Publicity Old and New

In a literal sense, publicity makes something, or someone, publicly known; it transforms what is private, or secret, into something that is public.1 In the realm of politics, the “light of publicity” was an instrument of good government; its opposite, secrecy, was the shade that hid corruption. This view of publicity has its roots in liberal notions of popular sovereignty, a free press, and freedom of speech. According to Jeremy Bentham, “In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing”; by contrast, “Publicity is the very soul of justice.”2 Publicity assured accountability; it put the actions of government officials before the public eye. Like his famous panopticon, Bentham believed that constant surveillance of public officials was “indispensably necessary to the maintenance of good government” by operating “as a check upon the conduct of the ruling few.”3 An independent press was critical to this process, creating the conditions for “enlightened judgment” and a well-informed electorate.4 “Without publicity, no good is permanent,” Bentham concluded, “under the auspices of publicity no evil can continue.”5

Immanuel Kant articulated a similar view of publicity as a core feature of good government: “All actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.”6 In particular, Kant emphasized the deliberative function of publicity and its role in promoting public discussion. Freedom of speech, especially the free exchange of ideas, would produce an enlightened public liberated from a tyranny that operated through secrecy and concealment. Through publicity, Kant argued, “the subterfuge of a secretive system of politics could easily be defeated.”7 In sum, publicity served as a critical component of good government and a key to active citizenship.

Many progressive reformers at the turn of the twentieth century embraced a similar ideal of publicity as a powerful weapon against those who operated in a shadowy world of political corruption, financial collusion, and social vice.8 Like Bentham, reformers commonly celebrated the “searchlight” of investigative journalism and the “pitiless publicity” of the press.9 As one commentator put it, “Corruption cannot exist nowadays without being discovered.”10 Albert Shaw, editor of the American Review ofReviews, agreed that “there is no more salutary check than the check of publicity.”11 Publicity figured prominently in discussions of the “trust question” and the problem of monopoly. Economist Henry Carter Adams described the function of publicity as a way to “let in the light and let out the facts” about the operation of large industrial combinations.12 Wall Street financier Henry Clews insisted that publicity would end “the opportunities for business wrongdoing in secret” and force “the ‘crooks,’ ‘grafters,’ ‘rebaters’ and ‘competition crushers’ of the business world, who have schemed in darkness and shunned the light, to come out into open view.”13

At the same time, many progressives echoed Kant in seeing publicity as a path to rational deliberation and public enlightenment. In the words of John Dewey, “Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts thinking on social affairs.”14 Civic reformers viewed publicity as a way to educate the public and spur demand for efficient and accountable government. Henry Bruere, director of the Bureau of Municipal Research, advocated “greater efficiency in city administration through publicity of city affairs,” arguing that “the publication of facts respecting the acts of government will not only prevent specific acts of misgovernment, but ensure a progressive development of governmental efficiency by providing a basis for the exercise of intelligent popular control.”15 Other reformers similarly embraced publicity, firm in the belief that “when the public fully understands any problem ... better results are sure to follow.”16 The power of publicity was in the moral outrage aroused by the exposure of social ills. Invoking “the light of publicity” was a powerful idiom of the social gospel that tapped Christian beliefs in revelation: “The hour of discovery and publicity of wrong has fully come,” announced a writer for Zion’s Herald. “We are reminded strongly of the words of [Jesus] ... when He said: ‘For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.’ ”17

Publicity was an important instrument of progressive reform. By evoking liberal notions of public enlightenment, press freedom, and political accountability, publicity became an important part of the vocabulary common among muckraking journalists, civic reformers, and promoters of the social gospel. Publicity formed part of what Daniel Rodgers described as “the surroundings of available rhetoric and ideas . within which progressives launched their crusades, recruited their partisans and did their work.”18

However, “the searchlight of publicity” had powerful effects, prompting many reformers to experiment with the range and purpose of their methods. Gradually, a new kind of publicity took shape. More than simply a way to educate or even inspire, publicity became a technique to attract and shape public attention through an orchestrated campaign of communication. But the new publicity remained garbed in the traditional meaning of the term. Describing his campaign against child labor, Women’s Home Companion editor Arthur T. Vance wrote that “publicity in reform is merely the application of modern business methods to reform work.” Vance presented innovations in publicity as modern means to achieve the traditional end of an informed public. “Publicity has always been the active factor in the production of ... public sentiment,” Vance explained. “But nowadays we plan publicity in a more systematic, more scientific manner. ... A modern campaign of publicity is planned precisely as a campaign of advertising.”19

