Journalist heal thyself: Walter Lippmann's "Liberty and the News" revisited

Liberty and the News

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), nearly 35 years dead, towers over American journalism just as the Washington Monument towers over the National Mall. His influence stretches, like a shadow, from near the beginning of the 20th century to its end and beyond. Lippmann surely never saw a personal computer and probably never dreamed of the Internet. Nevertheless, his thought shapes much of the content that professional journalists post on the World Wide Web. High-minded amateurs who set up blogs in revolt against “mainstream” journalism -- many of whom probably never heard of Walter Lippmann or are but vaguely aware that there was once such a person – labor under the influence of Lippmann. Their work, their ideals, their ideas in part are shaped by him if they know it or if they don't. In sum, it is impossible to overstate Lippmann's influence on American journalism and it is good when something happens that recalls journalism's attention to the life and to the thought of Walter Lippmann.

The latest such thing is a reprint of Lippmann's first book, Liberty and the News (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2008; 118 pp; $16.95). The original work was published in 1920. This latest edition is updated inasmuch as it features a new Foreword by Ronald Steel and an Afterword by Sidney Blumenthal.

Neither Steel nor Blumenthal squeezes any fresh juice out of Lippmann's book. To treat the modern writers fairly, however, one allows that after three generations of academic journalists and hordes of gradgrinds have pored over Liberty and the News with microscopic intensity it would require genius of a rare order to find and extract even one drop of additional meaning from Lippmann's text.

Ronald Steel, for his part, gives us a Foreword that is learned, lucid, concise and useful. Steel needs less than eleven pages to background readers on the book. He puts Lippmann's thoughts in context and mentions a few of the author's most salient ideas. In so doing, Steel captures and hones the attention of readers who might otherwise be unaware of Lippmann's import and therefore reluctant to stroll for two or three hours through the author's supple-but-sonorous, vintage prose.

Readers who take that brief hike are rewarded, for it's likely that many of those who today yell loudest about bias in journalism have no idea that, almost 90 years ago, thoughtful people were deeply concerned about the same problem. Moreover, it may be that those who shout loudest today are so busy shouting about bias in journalism that they're unaware of other rotten spots in the craft.

Lippmann called attention not only to bias but to those other rotten spots as well, all of which he contended are mere symptoms of problems much deeper and more profound – problems that, being rooted in human nature itself, threaten to belie Enlightenment ideals such as truth, justice, democracy, and scientific government. At the peroration of Chapter 1, for example, the author got up on his hind legs to ask what verdict history will lay upon a nation that, professing a belief in government by the will of the people, was content to make decisions about government on the basis of 'facts' reported by a class of people who were notorious, professional liars. (Liberty and the News, 8 )

Chapter 2 hits just as hard while asking more and deeper questions. Here Lippmann stumped for a new definition of the word 'liberty' that might serve us better than the definition we now employ. “A useful definition of liberty,” he wrote, “is obtainable only by seeking the principle of liberty in the main business of human life, that is to say, in the process by which men educate their response and learn to control their environment. In this view liberty is the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act.” (L&N, 40)

This writer sees Liberty and the News as the expression of a conflicted genius. On the one hand, Lippmann knew that democracy and scientific government depend absolutely on unrestricted access to accurate information. “There can be no higher law in journalism,” he wrote, “than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” (L&N, 7) On the other hand, Lippmann knew that the rivers of information from which Americans drink all flow from a poisoned fount. Human nature, he knew, drives some journalists to lie about the facts in exchange for money, position, prestige. Other journalists, afflicted with a more insidious form of the same disease, unknowingly turn fact into falsehood by filtering fact through a fabric of personal perception, be that perception enlightened or benighted.

The late Hunter S. Thompson once observed that “journalism is a low profession.” Reading Liberty and the News, one sees that Lippmann would have agreed with Thompson but yet held fast to a higher truth, namely: There is no other way forward.

Democracy depends upon access to good information. Not to put words in anyone else's mouth, this review observes that there's more to the story than just that. Civilization itself cannot long endure where truth is absent, where nothing is real, where everyone knows that no one can be trusted. Civilization is not some mere contract that can be broken with impunity and the mess cleaned up by lawyers. Civilization describes a trajectory: the more we know, the more we can trust, the farther away from superstition and barbarism we move. The reverse is also true: the less we know, the less we can trust, the farther we fall back toward superstition and barbarism. Lippmann understood that if the truth must be told, then someone must do the telling. We must have journalism, he concluded, and so journalism must be reformed.

