The engineering of opinion
I am conducting this tour at the level of ideas. But one could also say ideals. The all-inclusive public that is fully informed about what is happening… and argues about it in public settings…. so as to form an independent and reasoned opinion… which is then listened to by the people in power… this has never been a description of how public life in a competitive democracy actually works. The fight has been to make it truer and truer for more and more people. That fight goes on. When we compare the reality to the picture, we can tell where we are, and perhaps where we need to go.
Meanwhile, there are endless complications to weigh. For example, the same tools that make an informed public possible allow for manipulation and propaganda on a national scale. As we enter the modern age this becomes very obvious. Let’s jump ahead to Paris in 1919 and the Peace Conference that ended World War I. Something new was seen at Paris. At previous international conferences intended to conclude wars and settle borders, the diplomats would negotiate in secret and emerge weeks later with a result which was then conveyed to the home countries as a more or less finished product. In Paris a new pattern was seen. The American delegation was accompanied by over 150 newspaper correspondents. They shocked the diplomats by demanding entrance to the opening session.
Even when their demands were resisted, the reporters were a factor in the event. Word of what was being proposed by one country or discussed by several would find its way to the correspondents, who would put it into their dispatches, which were then telegraphed to the home country to be published the next day in the newspapers. Over the same wires (but traveling the other way) came word of public reaction once the news was published. This increased the pressure on the statesmen in Paris, who in Britain, France and the United States (the victors) had to face the future prospect of elections and no-confidence votes. Just imagine how simple it would be for the editor of a tabloid newspaper to take fragmentary word of what was being discussed in Paris and use it to sell papers in London. As public opinion becomes more powerful, the incentives to engineer it also grow.
In the twentieth century we have the rise of the modern mass media—cinema, radio, television, followed by cable—all of them huge industries that are intimately connected to state power. So much so that the way you make a revolution in the twentieth century is not by storming the king’s castle but by taking over the broadcasting tower. The idea of the informed public and public opinion as the final court of appeal never got extinguished, but it had to compete with a related formation: the mass audience and the business of appealing to that.
I am recommending it because it offers a lot of the background I come from when I approach flashpoint issues like “Western media bias“. Though I openly acknowledge, recognize, and even criticize — more accurately — the “bias in the Western media”, I find myself in disagreement with many people who feel it is “getting worse” and “something must be done” about it. Mr. Rosen’s speech to incoming students of journalism in Paris, France gives us a nice overview of how journalism and media developed and where it is going. Now, I’m not predisposed to thinking that media bias and media misinformation is something that can be eliminated, but I do think a better understanding of media’s history and future will give us a better idea of what the problems are and the limitations of any proposed solutions. Mr. Rosen’s piece does that admirably.
Discussion is up to you guys, but just two simple polls: