Government Publicity

The liberal ideal of publicity embraced the negative power of exposure as a check on individual behavior and a cure for the ills of corruption. Publicity would lead to a more “open” government that simultaneously weakened boss rule and energized the public in favor of efficient administration. In other words, publicity held out the promise of a modern government and a pathway to the expansion of administrative capacities. In practice, however, publicity relied on an orchestrated campaign to build public support on behalf of particular programs, policies, or institutions. The tension is evident in the work of the Bureau of Municipal Research, a forerunner of the modern think tank.37 On the one hand, the bureau rendered “expert analytical, advisory staff services of a professional character to citizens and officers of city and other governments.”38 On the other hand, bureau staff thought carefully about how best to communicate their findings in ways that might attract maximum attention. As one of the bureau’s leaders put it, “Expert government’s publicity can nowhere be effective which does not act upon the same principles that private advertising has adopted for the selling of goods.”39 The key to municipal reform was the broad dissemination of information in ways that remained sensitive to the dictates of public consumption.

The creative use of publicity became especially powerful in the hands of an ambitious president on behalf of an activist government. For Theodore Roosevelt, publicity was critical to his vision and practice of executive administration. Roosevelt advocated publicity as a solution to the problem of monopoly, explaining in his first annual message to Congress that “the first essential in determining how to deal with the great industrial combinations is knowledge of the facts—publicity.”40 The value of publicity, Roosevelt argued, was that it judiciously separated the honest from the corrupt. “The corporation which is honestly and fairly organized ... has nothing to fear from such supervision. ... The only corporation that has cause to dread it is the corporation which shrinks from the light.”41

As a policy tool, publicity avoided direct intervention in the economy yet still expanded the administrative capacities of the government through the collection and dissemination of facts. Publicity would protect the public interest by informing the public itself. At Roosevelt’s urging, Congress created the Bureau of Corporations in 1903, an agency within the Department of Commerce, with the authority to investigate corporate conduct. Describing the origins of this new “publicity bureau,” its first commissioner, James R. Garfield, wrote that “it owed its existence largely to ... the desire for ‘publicity’—in other words, the desire for information.” Like Roosevelt, Garfield hailed “the power of efficient publicity for the correction of corporate abuses.”42 In fact, the Bureau of Corporations was among several government agencies that used the investigation, collection, and publication of facts—publicity—as a way to expand the administrative capacities of the federal government. In his 1906 annual report, for example, Garfield praised a strengthened Interstate Commerce Commission as “a great advance toward publicity” and the passage of the “meat-inspection and pure food laws ... as the most recent examples of the extension of the principles of publicity.”43

In pursuing these state-building achievements, Roosevelt skillfully combined the various meanings of publicity into a robust form of presidential leadership. As an ideal, publicity required leaders to directly engage the public rather than conduct politics in secret or behind closed doors. Writing in The New Nationalism, Roosevelt distinguished between “the leader [who] gets his hold by open appeal to the reason and conscience of his followers . in the open light of day,” and the “boss” whose political machine “derives its main strength from what is done under cover of darkness.”44 As a practice, however, publicity demanded a more active form of leadership, and in Roosevelt’s hands this warranted novel communication practices that could command public attention on issues the president personally deemed important. Roosevelt’s embrace of these new techniques became a hallmark of his administration, one that was widely appreciated at the time. As a writer for McClures remarked, “No one except old Washington newspaper men, recalls what Theodore Roosevelt, as President, accomplished in turning the operation of the national government from a dark professional secret to a matter of full-throated publicity. ... The democracy of the printing-press had come; and Roosevelt was its founder.”45 More than simply a check against corruption, publicity became a technique to build popular support and enhance one’s public image. As Harper’s put it:

He is the greatest publicity promoter among the sons of man today.

... Theodore Roosevelt secured his popularity through publicity. He has retained, extended and strengthened it through publicity. ... He even goes to the extent of advocating publicity as a sure cure for most of the ills with which the body politic is afflicted.46

Surrounded by aides and advisers skilled in the workings of the press, Roosevelt cultivated public support for his ambitious presidential agenda.47

Roosevelt’s talents were particularly evident in the case of natural resource policy. With the help of Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt’s adviser and close friend, the president championed conservationism in the face of formidable political opposition. To contemporaries, Pinchot and Roosevelt were “kindred craftsmen” of publicity.48 Together, they orchestrated unprecedented presidential media events, “great ethical and social pageants,” such as the 1907 Inland Waterways Commission when the press followed Roosevelt on a steamboat down the Mississippi River, or the subsequent 1908 White House Conservation Conference, described by historian Stephen Ponder as a “benchmark . in the role of the executive” in leading public opinion.49 As chief of the Forest Service, Pinchot oversaw one of the earliest and most extensive public communication campaigns on behalf of any government agency or program. Under Pinchot’s leadership, the Forest Service produced “a continuous stream of publications, news releases, displays for exhibition ... and photographs” promoting the agency’s work.50 And as documented by various biographers and historians of the period, publicity was both a critical tool for the promotion of conservation policy and a persistent source of controversy throughout Pinchot’s career.51

Probing deeper into these innovations, Pinchot did two things very successfully. First, Pinchot organized publicity efforts on a vast scale, tailoring his communication strategies to the production demands of the press. In 1905, Pinchot established a dedicated press office, one of the first in the federal government, “to assist in the planning of all publications of the Forest Service ... [and] expedite their passage through the press.”52 Staffed by individuals with backgrounds in journalism, the press office placed special emphasis on Forest Service activities considered “newsy” or of “general interest.”53 By 1908, the number of press releases had increased in frequency from three or four a month to one or two a day. A mailing list of nearly 700,000 names, organized by various subjects and geographic regions, helped the Forest Service target news releases and publications to particular audiences.54 Meanwhile, the agency developed a sophisticated feedback mechanism to track the effects of publicity in the press. Using return slips attached to agency bulletins, the Forest Service asked newspaper editors to send clippings that used press office material. With the help of public circulation data on newspapers, the press office estimated that exposure to Forest Service material increased from 1 million to 42 million readers between May 1907 and October 1908.55