Lippmann used Liberty and the News to call for objective truth in journalism but did not stop there. Though he preferred that journalism be self-regulating, he plainly believed that government regulation of journalism might prove necessary. “The regulation of the publishing business is a subtle and elusive matter,” he argued, “and only by an early and sympathetic effort to deal with great evils can the more sensible minds retain their control. If publishers and authors do not face the facts and attempt to deal with them, some day Congress, in a fit of temper, egged on by an outraged public opinion, will operate on the press with an ax. For somehow the community must find a way of making the men who publish news accept responsibility for an honest effort not to misrepresent the facts.” (L&N, 45)

Lippmann also suggested the creation of impartial national and international news bureaus staffed by the finest reporters in the profession. His assertion that “it would be a great gain if the accountability of publishers could be increased” (L&N, 44) implies a belief that a license to practice journalism would not be out of order. He advocated better education for journalists and marveled that those who cannot be led to tell the truth cannot be locked in jail: “If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow,” he wrote, “I can go to jail. But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible. Nobody will punish me. . . .” (L&N, 24)

“At any rate,” Lippmann concluded, “our salvation lies in two things: ultimately, in the infusion of the news-structure by men with a new training and outlook; immediately, in the concentration of the independent forces against the complacency and bad service of the routineers. We shall advance when we have learned humility; when we have learned to see the truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” (L&N, 61)

There is much more worth having in Liberty and the News and, for those who think seriously about what Lippmann wrote, there is much to carry away. To read in this book the carefully arranged thoughts of the finest mind in 20th century journalism – a mind shaped in what was then one of the world's best schools (Harvard), where it was polished by the likes of George Santayana and William James – is by itself worth the price of admission.

The nadir of Princeton's reprint of Liberty and the News is Sidney Blumenthal's Afterword.

This review does not object to Blumenthal's short list of Lippmann's sins. Among others Blumenthal mentions: “His immersion in politics while holding forth as a disinterested observer. . . .” (L&N, 63) Blumenthal's account of Lippmann's ultimate failure, of his ideals being “traduced, trampled and trashed” (L&N, 64) by journalists and journalism is wholly pertinent. But then Blumenthal throws in a lively and factual account of events leading up to the mess in which we presently find ourselves, starting with press coverage of 'Tailgunner Joe' McCarthy and ending with the outrageously un-American behavior of the press during the outrageously un-American administration of George W. Bush.

It is at that point that this writer objects to Blumenthal, who was himself a player in the public-relations effort of the Clinton administration. The Clintons, as the whole world knows, ran one of the most prolific lie factories on record. Sidney Blumenthal's experiences and observations from inside that rats' nest would have made a juicy addition to his otherwise fine Afterword. Sadly, his experience and his observations get no mention here. Blumenthal's account focuses entirely on Republicans, the Republican Party, and the Bush administration. Having an opportunity that cries out for a mea culpa, Blumenthal passed and gave us a theya culpa.

I suppose this is all too much: why make such a fuss over a measly afterword? I'm making a fuss anyway because I see that, with this Afterword, Blumenthal personifies the state of mainstream journalism. Having helped (during the Clinton administration) bring the profession to ruin and (at the end of Liberty and the News) having rhetorically interred the ideas and ideals of journalism's foremost saint, Blumenthal stands clueless amid the carnage and expresses an idiot's hope for the future: “. . . journalism may yet be revitalized,” he wrote, “as part of a general reawakening of American democracy that discovers new forms of expression and forces new debate to achieve its ends.” (L&N, 87-88)

What rot! After airing Lippmann's dirty linen, Blumenthal cannot bear to bare his own spotted shorts. Ever the good Democrat, he cannot set aside his political bias and tell us – or even mention – a tale of the Clinton spin machine. One wonders if Blumenthal is pathologically unconscious of the truth about the Clinton White House and one suspects that if we forget about Walter Lippmann and rely upon the likes of Sidney Blumenthal to lead us down the path to democracy, the Blumenthals of this world will lead us to something else.

