Walter Lippmann on news

He was the ideological godfather of progressivism — the belief, borrowed from a Platonic model, that the modern world was too complex for ordinary people, and must be left to a class of brilliant technicians to manage.

Walter Lippmann was driven to this idea from his analysis of the news.  His assumption, shared by all progressives then and now, was that for democracy to work every citizen must be educated in the minutiae of domestic policy and foreign affairs.  The ultimate question was whether news could perform this educational task.

The analysis began with an obvious question:  what is news?  Lippmann’s answer was, as always, dazzlingly interesting and insightful:

The point is that before a series of events become news they have usually to make themselves noticeable in some more or less overt act. Generally too, in a crudely overt act. Smith’s friends may have known for years that he was taking risks, rumors may even have reached the financial editor if Smith’s friends were talkative. But apart from the fact that none of this could be published because it would be libel, there is in these rumors nothing definite on which to peg a story. Something definite must occur that has unmistakable form. It may be the act of going into bankruptcy, it may be a fire, a collision, an assault, a riot, an arrest, a denunciation, the introduction of a bill, a speech, a vote, a meeting, the expressed opinion of a well known citizen, an editorial in a newspaper, a sale, a wage-schedule, a price change, the proposal to build a bridge. . . . There must be a manifestation. The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth.

“Whether the news will be followed up or not,” Lippmann observes, “is another matter.”

Of course, news can be manifested only if it happens in certain places, where journalists have been posted.  They become an accomplished fact only when journalists make it so, thus perpetrating a circularity.  Journalists must cover news but nothing is news until journalists cover them.  News isn’t really a matter of reporting facts but of signalling importance, of placing a neon sign over some event that flashes pay attention — this matters.

The qualification of journalists to place that flashing sign — and make a determination for us of what is important — is a topic deserving future discussion


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