On Understanding Society

Fred Friendly interviews Walter Lippmann, America’s founding media critic

Context clues: In 1922, Walter Lippmann, known as the father of American journalism, wrote Public Opinion, on the subject of government, mass communication, and societal perceptions. Late in his life, during the Vietnam War, the book—and in particular Lippmann’s idea of “the manufacture of consent”—drew renewed interest. The following interview, with Fred Friendly, appeared in the Fall 1969 edition.

“For when there was panic in the air, with one crisis tripping over the heels of another, actual dangers mixed with imaginary scares, there is no chance at all for the constructive use of reasons, and any order soon seems preferable to any disorder.”

So wrote Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion in 1922.

Some weeks before his eightieth birthday, at the invitation of Prof. Fred W. Friendly of the Columbia Journalism faculty, Mr. Lippmann held a seminar with a small group of graduate students to discuss the contemporary applicability of this and other observations from his long and distinguished career. The text below is excerpted from the three-hour dialogue which resulted.


Public opinion has been the third force that really changed American policy on the Vietnam war. How did that come about?

Well, the war was very distant, nobody was interested in it, and the Johnson method of handling the war was to conceal it from the American people. In the first year of the fighting, this was the Johnson escalation, because before that it was not really a war in the sense that it is now. It was concealed by the fact that the Army which was sent to Vietnam to do the fighting was really a professional army. It was not a drafted army. What Johnson did was to cannibalize the American forces all over the world, and build up probably the best army the United States has had in the world. But that army could last only about a year, until its term expired. During the next year or two Johnson more and more couldn’t hide the fact that we were drafting men to fight that war.

Now, drafting men to fight a war 10,000 miles away is something that no sensible great power has ever attempted. The British, in all their period of imperial rule in the nineteenth century, never conscripted Englishmen to fight in Asia. They always relied on volunteers, professional soldiers, and on mercenaries. They hired the Indians, the Gurkhas; regiments of Iranians and other people from the Middle East, and so on; but there were no Englishmen conscripted to fight around the world. Johnson, who knows no history, didn’t realize what a thing he was doing when he began to conscript an army to fight a war that nobody believed in particularly anyway—nobody had ever had it explained to them, nobody could explain the reason for it—10,000 miles away. It was that that began to arouse the American people to realize what this was. And Johnson kept getting one general after another to come forward and say we were winning it when we were not winning it. Finally the Tet Offensive came, and he tried to get generals to say we would only take 35,000 men. But finally it was leaked out from Washington that Westmoreland wanted 206,000 men. And that figure broke Johnson’s back. That was when public opinion revolted. That’s why Johnson had to retire.

One of the reasons for all the turmoil in the country the last few years has been the feeling of a lot of young people that our governmental institutions are not responsive to the needs and feelings of the people. But apparently you do believe that at least in an informal way our government is responsive to public opinion?

Well, it’s responsive to the kind of thing that I was talking about, which is being for the war or against it. The fact that the country came to be against the war is very important. Whether you can get a public opinion sharpened and attuned and made accurate to more specific reforms, I’m not sure. And I think that one of the difficulties—the difficulty with television, the difficulty with this turmoil—is that you cannot refine public opinion and educate it to very detailed and complicated things. I don’t expect that any large audience, for instance, could ever really understand the problem of decentralizing the schools in New York City. I think it’s just too complicated and difficult. It just won’t catch in the net. So I don’t want to sound too optimistic about public opinion.

How many problems do you think this country can digest at one time without breaking at the seams? We have Vietnam, the cities, the race problem. Are these likely to create a permanent cleavage?

Well, that’s a problem I’ve been worried about all my life, but I have begun to realize, since I wrote Public Opinion and also while I was writing it, that the capacity of the general public—on which we’re dependent for votes—to take on many problems is very limited. I wrote a book called The Phantom Public [1925], arguing that really what public opinion in the end could do was to say yes or no. It couldn’t do anything very much more complicated than that. It couldn’t say three-quarters or five-sixths but not two-sevenths—it isn’t able to do that. That’s what a scientist has to do. That’s what an administrator has to do, what a public servant has to do. But public opinion as a mass can’t do that. And it’s one of the great unsolved problems of democracy: how are you going to make popular government—because it’s always going to be popular, in the sense of involving a great many people—how are you going to make that work in the face of the problems which have become infinitely complicated even in the last twenty years?

In that regard, how do you see the role of the mass media, if in fact public opinion is not responsive to very sophisticated and very subtle problems? Is the role of the media to oversimplify them in the hopes of mobilizing some force?

