Walter Lippmann–when you’ve lost that Hopeful Feeling

Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
Walter Lippmann
US author & journalist (1889 – 1974)

The above quotation–that appeared this week on the RSS feed for quotation of the day that you get when you sign up for Google Reader– put me in a rather pensive mood.  Then I started wondering what it was really about.  I mean, the devil can cite scripture for his own purposes and all that.  Lippmann? Instant soup, maybe?  I was nodding along with the sentiment, but what if it was part of some sinister treatise written by one of Darth Vader’s minions or something? I needn’t have worried.  Lippmann turns out to be a rather interesting character.

Lippmann was, among other things, an adviser to Woodrow Wilson who helped draft the Fourteen Points–the fourteenth established the League of Nations. He coined the phrase “cold war”. He supported  the reporter’s privilege of confidentiality of sources.  He wrote a lot about the “mass media” and manufacturing public opinion.

It was Lippmann who first identified the tendency of journalists to generalize about other people based on fixed ideas. He argued that people—including journalists—are more apt to believe “the pictures in their heads” than come to judgment by critical thinking. Humans condense ideas into symbols, he wrote, and journalism, a force quickly becoming the mass media, is an ineffective method of educating the public. Even if journalists did better jobs of informing the public about important issues, Lippmann believed “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.” Citizens, he wrote, were too self-centered to care about public policy except as pertaining to pressing local issues.

Lippmann’s solution to an incompetent public was an elite corps that included journalists.  John Dewey, as in Dewey decimal system, was a contemporary of Lippmann. He agreed with Lippmann about the effects of the increasing complexity of mass culture, but argued  that the public could indeed come to  an intelligent grasp of issues by forming a “great community” of publics within society that could “become educated about issues, come to judgments and arrive at solutions to societal problems”.

Sounds a bit like the internet, doesn’t it.

But what do we see on the internet these days? Same old, same old.  Ideas are judged by the effect they will have on the political process rather than whether they are true.  There is still great pressure to conform to the groupthink conclusion.

Instead of thinking we have feeling.  This was a big part of Bill Clinton’s stump speech in the last days of the Hillary campaign. Hillary had run on the issue of competence, he said, but the people weren’t looking for a president.  They were looking for a feeling.

In Lippmann’s words, the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

Men.  On which men can act.  Yeah I caught that. Lippman’s quotations are full of pontifications about “men”.  After all, he was an elitist.

I prefer Dewey’s more egalitarian approach.  Bloggers need to forget about “hope” and “change” and “believing” and all that other cyber opiate-of-the-people stuff and go back to doing what they do best. Using the internet to manage the “complexity of culture” that makes democracy so difficult.  Uncondensing all the symbols we think in.  Becoming educated.  Checking facts. Connecting ideas.

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