Lippmann on news (2)

For news to happen, Lippmann believed, some overt event had to rupture the fabric of routine life.  One large problem with this process is that, by the time the event erupts into the visual plane of journalists, it is too late to understand its causes and context.  Things just appear to happen, as randomly as the shape of snowflakes.  To mold a story into coherent shape, journalists must simplify without mercy — every event, from hurricanes to strikes, must be posed in terms of win-lose, good guy-bad guy, moving ahead-falling behind.

The effect of such simplification on the citizenry and on democracy — Lippmann’s chief objects of concern — is obvious.  Public affairs will be conducted on the surface, in ignorance of causal forces buried beyond the reach of the news.

Another problem, from the same perspective, is that many important issues and questions never rise above the level of routine.  Most are too complex to be encapsulated in a box score.  Fraud and injustice hide in silence and shadow; incompetence rarely gives itself away in any dramatic, newsworthy manner.  Advocates seeking political change, and companies for business reasons, struggle to control the public agenda.  The first step is to enter the public agenda:  to shape an event out of a routine or complex circumstance.

This gave rise to the publicity man:

Were reporting the simple recovery of obvious facts, the press agent would be little more than a clerk.  But since, in respect to most big topics of news, the facts are not simple, and not at all obvious, but subject to choices and opinion, it is natural that everyone should wish to make his own choice of facts for the newspaper to print.  The publicity man does that.

What does the publicity man do?  Lippmann knew the type:  “He arranges a stunt:  obstructs the traffic, teases the police, somehow manages to entangle his client or his cause with an event that is already news.”  An example offered by Lippmann:  the activities of the suffragettes, who did indeed obstruct traffic and tease the police.

A more recent instance of “entanglement” is the violence of  Islamist radicals “outraged” by the already-newsworthy cartoons of Muhammad.  In both cases, news was created rather than reported, and the authors were political advocates rather than journalists.

All these contending forces find the messages they wish to convey as truth, or at least news, to the public, further warped by the journalistic instinct to appeal to that very public and entice it into becoming paying customers.  Everything, including stories about alien cultures and mind-bogglingly complex data arrays, must be framed in terms of the reader’s informational context — as understood, and condescended to, by the journalist.

A labor strike, for example, contains multiple moral, political, and human perspectives, and a long timeline of development.  However, “it follows that in the reporting of strikes, the easiest way is to let the news be uncovered by the overt act, and to describe the event as a story of interference with the reader’s life.  That is where his attention is first aroused, and his interest most easily enlisted.”

Thus the news, to Lippmann, was a sort of Plato’s cave, where journalists harried by political advocates and business interests cast dancing shadows on the wall for the entertainment of the citizenry — ultimately, for a profit.  He reflected on the relation of truth to news, and concluded the “truth and news are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.”  This appears conclusive, but it is not the end of the story.

Lippmann’s conception of truth was Platonic, a kind of God’s-eye-view of reality, which human beings, if intelligent enough and well-trained enough, could “uncover.”  Truth, unlike opinion, was one and indivisible.  Perspective never gained a legitimate place in Lippmann’s truth-seeking.  He would have disagreed with the proposition that the New York City seen from the top of the Empire State Building is a different place, in many significant ways, from the New York City experienced in the sidewalks.

It is a strange irony of intellectual history that Lippmann’s Platonic vision of truth became, and remains, vastly more influential to the news business than his analytic disemboweling of the validity of news as information.


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