Well, undoubtedly the mass media oversimplify. The American people are very simplistic, they want to be told that things are absolute, that they’re black or white. They don’t want to be bothered very long.

So what should the mass media do?

That is the question, I admit, but first of all, I don’t know enough about the mass media. I know something about journalism, but I know very little about broadcasting. I listen to broadcast journalism, but for the news at night; I don’t get the news from it. I feel utterly dissatisfied almost always. Of course, I’m very interested to see a picture of something happening. That’s very interesting—a splashdown, that’s wonderful. But as for the problems which are very difficult, urban problems and all, you can’t find out about them. You can get a smell of them. You know a little bit about what they’re like, and then you can read about them, or somebody can lecture to you about them. But broadcast journalism has not only a terribly simplifying effect, but a distorting effect, I think, because it makes everything more dramatic than it should be, more interesting, more amusing. And the world of life isn’t that. It’s prosaic.

The current controversy over advertising of cigarettes seems to raise a central question about the relationship between public opinion and social policy. If the scientists and doctors who have no economic involvement in the industry are correct, and they seem to be, then there should be some public outcry about this; it’s not just a problem of public opinion’s not getting to the legislators.

But there’s a good deal of feeling. You see, this pressure has worked. Public opinion doesn’t always work through big mass meetings or demonstrations.

How much do you think public opinion has become synonymous with public relations?

Well, these professionals at public relations are too much for me. There is an awful manipulation of public opinion going on all the time, no doubt about it. It’s not the whole thing, though. Public relations was unable to do anything about the Vietnam war. They tried to. Johnson tried all the techniques he could to hide that war, and then to make it acceptable. And it didn’t work.

How is public opinion best measured? Is the Gallup Poll, for instance, an effective measure of public opinion?

The Gallup Poll is pretty good, if it’s very broadly taken. But 96.3 percent, that’s foolishness. The taxicab poll that most people take when they ride in a taxi and find out what the driver thinks—that has some validity. My wife comes home and tells me about the hairdressers and what they think. Very reactionary, I assure you. They’re afraid to go out at night.

If you’re a public man—say, a President or a candidate or a good journalist—you suddenly know what the public feeling is. Why did Johnson retire, do you think? He knew that he was beaten. And where did he get that? He got it from polls, a little bit, but mostly he just knew, as a public man very well trained in public affairs—he assumed it. I don’t think you can measure everything.

Public opinion isn’t instantaneous. You can’t take flashlights of public opinion and get it right every time. But a man like Johnson, who is made to hear an awful lot, and the representatives in Congress who are representative in the sense that they’re like the others—you talk to them and you know what people in his district are thinking or feeling, and what they’re prejudiced against or for.

You once wrote that the hardest thing to report is chaos, even evolving chaos. That was in 1922. Now, 1968 was a very chaotic year; how do you think journalism performed then?

Well, if I remember what I said in 1922, the world actually—and I think I used the phrase of William James—is a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and the mind’s eye has to form a picture out of really a very chaotic thing. And that’s done by the creation of stereotypes, which are ways of looking at things; and then after a while when you have these, that’s all you see—what the stereotype says to you. That’s all that comes through.

Now, I think that today the good reporters, both electronic and newspaper, are much more sophisticated and educated men than reporters were in 1922 when I was writing. They’re much more aware of the dangers of superficiality and so on. And they strike me as extremely intelligent. I think on the whole 1968 left us rather confused. Everybody was confused, including the newspapermen, because they were dealing with a situation for which they had no preparation.

Does it seem to you that political writers of the country are swinging to the right? If so, how far to the right do you think they will go?

Well, there’s no doubt that—whether that’s age or personal ambition or what—men do that. It’s a rule any journalist would know: it’s always safer to be conservative than not. You’re much less on the defensive. You have much less to explain yourself for. The Left has recently done some very vicious things, I think. But on the whole, in the lifetime of most men who are now fifty or more, the Right is the one that’s done the vicious things. Fascism was very vicious. I don’t think anybody can predict how far it will go, because it’s action and reaction, how the Left acts and how the Right acts.

“Broadcast journalism has not only a terribly simplifying effect, but a distorting effect.”

How would you compare the social rebelliousness of the generation coming of age now with the social rebelliousness of the one that came of age immediately after World War I? And why, in the seven decades we have had in the century, have these two produced the greatest generation gaps, when they seem to be such dissimilar decades?

