The Discovery of Propaganda

The Committee on Public Information operated on a massive scale. In a little over two years, George Creel’s agency issued more than six thousand press releases and produced thousands of advertisements as well as numerous photographs, motion pictures, posters, and billboards. It published material in thirty-three languages. Its daily Official Bulletin was disseminated widely through CPI offices around the world. And at a time when radio had yet to penetrate many households, the CPI organized 75,000 “Four Minute Men,” local notables who delivered nearly 1 million prepared speeches in favor of the war at movie theaters and other public places.7 Creel personally recruited prominent journalists and artists to the cause, including the well-known illustrator Charles Dana Gibson who designed CPI posters that graphically depicted the war effort as an epic battle between good and evil.8 The CPI also translated its work into several languages to appeal to immigrant populations in the United States, and it established offices overseas in Europe and Latin America to monitor and shape foreign news coverage of the U.S. war effort.

After the war, commentators began to look critically at the work of the CPI as well as attempts by American allies to influence public opinion in the United States. Published reports that German atrocities had been fabricated by the British government in order to undermine American neutrality led to criticism of the CPI and the part it played in fostering anti-German sentiment at home. As one critic put it, “No effort was made to present the truth ... This was the greatest fraud ever sold to the public in the name of patriotism.”9 Muckraking journalist Will Irwin, himself a former director of the CPI’s Foreign Section, described an “age of lies,” admitting that “we never told the whole truth ... we told that part which served our national purpose.”10 America’s entry into the war appeared as a fabrication secured through the manipulation of words, images, and ideas. The public had not only been misled; through the work of the CPI, the public was willfully and skillfully made to believe that the war had been waged in pursuit of a noble cause.

In a word, these postwar critics discovered propaganda. What had been a rather amorphous term used to describe the promotion of a particular doctrine or belief, propaganda took on a more precise and sinister meaning after the war. According to historian J. Michael Sproule, postwar writers understood propaganda as “the covert manipulation of news . and self-interested messages insinuated into a variety of ostensibly neutral channels.”11 Works entitled “The Menace of Propaganda,” “The Art of Muddlement,” and “Poisoned Springs of World News” appeared in popular magazines throughout the 1920s and 1930s, its authors describing “shrewd, sleepless ... campaign[s] to educate Vox Populi to sing in various keys, major or minor, as this or that particular project requires.”12 The power of propaganda, for these writers, lay in the malleability of the public mind.

Most important, propaganda cut directly against a progressive hope in a reasoning, deliberative public. Again quoting Sproule, “the chief moral of the Great War was its demonstration that the modern public was vulnerable to dubious contrivances promoted by political leaders and institutional managers.”13 In place of the rational citizenry mobilized through the revelation of facts, postwar commentators saw an uninformed crowd easily swayed by the modern tools of mass persuasion.14

It was Walter Lippmann, more than any other intellectual of the period, who exploded the myth of progressive publicity. Prompted in part by his own experiences working for the CPI, Lippmann articulated a deep skepticism toward public reason. In his influential 1922 book Public Opinion, Lippmann questioned the assumption of a rational public, viewing the world instead through the eyes of English psychologist Graham Wallas, who wrote that “the empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of [the] subconscious.”15 In similar fashion, Lippmann argued that because individuals cannot apprehend a reality that is not experienced personally, there is an unavoidable source of bias and subjectivity in news coverage. “Circumstances in all their sprawling complexity,” cannot be faithfully recorded, Lippmann wrote. Consequently, there is “enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions will be reported. . . every newspaper when it reaches the reader is the result of a whole series of selections as to what items shall be printed . . . There are no objective standards,” Lippmann argued.16

Two important conclusions followed from the inherent subjectivity of human experience. First, editorial discretion made it possible to shape and bend the presentation of events. Impressions of the world around us were mere pictures in our head, largely painted by others. Creating this portrait of reality was the principal task of the publicity expert, whose appearance Lippmann noted “is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take a shape in which they can be known. They must be given a shape by somebody.”17 Second, this subjective rendering of the world laid bare the fallacy of an omni-competent citizen who made reasoned judgments based on the evaluation of facts. As the experience of wartime propaganda made clear, public opinion was not the bottom-up articulation of popular will as many democratic theorists maintained, but instead reflected “the manufacture of consent. . . and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process.”18 “The creation of consent ... has improved enormously in technic [sic],” Lippmann observed, as “persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular govern- ment.”19 Lippmann anticipated a world in which skilled persuaders wielded substantial influence in public affairs. “The knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political premise,” producing “a revolution . . . more significant than any shifting of economic power.”20 The discovery of propaganda undermined the presumption of a rational public and with it the progressive justification for publicity techniques. In its place, a much more skeptical view emerged of mass society manipulated by words, images, and symbols, a public susceptible to lies and half-truths. For the publicity expert and others engaged in “the empirical art of politics,” this development posed a formidable challenge. His liberal veneer stripped away, the publicity expert became the propagandist, one who employed modern techniques of persuasion in order to manipulate a largely ignorant and irrational public.

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