The appeal of advertising was common among reform movements of the early twentieth century.20 Prohibitionists, for example, experimented with posters and other eye-grabbing graphics to convey the sins of alcohol.21 Describing the campaigns of the Anti-Saloon League in 1928, Peter Odegard wrote that “publicity was the chief weapon in the arsenal of the league.”22 According to Elisabeth Clemens, leaders of the women’s movement wrote practical guides for “making news.”23 In 1911, the Women’s Council of Voters organized its own “publicity bureau” for its suffrage campaign.24 Other reform groups sought expert advice on how to incorporate advertising techniques in their work. In 1910, the National Conference of Charities and Correction invited the head of the Lord and Thomas advertising agency to speak at its annual meeting about “the psychology of advertising” and how “the methods and devices of commercial advertising ... ought to be applied to social publicity.”25 If traditional publicity let the facts, by themselves, capture the attention of an enlightened public, the newer methods of publicity embraced a belief in the psychological basis of persuasion.26 “Advertising,” advocates of the new publicity believed, could serve as “the roadway to a man’s mind.”27

These newer techniques exploited a changing media environment that expanded the opportunities for crafted communication. By 1900, party-sponsored newspapers and the independent “penny” press had given way to mass-circulation, daily newspapers and magazines supported by advertising revenue.28 Advances in printing technology and postal subsidies such as rural free delivery helped newspaper and magazine circulation soar at the turn of the twentieth century. Between 1890 and 1904, the number and circulation of daily newspapers more than doubled, and the combined circulation of monthly periodicals more than tripled.29 This growth accompanied an important shift in journalistic practice as reporters and editors asserted greater professional control over the “news” by claiming to present objective versions of facts and events rather than their own, partisan opinions.30

Ironically, the emergence of “independent” journalism also made it more difficult to establish the veracity of newspaper coverage. Advertising revenues weakened the ties between newspapers and political parties, but they also raised new concerns about business influence over press coverage. One critic described the mass-circulation dailies and the consolidated wire services like the Associated Press as “huge commercial ventures, connected by advertising and in other ways, with banks, trust companies, railway . and manufacturing enterprises. They reflect the system which supports them. They cannot afford to mold public opinion against the network of special interests which envelop them.”31

More fundamentally, the journalistic ideal of “all the news that’s fit to print” was at odds with the production demand to find “all the news that fits.” For smaller newspapers with limited resources of their own, the production demands of regular publication left them dependent upon material prepared by others. In the late nineteenth century, political parties perfected the use of “boilerplate,” shipping prepared zinc plates directly to rural editors who, by printing copies at a local press, could cheaply reproduce campaign material in the paper. As these methods became more sophisticated, however, it became increasingly difficult to discern the sources of material reproduced in newspapers or its veracity. A 1907 Interstate Commerce Commission Report found that it was a common practice of the Standard Oil Company to purchase space in newspapers that was filled not with advertisements but with prepared releases typeset to appear like a news story.32

In sum, the tremendous growth of newspaper circulation coupled with the rise of a journalistic profession claiming to report objective facts rather than partisan opinions increased the value of newspapers as a source of information. And with many small newspapers dependent upon wire services for content, feeding stories to the press could potentially reach large numbers of readers. Editorial discretion provided a critical opening for the production of “canned” news and the illusion that published accounts in the newspaper were written with the objective eye of the journalist rather than by a press agent on behalf of a client. As a contemporary critic of the practice complained, “The public is continually played upon by adroit and powerful forces. The average reader of the daily paper ... does not read critically. He does not know that two or three items in a brief ‘news’ article presented as undoubted facts lead him to but one conclusion. He does not note the careful coloring, the skillful arrangement of parts . or the shrewd mis-statements.”33 Describing these developments in Collier’s, Will Irwin wrote of “a new profession . the publicity manager,” whose clientele included “public men, political or moral movements, even kings and nations.”34 Much like the theatrical press agent, the publicity expert made it “as hard to learn the truth about public affairs ... as it has always been to get a just idea of the merits of a theatrical performance.”35 The New York Times viewed these developments more favorably, insisting that “popular government is in the ascendant and public opinion is the power behind the democratic throne. The publicity man is the attorney whose arguments may go to the nation.”36 Through the early decades of the twentieth century, these “entrepreneurs of public opinion,” as the Times called them, found ample work in government, politics, and business, where they built support for public programs, presented candidates to the voters, and improved the public image of the corporation.

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