First, of course, there was rebellion and disillusion at the end of the First World War, and that produced the Twenties, in which a lot of the people who now are extremely Left just expatriated themselves. A whole colony formed in Paris of people who just couldn’t stand this country. It was too awful for them. Hemingway belonged to that generation, Archibald MacLeish belonged to it. But what is new that I never knew then is the violence and disruption. They were rebellious, they made speeches, they wrote books, but they didn’t come into the classroom and say, “By God, you’re not teaching what we like, you’re not going to teach.” That didn’t exist.

This man Herbert Marcuse has written a book, as you know, about the limits of toleration, and he doesn’t want to tolerate people who don’t agree with him. He says you mustn’t tolerate people who are wrong. Those are the people he doesn’t agree with. You mustn’t tolerate the Right or the middle, you must only tolerate the Left, and the Left must decide whom to tolerate. Now, that philosophy, that is new. That is a revival of a thing that started quite differently about the middle of the nineteenth century and became anarchism, with people like Bakunin, who was the great antagonist of Marx. Bakunin was a Russian nobleman who had a romantic view of the Russian serf, and if only he were in charge of things all evil would disappear from the world.

But it was an amiable and decent thing. It was impracticable, of course, and it disappeared, and now it has revived, and that is the significant and dangerous thing about the recent times. We saw it abroad. We saw it in Berkeley. We see it all around: this feeling that you must stop things from happening that you don’t agree with, and that liberalism is the great enemy.

But the power of the economic system is so vast, and yet so destructive and unaware of its destructiveness, that the people who see that power and that destructiveness are frustrated, and feel they can’t work within traditional lines to counter the power, and so the question really is: is the society capable of change?

It is changing all the time. It is changing much more rapidly than we know how to understand it. But can it be remade to your heart’s desire? I would say no, it cannot. And that isn’t because the Right is in control, it is because this is the way of life in which we are embedded. Just as primitive man was embedded in his system of tribes and so on, we’re embedded in this, and we can’t get out of it. It’s like jumping out of your skin.

It is possible that the rebellion of the young may be a product of technology’s getting out of our hands, so that we really have produced a generation that is more different from their parent generation than ever has been the case before. Could you point to a time in history, perhaps, when you believe the same thing happened?

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it’s fundamental. The technological gap and the generation gap are the same thing. And the young people today are coming into a world for which there was no preparation in custom. There never was a world like this. Not that any revolutionist made it. It was created by technology and science. They don’t know what to do about it, and the older people don’t know what to do about it, either. They don’t understand it themselves. That is absolutely the core of our problems. How will we be able to create a capacity to govern this enormously new and enormously complicated and very rapidly changing social environment? That is the problem. And there’s no answer. We may not solve it in a generation. That’s the problem today. The revolutionary—all that business—is of no importance except as a byproduct of that.

Of course, one of the most revolutionary technological inventions of our time—much more revolutionary I think than people realize generally—is contraception: The Pill. It absolutely knocked the family to pieces. The old reasons for creating and holding families together have been knocked out by this technological interference in the relationship between procreation and sexual life. And that is felt everywhere. There’s no family, there’s no neighborhood, there are no clans.

But how do you get around the problem of being ruled by a generation brought up in a time of slower change? Really, the problem seems to be re-educating Congressmen and Senators and the like, and this is the media’s responsibility. But how do you get at them?

Well, this is an autobiography for me. I have lived through this. I feel it. I have felt it for years. And I have lived right in the midst of this change, never really understanding it very well and knowing I didn’t understand it very well, not knowing what to do about it. I don’t feel able to say what I’m going to tell a Congressman to do. I myself don’t know what to do. We might as well be honest about it with ourselves: we are not in a position yet to re-educate the masses because we don’t know what to teach them. And that is one of the critical conditions of our time.

Is it more important for us to educate the Congressmen or to educate the Middlewestern farmer?

First of all, it’s most important to educate ourselves. And that is really absolutely fundamental. We know what to do about a particular thing, but about the general situation we don’t know. And the fact that we don’t know is perhaps the beginning of wisdom. We’re going to have to create the general knowledge that we don’t know.

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Walter Lippmann was the the founding editor of The New Republic and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. He is considered a father of modern American journalism; his 1922 book Public Opinion was formative to the field of media studies. Lippmann died in 1974. Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, was a longtime professor at the Columbia Journalism School, where he helped establish the broadcast program. With Edward R. Murrow, he created See It Now, a show credited with changing the tide of public opinion on Senator Joseph McCarthy, leading to his fall from power. Friendly died in 1998.

TOP IMAGE: Walter Lippmann in Italy, April 9, 1946; Photo by Keystone/Getty Images