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Journalist heal thyself: Walter Lippmann's "Liberty and the News" revisited
Tuesday, 21 October 2008 10:54
by Jimmy Montague

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), nearly 35 years dead, towers over American journalism just as the Washington Monument towers over the National Mall. His influence stretches, like a shadow, from near the beginning of the twentieth century to its end and beyond. Lippmann surely never saw a personal computer and probably never dreamed of the Internet. Nevertheless, his thought shapes much of the content that professional journalists post on the World Wide Web. High-minded amateurs who set up blogs in revolt against “mainstream” journalism -- many of whom probably never heard of Walter Lippmann or are but vaguely aware that there was once such a person – labor under the influence of his ideas. Their work in part is shaped by him if they know it or if they don't. In sum, it is impossible to overstate Lippmann's influence on American journalism and it is good when something happens that recalls journalism's attention to the life and the thought of Walter Lippmann.

The latest such thing is a reprint of Lippmann's first book, Liberty and the News (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2008; 118 pp; $16.95). Lippmann published the original work in 1920. This latest edition is updated insofar as it features a new Foreword by Ronald Steel and an Afterword by Sidney Blumenthal.

Neither Steel nor Blumenthal manages to squeeze any fresh juice out of Lippmann's book. To treat the modern writers fairly, however, one must allow that after three generations of academic journalists and hordes of gradgrinds have pored over Liberty and the News with microscopic intensity it would require genius of a rare order to find and extract even one drop of additional meaning from Lippmann's text.

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Ronald Steel, for his part, gives us a Foreword that is learned, lucid, concise and useful. Steel uses less than eleven pages to background readers on the book. He puts Lippmann's thoughts in context and mentions a few of the author's most salient observations. In so doing, Steel captures and hones the attention of readers who might otherwise be unaware of Lippmann's import and therefore reluctant to stroll for two or three hours through the author's supple-but-sonorous, vintage prose.

Readers who take that brief hike are rewarded, for it's likely that many of those who today yell loudest about bias in journalism have no idea that, almost 90 years ago, thoughtful people were deeply concerned about the same problem. Moreover, it may be that those who shout loudest today are so busy shouting about bias in journalism that they're unaware of other rotten spots in the craft.

Lippmann called attention not only to bias but to those other rotten spots as well, all of which he contended are mere symptoms of problems much deeper and more profound – problems that, being rooted in human nature itself, threaten to belie Enlightenment ideals such as Truth, Justice, Democracy, and Scientific Governance. At the peroration of Chapter 1, for example, the author got up on his hind legs to ask what verdict history will lay upon a nation that, professing a belief in government by the will of the people, was content to make decisions about government on the basis of 'facts' reported by a class of people who were notorious, professional liars. (Liberty and the News, 8 )

Chapter 2 hits just as hard while asking more and deeper questions. Here Lippmann held that knowledge is power and that ignorant people lack the power to be free. He stumped for a new definition of the word “liberty” that, given our democratic, libertarian ideals, would probably do us better service than the definition we now employ. “A useful definition of liberty,” he wrote, “is obtainable only by seeking the principle of liberty in the main business of human life, that is to say, in the process by which men educate their response and learn to control their environment. In this view liberty is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act.” (L&N, 40)

This writer sees Liberty and the News as the expression of a conflicted genius. On the one hand, Lippmann cherished truth, democracy and scientific government. He knew that democracy and scientific government depend absolutely on unrestricted access to accurate information. “There can be no higher law in journalism,” he wrote, “than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” (L&N, 7) On the other hand, Lippmann knew that the rivers of information from which America drinks all flow from a poisoned well. Human nature, he knew, drives some journalists to lie about the facts in exchange for money, position, prestige. Other journalists, afflicted with a more insidious form of the same disease, unknowingly turn fact into falsehood by filtering it through a fabric of personal perception, be that perception enlightened or benighted.

Hunter S. Thompson once observed that “journalism is a low profession.” Lippmann saw that clearly and yet held fast to a higher truth, namely: There is no other way forward.

Democracy depends upon access to good information. Not to put words in anyone else's mouth, this review observes that there's more to the story than just that. Civilization itself cannot long exist where truth is absent, where nothing is real, where everyone knows that no one can be trusted. Civilization is not some contract that can be broken with impunity, the mess cleaned up by lawyers. Civilization describes a trajectory: the more we know, the more we can trust, the farther away from superstition and barbarism we move. The reverse is also true: the less we know, the less we can trust, the closer we move toward superstition and barbarism. Lippmann knew that if the truth must be told, then someone must do the telling. We must have journalism, he concluded, and so journalism must be reformed.

