Book Review: Walter Lippman, Public Opinion

Public Opinion was published in 1922 by Walter Lippmann, a captain in the US Army during WWI and founding editor of the New Republic. It takes a hard look at the practical realities of democracy in America, focusing especially on the role of the media in influencing thoughts and actions. It has been acclaimed as a seminal text in political and social science, as “the founding book of modern journalism” and also as “the founding book in American media studies”. Given the subject matter and its reputation I was quite surprised to find a relative lack of post-2016 contemporary reviews or discussion online or elsewhere. Public Opinion seems more prescient than ever in today’s internet-enabled world– a serious indictment of many of the core axioms we take for granted when we talk about democracy and the media.

The book opens with one foundational observation - simply that the world is far vaster and more complicated than our limited direct experience can account for. This is a huge problem for Lippmann - he writes that “democracy in its original form never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures in people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside” (19). We’ll start with a look at this problem’s “original form,” at how the Founding Fathers thought about this problem in a pre-mass-media world. We’ll establish how especially in the contemporary age a reliable mechanism for learning about the external world plays a central, if not critical role in a healthy democracy. From there we’ll see how 20th century newspaper media performs in fulfilling this role, and finally we’ll take a look at how Lippman’s arguments stack up in today’s internet age.

Assumptions of traditional theory - the self contained community

Lippman writes that the citizen

“could know the customs and more obvious character of the place where they lived and worked. But the outer world they had to conceive, and they did not conceive it instinctively… Therefore, the only environment in which spontaneous politics was possible was one confined within the range of the ruler’s direct and certain knowledge…” (164).

The democratically representative system has an answer: representatives for different groups should work together to coordinate the different interests of their respective electorates. But the immediate counter response is also obvious - external scale. The Bostonian can coordinate with the Virginian, but how are either of them to know anything about China? Traditional democratic theory demands that the community be self contained. Only in such a community could everyone have “all the facts before them” - once you have this guarantee “one could take it for granted that men were talking about substantially the same things”. Therefore

“The only place for differences of opinion [would be] in the logical application of accepted standards to accepted facts. And since the reasoning faculty was also well standardized, an error in reasoning would be quickly exposed in a free discussion… The power to draw deductions from a premise, rather than the ability to find the premise [would be] regarded as the chief end of intellectual training.” (174).

The Founding Fathers actually understood this quite well – I was surprised to learn that Jefferson initially restricted his democratic exuberance strictly to the class of landowning farmers and the affairs they were capable of governing. “If the farmers were to manage their own affairs, they must confine affairs to those they are accustomed to managing… Jefferson disapproved of manufacture, of foreign commerce, a navy…The field of democratic action is a circumscribed area” (170-171). Throughout history maintaining self contained community has been possible to varying degrees - in 1922 Lippman notes that “the most successful democracies, in fact, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and America, until recently, have had no foreign policy in the European sense of that phrase… “ (172). But on today’s global stage it’s hard to argue that true individual, self contained communities that have zero interaction with their outside world are possible. Lippman doesn’t dive into this question quite so much, but I think from the contemporary perspective this is obvious. Setting aside the question of whether an absolute isolationist stance is politically feasible, environmental externalities seem unavoidable - nature doesn’t care for lines drawn on the map. Even isolated, pre-industrial island or countryside communities may eventually face unknown, potentially hostile foreign contact.

Without a common environment in which all facts are obvious for all citizens, it can be no longer taken for granted that the only place for differences of opinion would be “in the logical application of accepted standards to accepted facts.” The facts themselves become subject to question - well applied propaganda can easily fool an unknowing citizen into voting against his or her own interests. Lippmann was astounded at the efficacy of the Allied propaganda machine throughout the first World War, for instance noting that the French communique focused nearly all of its attention on German casualty figures. “By putting the dead Germans in the focus of the picture, and by omitting to mention the French dead, a very special view of the battle was built up.” (26) The morale of the Allied citizenry was of utmost importance to the war effort - and the shape of news from the front was critical in maintaining positive sentiment at home in the face of German territorial advances and victories on the battlelines.

Lippmann and the Press

“The idea that men have to go forth and study the world in order to govern it has played a very minor part in political thought. It could figure very little, because the machinery for reporting the world in any way useful to government made comparatively little progress from the time of Aristotle to the age in which the premises of democracy were established” (201).

Without self contained community, there has to be some way of obtaining a clear, unbiased picture of the world. In 1922 this was the press. According to Lippmann, the press, even a press free of governmental censorship or pressure did not, and cannot fulfill this responsibility that traditional democratic theory relies on. His first observation is an economic one:

“The truth about distant or complex matters is not self evident, and the machinery for assembling such information is technical and expensive… We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognize as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint” (202-203).

Of course, this paradox is resolved only through advertising income. Lippman’s greatest complaint is actually not that government institutions or capitalist class advertising interests conflict with the general public’s - this opinion was as popular then as it is now (Lippman points out that if this was the only issue then counterculture, socialist newspapers would be immune from the problems that afflict newspapers generally, but they are not). Lippman’s complaint was more subtle. He writes, “Such a press is bound to respect the point of view of the buying public. It is for this buying public that newspapers are edited and published, for without that support the newspapers cannot live.” (205).