There may yet be a "reawakening of American democracy," and new media may appear. “New forms of expression,” however, will never appear. The root form of expression must be and therefore always has been language: spoken, written, manual, transmitted to the brain by hot, throbbing hormones – any medium of human communication, any “new form of expression” will ultimately rely upon language or communication will not occur. Any medium of human communication, any “new form of expression” used by liars will lie to us just like the media, just like the “forms of expression” we've already got.

Jesus taught: “. . . know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Lippmann knew that lesson: Liberty and the News is his testament. Blumenthal, it seems, is vaguely aware of the argument. At the conclusion of his Afterword, he quotes James Madison: “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” (L&N, 88)

Were Blumenthal properly armed (Thank you, Mr. Madison.) he might see Lippmann's effort and its failure as a tragedy, exactly in the mode of Oedipus Rex or Antigone. He might also have pointed practitioners – especially youngsters – to an irony of a spiritual sort that Lippmann's thought and career impart: Those who come to journalism determined to change the profession will fail and will instead be changed by the profession in ways they will not like. Those who come to journalism determined to tell the truth, if they remain committed to truth-telling, will change the profession over time whether they meant to change it or not. That irony aside, a "reawakened American democracy" (if ever one appears) will enact regulation that "forces new debate" because it rewards truth-telling and punishes the lie.

The Princeton edition of Liberty and the News is great stuff. Journalists, those who aspire to journalism, useful citizens of any democracy have every reason to read Walter Lippmann. Speaking strictly to journalists: Liberty and the News gives old hands an excuse to reminisce their college days; rookies get something new to stretch their minds; everyone gets something important (for a change) to argue about when they're drunk.


Liberty and News Corp

I know next to nothing of Lippman and the other characters you mention, Jimmy, but I have to take issue with the following statement of yours-
"Those who come to journalism determined to tell the truth, if they remain committed to truth-telling, will change the profession over time whether they meant to change it or not."

I suggest it would be closer to reality to say, "Those who come to journalism determined to tell the truth, if they remain committed to truth-telling, will be forced from the profession over time whether they meant to change it or not."

I can't see journalists changing the media from within the established media while ever this media is owned by people committed to the present (lying) course.
And the media owners aren't going to change that course while ever they are dependent on advertising from Corporate America.
And the nature and ownership of Corporate America is not going to change while ever there is private banking that creates money out of thin air and distributes to whom ever they please and, equally, withold it from whomever they please; thus controlling these corporations (and their creation) and our economy.
And the banking system and its ownership is not going to change while ever these same banks are in existence because they own the Government.

We are now in an endless loop.

You're right, James

I thought of it when I wrote the piece. Originally I had a line in there -- I didn't particularly like the heft of it and I still don't, so I took it out and put it back and took it out and put it back about a dozen times. Finally I left it out, convinced it was unnecessary. Your comment persuades me to put it back once again. Let me know if you like it better.

Thanks for your input. Now go read the damned book. cool


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

causes and effects

I hesitate to pass judgement on your article, Jimmy. It is a very interesting read, for sure. I guess I have a bug about "effects" of a situation being treated as if they are "causes". Journalistic lies are "effects" in my book. They are the product of a corrupt system. The "causes" are way upstream.
I may have read your article wrong ( and correct me if I have) but it seems to me that you are advocating that today's journalists emulate Lippmann's example. Admirable though Lippmann's efforts may have been (as was Oedipus' efforts), they proved futile (again, as did Oedipus') and so should at least prompt inquiry into why with a view to changing the approach rather than simply repeating the exercise i.e. calling on journalists in mainstream media to tell the truth.

Treating symptoms instead of the cause ensures the continuance of the malaise and hence the Tragedy.

How much farther "upstream" do you think it's possible to go?

James -- Lippmann thought (and I agree with him) that human nature is ultimately to blame. I can't get farther upstream than that, unless I want to dump it all in God's lap. Conservatism at its root says that people are evil creatures who, because they are evil, cannot be trusted to govern themselves but require strong leadership. Liberalism at its core says that people are neither more nor less evil than they are led to be. They are not cattle and, being capable of reason, they can learn to govern themselves.

Being a liberal, I believe the latter argument and so I maintain: Journalism is by, of and for human beings. We will change the way we do journalism (Journalist heal thyself) or we will perpetually slip back into the muck of murderous chaos from which we have thus far climbed. People can be trained to be honest and forthright as a point of honor. It has been done in the past; it can be done again. It's simply a matter of training children to cherish one set of values rather than another and of leading by example rather than by fiat.