So Lippmann used Liberty and the News to call for objective truth in journalism but did not stop there. Though he preferred that journalism be self-regulating, he strongly hinted that the regulation of journalism might prove necessary. “The regulation of the publishing business is a subtle and elusive matter,” he argued, “and only by an early and sympathetic effort to deal with great evils can the more sensible minds retain their control. If publishers and authors do not face the facts and attempt to deal with them, some day Congress, in a fit of temper, egged on by an outraged public opinion, will operate on the press with an ax. For somehow the community must find a way of making the men who publish news accept responsibility for an honest effort not to misrepresent the facts.” (L&N, 45)

Lippmann also suggested the creation of impartial national and international news bureaus staffed by the finest reporters in the profession. His assertion that “it would be a great gain if the accountability of publishers could be increased” (L&N, 44) implies a belief that a license to practice journalism would not be out of order. He advocated better education for journalists and marveled that those who cannot be led to tell the truth cannot be locked in jail: “If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow,” he wrote, “I can go to jail. But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible. Nobody will punish me. . . .” (L&N, 24)

“At any rate,” Lippmann concluded, “our salvation lies in two things: ultimately, in the infusion of the news-structure by men with a new training and outlook; immediately, in the concentration of the independent forces against the complacency and bad service of the routineers. We shall advance when we have learned humility; when we have learned to see the truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” (L&N, 61)

There is much more worth having in Liberty and the News and, for those who think seriously about what Lippmann wrote, there is much to carry away. To read in this book the carefully arranged thoughts of the finest mind in twentieth-century journalism – a mind shaped in what was then one of the world's finest schools (Harvard), where it was polished by the likes of George Santayana and William James – is by itself worth the price of admission.

The nadir of Princeton's reprint of Liberty and the News is Sidney Blumenthal's Afterword. This review does not object to Blumenthal's short list of Lippmann's sins. Among others Blumenthal mentions: “His immersion in politics while holding forth as a disinterested observer. . . .” (L&N, 63) Blumenthal's account of Lippmann's ultimate failure, of his ideals being “traduced, trampled and trashed” (L&N, 64) by journalists and journalism is wholly pertinent. Then Blumenthal throws in a lively and interesting tale of events leading up to the mess in which we presently find ourselves, starting with press coverage of "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy and ending with the outrageously un-American behavior of the press during the outrageously un-American administration of George W. Bush.

It is at that point that this writer objects to Blumenthal who was himself a player in the public-relations effort of the Clinton administration. The Clintons, as the whole world knows, ran one of the most outrageous lie factories on record. Sidney Blumenthal's experiences and observations from inside that rats' nest would have made a juicy addition to this otherwise fine Afterword. Sadly, that experience and those observations get no mention here. Blumenthal's account focuses entirely on Republicans, the Republican Party, and the Bush administration. Having an opportunity that cries out for a mea culpa, Blumenthal passed and gave us a theya culpa.

I suppose this is all too much: why make such a fuss over a measly afterword? I'm making a fuss anyway because I see that, with this Afterword, Blumenthal personifies the state of mainstream journalism. Having helped bring the profession to ruin and having written what might fairly be called a rhetorical interment of journalism's foremost saint at the end of Liberty and the News, Blumenthal stands clueless amid the carnage and expresses an idiot's hope for the future: “. . . journalism may yet be revitalized,” he wrote, “as part of a general reawakening of American democracy that discovers new forms of expression and forces new debate to achieve its ends.” (L&N, 87-88)

What rot! After airing Lippmann's dirty linen, Blumenthal cannot bear to bare his own spotted shorts. Ever the good Democrat, he cannot set aside his political bias and tell us – or even mention – a tale of the Clinton spin machine. One wonders if Blumenthal is even conscious of the truth about the Clinton White House and one suspects that if we forget about Walter Lippmann and rely upon the likes of Sidney Blumenthal to lead us down the path to democracy, the Blumenthals of this world will lead us to something else.

There may yet be a reawakening of American democracy, and new media may appear. “New forms of expression,” however, will never appear. The root form of expression must be and therefore always has been language: spoken, written, manual, transmitted to the brain by hot, throbbing hormones – any medium of human communication, any “new form of expression” will ultimately rely upon language or communication will not occur. Any medium of human communication, any “new form of expression” used by liars will lie to us just like the media, just like the “forms of expression” we've already got.

Jesus taught: “. . . know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Lippmann knew that lesson: Liberty and the News is his testimony. Blumenthal, it seems, is at least aware of the argument. At the conclusion of his Afterword, he quotes James Madison: “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” (L&N, 88)

Were Blumenthal fully armed (Thank you, Mr. Madison.) he might see Lippmann's effort and its failure as a tragedy, exactly in the mode of Oedipus Rex or Antigone. He might also have pointed practitioners – especially youngsters – to an irony of a spiritual sort that Lippmann's thought and career describe: Those who come to journalism determined to change the profession will fail to change the profession and will instead be changed by the profession in ways they will not like. Those who come to journalism determined to tell the truth, if they remain committed to truth-telling, will change the profession over time whether they meant to change it or not. That irony aside, a "reawakened American democracy" (if ever one appears) will enact regulation that "forces new debate" because it supports truth-telling and punishes the lie.

Liberty and the News is great stuff. Journalists, those who aspire to journalism, useful citizens of any democracy have every reason to read Walter Lippmann. Speaking strictly to journalists: Liberty and the News will give old hands an excuse to reminisce their college days; rookies will get something new to stretch their minds; and everyone will get something important (for a change) to argue about when they're drunk.
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