Publicity and the Public

the early twentieth century marks an important turn in the history of political work. During the Progressive Era, a modern business of politics began to take shape as journalists, social reformers, and politicians embraced publicity as a distinctly modern way to communicate with the public. For many turn-of-the-century progressives, the term “publicity” evoked liberal ideals of government transparency and public deliberation considered crucial for a functioning democracy. Publicity, many believed, would hold public officials accountable to the voters and help citizens form enlightened opinions about the issues of the day. Reformers celebrated “the searchlight of publicity” as a remedy for the ills of predatory trusts, party bosses, and corrupt practices of various kinds.

But publicity had another, descriptive meaning that became more common during the first decades of the twentieth century. As a practice, publicity referred to an orchestrated campaign of persuasion designed to attract and hold public attention. Building on the growth of mass-circulation papers and magazines, publicity techniques employed modern methods of advertising and even rudimentary measures of public opinion in order to shape perceptions about an issue, a candidate, or a corporation.

These two meanings of publicity had contradictory implications. Whereas the ideal of publicity promised the discovery of objective truth, the practice of a publicity campaign conveyed a subjective rendering of the political world. Out of this very contradiction, however, government officials, corporate press agents, and even presidents of the United States devised new ways to influence or persuade the public. By invoking the ideal of publicity, figures as diverse as progressive reformer Gifford Pinchot, public relations founder Ivy Lee, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson could defend their methods as a modern way to inform the public. Yet, the success of a publicity campaign hinged at least in part on the public’s inability to distinguish between the objective presentation of facts and the subjective manipulation of information to appear fact-like. This ambiguity sparked important innovations in the tools of persuasion, laying the foundation for the modern consulting industry, but it also contributed to an ambivalence many Americans express toward politics that is still evident today.

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