1920 — When the Rules All Changed

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When I first discovered historian Christopher Lasch many years ago, I was stunned by his brilliant reading of the role of Woodrow Wilson in all the nonsense we deal with today in the worlds of politics and the press. Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on a platform of “He’ll keep us out of the war.”

World War One was America’s chance to become a world (business) power, however, and Wilson knew this, so the trick became how to run opposing the war while at the same time preparing to enter the conflict. Wilson formed a group of advisors and thinkers — including influential newspaper publishers. This organization — The Committee for Public Information, also known as The Creel Committee was named after its leader, George Creel. The characters making up this committee was a who’s who of a new type of thinking, one that would change the rules for everybody 100 years later.

I’ve written much about these remarkable people whose good intentions have had a lot to do with today’s untenable government-press relations. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, was a member of the committee as was Walter Lippman, the father of professional journalism. Volumes could be written about these two characters alone, but everybody on that committee shares the responsibility for what we have today. Bernays, a cousin of Sigmund Freud, used lessons from his Uncle to shape new ideas for marketing. Here’s just one of his famous quotes:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must coöperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

From “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays

If that sounds familiar, it should, but we must understand that this thinking is only 100 years old. Here are four Google N’Gram graphs about the use of certain thoughts in the books of our world. Note that these all show rising use in the wake of 1920:

Here’s the use of the word Propaganda in publications.

Here’s the phrase “Public Relations”.

Here’s one that works in concert with the above. Objectivity. It’s necessary for public relations to insert itself into journalism.

And finally, here’s what “Professional Journalism” looks like:

The other side of this whole “Right Wing News” fallacy is going to require something completely different, because in 100 years, we’ve gone from a government of the people to one of propaganda and self-interest of the few.

Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to put all this into the dust pile of the past. Maybe we should begin with technology that labels news as propaganda (regardless of the source) when such passes through our filters.

One thing is super clear, however, and that’s that this doesn’t work, not at all, for the country that our founders created.