Second, Pinchot was very skillful at defending these publicity efforts against his critics, particularly those in Congress. Here, the ability to move between a newer conception of publicity as an efficient campaign of public relations and its older meaning as an instrument of public enlightenment proved crucial. Congressional opponents of conservation frequently accused Pinchot of using the Forest Service to carry out personal attacks against his critics.56 In 1908, a proposed rider to an agricultural appropriations bill prohibited the use of funds for the preparation of newspaper or magazine material, effectively ending Forest Service publicity if passed. In response, Pinchot waged a vigorous defense of his actions. Writing to the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Pinchot explained that “the Forest Service is doing all it can to make its publications of wide use . to convert scientific information into common knowledge.” Newspapers, according to Pinchot, were the most effective means to do so, but “to get information into the newspapers it is necessary to put it into newspaper form. . By employing men familiar with the peculiar requirements of newspaper work, and familiar with the work of this Service, it becomes possible to carry on the work of popular education on a far more extensive scale.”57 At the same time, Pinchot defended his publicity techniques by arguing that it was impossible to influence the press because the professional standards of independent journalism offered “the most effective possible barrier to any ... campaign of puffing or exaggeration.” Ultimately, Pinchot argued, “The policy and method of publicity which the Forest Service has developed is to my mind the only defensible policy for any Government organization, any part of whose purpose is to collect and disseminate facts.”58 In sum, publicity was simply a tool of enlightened administration, employing modern means in the pursuit of traditional ends. Pinchot’s efforts succeeded, as the Senate amended the appropriations bill so that it posed no threat to Forest Service activities.59

Similar controversies continued throughout Pinchot’s career; in fact, publicity was at the center of the dispute that led President Taft to fire him in early 1910. The infamous Pinchot-Ballinger affair began when Overton Price and Alexander Shaw, close aides and longtime friends of Pinchot in the Forest Service, released information to Collier’s magazine that implicated Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger in a corruption scandal.60 In response, President William Howard Taft fired the pair on the grounds that Price and Shaw had violated a presidential directive that prohibited contact with the press. When Pinchot wrote a letter of protest that was read on the Senate floor by the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he too was dismissed. During the congressional investigation that followed, Pinchot’s penchant for self-promotion came under fire. As John Vertrees, counsel to Secretary Ballinger, told a congressional committee, “Publicity is the breath of Mr. Pinchot’s nostrils.”61

In response, Pinchot defended his work as a mixture of traditional and modern methods. In words likely written by Pinchot himself, his counsel George Wharton Pepper explained to the committee:

The work of the Forest Service is in part an educational work, and this must be carried on through the press. In order that the people of the country may have a just view of existing conditions they must be made to understand what is being done to help them, just as they ought to be informed what is being done to hurt them. The administration of the Forest Service has proceeded upon the theory that publicity is the essential and indispensable condition of clean and effective public service.62

This statement nicely illustrates how Pinchot used the multiple and shifting meanings of publicity as a defense against his critics. No longer simply a means to reveal corruption, publicity had become an indispensable tool to build public support for an activist government.

Privately, however, Pinchot was acutely aware of his own public image, and he consistently monitored press coverage in his fight for conservation. Thomas R. Shipp, a former journalist who worked for Pinchot in the press office before directing publicity efforts for the 1908 White House Conservation Conference, was a key figure in this endeavor. Shipp was the first secretary of the National Conservation Association, an organization Pinchot helped found in 1909 and one that became a personal vehicle for him after he left the federal government in 1910.63 Shipp and Pinchot maintained regular correspondence about how best to shape press coverage, not just about conservation but about Pinchot himself. Writing to Shipp in December 1910, Pinchot complained about a newspaper that had printed “a long story about a mythical break between T.R. and myself,” and he suggested that Shipp “might let it get out ... that ... I had a delightful visit to Oyster Bay last week to talk things over and make plans for the future.” Shipp replied that “it has already gone clear through the corps of correspondents that you had a good visit out at Oyster Bay. . I did not give this for publication . but as a private, personal tip.”64

The Pinchot-Shipp correspondence offers a glimpse into the more subtle forms of publicity that accompanied the industrial-scale public relations efforts developed by the Forest Service. It also suggests a more personal form of publicity taking shape, one that cleverly fused older purposes with new techniques. Revealing another’s corruption simultaneously could elevate one’s own position in the public eye. In fact, whereas Ballinger resigned in 1911 under the continued taint of scandal, Pinchot’s standing as a public figure only grew; he eventually served two nonconsecutive terms as governor of Pennsylvania.

As Pinchot’s career continued, he remained an astute observer of publicity techniques, and he recognized the growing sophistication of its methods, whether applied to the promotion of a particular program or used in the crafting of a personal image. In an undated memo penned in advance of the 1920 presidential campaign, Pinchot wrote, “In the last ten years publicity has become near an exact science in this country. This is in a large part due to ... the organization of systematic campaigns, whether of commercial advertising or political propaganda, by publicity experts.” Pinchot went on to summarize the keys to successful publicity: “(a) newspaperdom has a technique that ... must be met; (b) a news value or public interest must be achieved that is timely; and (c) it is necessary to reach the public mind under favorable conditions.”65 Pinchot was keenly aware of the importance of publicity and the role of experts in mastering a new kind of political work.

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