Walter Lippmann–Saw the public as Plato did: a great beast or a bewildered herd.


It was Lippmann who first identified the tendency of journalists to generalize about other people based on fixed ideas.  He argued that people—including journalists—are more apt to believe “the pictures in their heads” than come to judgment by critical thinking. Humans condense ideas into symbols, he wrote, and journalism, a force quickly becoming the mass media, is an ineffective method of educating the public. Even if journalists did better jobs of informing the public about important issues, Lippmann believed “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.” Citizens, he wrote, were too self-centered to care about public policy except as pertaining to pressing local issues.

Lippmann saw the purpose of journalism as “intelligence work”. Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era and some critics argue the model needs rethinking in post-industrial societies.

Though a journalist himself, he held no assumption of news and truth being synonymous. For him the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”

To his mind, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that the stability the government achieved during the patronage era of the 1800s was threatened by modern realities. He wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges. He saw the public as Plato did: a great beast or a bewildered herd – floundering in the “chaos of local opinions.”

The basic problem of democracy, he wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. By seeing first, he argued, it is possible to sanitize polluted information. Lippmann argued that seeing through stereotypes (which he coined in this specific meaning) subjected us to partial truths. Lippmann called the notion of a public competent to direct public affairs a “false ideal.” He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain.

Early on Lippmann said the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as “elites,” were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen”.

Read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Lippmann

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About stoneagerefugee

University Student and Vagabundo--A rice and beans and pico de gallo regular! with a world class room with a view and a classic reading collection.
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