I do not believe that we should emulate Lippmann. I believe he had some great ideas and we should learn from him. Lippmann believed that the profession should regulate itself. I advocate government regulation of the profession -- as long as we have democratic government. How that could be done is a fit subject for an article all by itself -- more likely a book -- but I'm not going to write it because, as I never tire of telling people, I don't know enough and I'm too lazy.

Take it or leave it from this point. I'm all done here.


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

What he said

You are right about debates being necessary for the truth to come out, but this means we should revere constant and fair confrontation, and not the end result of such debates.

Because this reverence for the truth is a double-edge weapon. For instance, the news media do believe there is a Truth and it must not be discussed or questioned too much. For another example, I would quote Silber for the 100th time:

Let me just indicate an important related point, one I will return to in further detail in the series on tribalism in politics. Brownback's article, and all those who offer similar kinds of "arguments," illustrate this point with considerable force. Whenever a preexisting and preselected narrative assumes primary importance in this way, the longer one clings to the preferred story, the stupider one becomes. This is why the truth or falsity of the stories we tell is so critical, and why our methodology matters so much. If a story that is central to our view of ourselves fails to comport with the facts, and if we refuse to give up or even question the story, this necessitates that we block ourselves off from more and more information that might "undermine" that story, to use Brownback's terminology. Rather than eagerly seeking out further facts and trying to find out if a given story remains accurate or needs to be significantly revised (and sometimes even jettisoned altogether), we will lower our heads, narrow the scope of our inquiry, and progressively restrict the kind of data we permit ourselves to examine and even acknowledge. As time goes on, our intellectual curiosity steadily decreases. We won't want certain facts and information, because we might have to wonder whether particular cherished beliefs are correct.

Here, the truth as conceived by a creationist becomes a tool for stupidity.
So I'm very interested by this book, but I believe his specific argument of how to fight for the truth is ineffective.

the truth "as conceived" is a misperception

Littlehorn -- There is the fact or the event or the phenomenon, and then there is the fact or the event or the phenomenon as the observer perceives it. Perception is the bone of contention in journalism because perception is often poisoned (in human beings, at least) by the witness who misperceives because he or she filters what actually happened through a screen of preconceptions about the way things are and ought to be.

Confusing "conception" with "perception" in serious error.



"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

ignore this comment

ignore this comment

You're right

The word I should have used was indeed perception. It was just bad english from my part. But it still remains true that what we should revere is the methodology of rigorous journalism, rather than something as vague as "the truth."

Note: seems I clicked on the wrong reply button.


Jimmy, to answer your good question "How far upstream?", I would say as far as Federal Govt (both in your country, US, and mine, Oz) and our Western private banking system; the "endless loop" I refered to earlier.

I believe it is essential, if we humans are individually to have any sense of peace, that we strive to better ourselves. But as Daniel Quinn of "Ishmael" fame said, expecting people to be better than they are is not a good basis for legal or governmental systems. This is a design for failure.

Our systems should at every turn be designed with the human proclivity for exploiting other humans and the environment in mind. Our systems should recognise the addictive nature of exercising power over others and the perception distortion that attends it i.e. there's a pathology that goes with power.

What else do you want?

I did end by saying: "a 'reawakened American democracy' (if ever one appears) will enact regulation that "forces new debate" because it rewards truth-telling and punishes the lie."

I see no point in further debate here.


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

Thanks for sharing Jimmy.

Thanks for sharing Jimmy.

For anyone that doesn't already know, most old books, like the original of the one being discussed, are available on Google Books as a PDF for free. I'm downloading now and will have the better half take it to her work to print out. One of her (my) undocumented fringe benefits. wink

That would be cool

But it just doesn't work. I tried. All you get is the first few pages. No link to download the thing as a PDF. It might have been true in the first days, but they obviously gave up. Certainly doesn't work for Nietzsche's stuff. And if Nietzsche is not old enough...

Ron who?

I know all about Google Books, and Project Gutenberg and all o' dat shit. Over on The Cyanide Hole I built a large collection of links to stuff that people might like to read. They don't work any more since my site got hacked.

You don't want the download version of "Liberty and the News," anyway. Don't you understand you ain't gonna get Blumenthal's nifty Afterword in that downloaded edition? cool


"It may be thought that I am prejudiced. Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not." Mark Twain

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