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Our Liberty Still Depends on Reporting the News

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippman stressed the importance of separating propaganda from fact.

January 16, 2018

As we contemplate a mendacious, incurious, bullying president who trumpets a “Fake News” awards presentation, it’s worth remembering that it has been nearly a century since Walter Lippmann wrote “Liberty and the News” a long-forgotten book more relevant today than it was on the day of its publication after the end of World War I. In it, Lippmann, as a young man, long before he became a symbol of Washington’s political and media elite, warned that democracy itself would be imperiled, or even perish, “if the propagandists and censors can put a painted screen where there should be a window to the world.”

The book reads today, as it did in 1920, as a withering criticism of journalism in an age when reporters struggled to explain (or even accurately describe) a rapidly changing world full of new financial, political, legal, and moral questions. “So long as there is interposed between the ordinary citizen and the facts a news organization determining by entirely private and unexamined standards, no matter how lofty, what he shall know, and hence what he shall believe, no one will be able to say that the substance of democratic government is secure,” Lippmann wrote.

Lippmann blasted those reporters (at The New York Times, no less) whose coverage of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he concluded, was a hodgepodge of “boundless credulity, an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions a downright lack of common sense.” And he urged his contemporaries in what was then called “the press” to adhere to strict rules of professional conduct: “trustworthy news unadulterated data, fair reporting, disinterested fact,” for example. But even as he did so he expressed worry about the mercurial ways in which the public formed its opinions.

As Lippmann’s great biographer Ronald Steel wrote in “Walter Lippmann and the American Century,” Lippmann believed there was not necessarily a straight line between public policy implemented by government and the public opinion that drove it. In Lippmann’s view, Steel wrote, “democracy would be either a failure or a sham” without accurate and unbiased information designed to allow the public to form intelligent decisions. But there were never any guarantees. “The hidden motives travel to the overt act not by a straight and narrow path but through a maze of junctions and crossroads, along which they are baffled or seduced,” Lippmann wrote.

Baffled and seduced. Two excellent words to charitably describe countless citizens who voted against their own interests in 2016 to put Donald Trump in the White House and who support him still despite the damage his policies are inflicting, or are about to inflict, on their lives. Baffled by the endless stream of news coverage of Hillary Clinton and her emails, by fears of terrorism and immigrants, by the cognitive dissonance that daily, hourly, marks cable news and the internet. Seduced by a candidate’s promise that their racial resentment and bigotry had found in him a perfect vessel. Roiled into action by news outlets either teeming with “boundless credulity” or, worse, active collusion with political operatives.

Lippmann’s concerns a century ago sound chilling today in an America where the president is obsessed with propaganda masquerading as news and where the nation appears divided on the very nature of propaganda itself and which news outlets are disseminating it. If anything, our problems today, and thus the threat to democracy itself, are worse, exacerbated as they are by the perils of instant news cycles steered by government officials who lie even when they know their lies can be so easily exposed. We live today in an era of shamelessness in public office that was unthinkable in the Wilsonian age.

Lippmann wanted reporters to work harder and fairer to make better sense of an increasingly complex world. He viewed them as essential in providing “the streams of fact which feed the rivers of opinion” which in turn nurtured a vibrant democratic nation. Today, however, the primary challenge for reporters is something far simpler; to make news consumers believe what they are seeing with their own eyes and hearing with their own ears about an administration soaked in incompetence and corruption. To describe how bad things really are and how they got that way. To tell the truth even if it offends the president’s political base.

There is no equivalence, only false equivalence, between legitimate news organizations whose tribunes try each day to do the best they can to report fully and fairly on human events and those news organizations whose tribunes try each day to support or justify the worst excesses of the administration’s policies. There is no equivalence, only false equivalence, between earnest public officials striving to implement sound, popular policy and public officials striving to foist on the rest of us harmful, unpopular policies.

And so, the challenge of our time, for journalists and public officials still tethered to good faith, who still believe that clarity and courage will prevail over cynicism, is to make sure those distinctions, those false equivalences, are exposed as loudly and relentlessly as is possible amid the cacophony of noise coming from the nation’s new generation of propagandists. Our liberty still depends on the news.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.