What measure does the public use to judge their newspapers? We would hope they would clamor for unbiased, accurate reporting of political and social news. But the private citizen can only really judge accuracy in reporting of events within their own personal experience. “Rarely is anyone but the interested party able to test the accuracy of a report” (208). Meanwhile, political and social news often takes a backseat to the far more interesting coverage of “weddings, funerals, sociables, school prizes… scandal and crime, sports, pictures, actresses, chess, whist..” (211) that are found in many major newspapers today. The newspaper simply has no other way of “holding on to that alleged host of passionately interested readers” (211). It seems circulation of the newspaper, democracy’s primary vehicle for delivering information about the outside world, is controlled and judged by its ability to captivate and deliver on everything but accurate stories on the political and social affairs of the external world.

Even when the newspapers turn to reporting actual news, the influence of the buying public means that it is impossible to inform evenly or responsibly. There are two reasons for this - first is the influence of the reader and journalist’s preconceptions or stereotypes. There is a great practical difficulty in uncovering the news in a nuanced, accurate view. It is much easier to frame news stories as only “a new version of our familiar experience” (221). Once this narrative has been established it is very difficult to break out from - Lippmann posits that this is the reason newspapers become politically biased so quickly - why “many a newspaper finds that, having honestly evoked the partisanship of its readers, it can not easily change position” (225). The second relates to a fundamental property of news - news “[is not] a mirror of social conditions, but the report of an aspect that has obtruded itself” (216). In other words, news cannot and will not provide a complete picture - almost always only the salient or unusual points. It is impossible for journalists to constantly monitor all goings-on everywhere, so they are drawn to stories necessarily by salience. And since it is the readership that defines the success of the newspaper, the “fact that is sensational to the reader is the fact that almost every journalist will seek” (222). Sensational stories on their own do not make a complete picture - for every worker’s strike that ends in headline worthy conflict several more that ended in an easy settlement go under-reported. And yet it is precisely the unusual that is given the most attention, that plays the biggest role in forming the citizen’s opinions and stereotypes about the world. We see examples of this in the contemporary era all the time - few people realize how much safer flying is than driving, the number of vaccinated children worldwide, the magnitude of the industrialization of third-world countries (See Factfulness,by Hans Rosling for a more detailed treatment on global health trends over the last several decades).


“The press is too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty, to supply spontaneously the truth which democrats hoped was inborn… We misunderstand the limited nature of news; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit, and all-round competence. We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.” (228).

The twentieth century public, by the incontrovertible nature of news, and human psychology, cannot learn enough about the external world to be safe from propaganda, from uninformed decision making and voting. Yet the institutions of democratic society continue turning all the same.

So how relevant are Lippman’s indictments of the press in today’s Information Age? Has the rise of the internet, of Facebook, Google and Wikipedia, the opening of the information floodgates, granted the public with an unprecedented ability to solve Lippmann’s core information problem? Do we live in a society that, thanks to the internet, by and large agrees on the facts and is resistant, if not immune, to propaganda?

We still expect to barely pay for information - most of us don’t pay at all. This economic gap is still all thanks to advertising income. Salience-biased news is still very much an issue (c.f. Factfulness again), perhaps even more so now that the absolute saturation of the information market creates even higher competitive pressure. The rise of clickbait is also testament to that fact. While the internet has given voices to the previously voiceless, making classical censorship nearly impossible, propaganda is still a viable, if not more powerful, method of manipulating public opinion. Flooding the internet with alternative views in order to dwarf exposure of competing ones is a powerful tool - when it comes to news and current events, the sheer torrent of information available turns the issue from a search problem to a verification one. Finding the truth, and verifying it, are two sides of the same coin - you can’t verify without finding the ground truth to compare to, and Lippmann was the first to realize that oftentimes citizens don’t even want clear, unbiased pictures in the first place. We can see this in the continued success of alt-right propaganda channels and networks. We’re often left with no better options than to trust the news organizations whose names are familiar to us or content we agree with already - the same problem Lippmann wrestled with nearly a century ago.

There’s one important way that the contemporary media landscape differs from Lippmann’s though - while his criticism of passive consumption of news and current events seem just as relevant as they did in 1922, the internet provides unprecedented mechanisms for active, directed research. The internet is unparalleled for use as a tool for archiving, recording, and referencing material that is unbound by the economic restrictions placed on news reporting. Of course, enriching understanding in this way is effortful and slow, but it is a small, definitive step toward creating a more informed public opinion.

Looking forward the next steps are to explore just exactly how and what kinds of shifts have occurred. How much more informed are people? How much clickbait actually is there? How many news articles suffer from the salience-bias problem? Are there any that don’t, and how do their circulations compare? How much are people reading from multiple sources, doing research vs passively consuming information? How much is this influencing their civic participation? Just where are we exactly, historically speaking?


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