressed and not be able to reach anywhere close the prominence he did in the early 20th century.  The reader also senses that Lippmann was talking to people who actually cared about what he was talking about, even though they may not be in positions to do anything about it.  Today, I think he would be virtually ignored.  Why is this true?  Perhaps people were different in those days, or maybe coming out of a horrific war intensifies the value of an informed democracy.

This slender volume (only 88 pages including the preface and afterward) is well worth the read if for nothing else but the unsettling feeling it produces.  It reads as if it were written yesterday, and I think that’s one of its scariest and most thought-provoking aspects.

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