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Power of the press ...

December 19, 2007 |  3:55 pm

I've spent the last few days reading Walter Lippmann's "Liberty and the News" (Princeton University Press: 92 pp., $16.95), a small book of essays originally published in 1920 that is startling in its prescience — or maybe it's just that nothing ever really changes in the end.

Written in the wake of the Versailles peace conference, the pieces here argue not only for standards in reporting but also warn about the danger of news that comes with an agenda, especially when the public is at risk of being manipulated by information (and misinformation) coming from all sides.

Lippmann understood the significance of these issues; one of the founders of the New Republic, he was an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and later editor of the New York World. Beginning in 1931, he spent 30 years writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated column for the New York Herald-Tribune

In "Liberty and the News," he lays out, in the most direct terms, his case for how the press can undermine democracy when it does anything other than report, as clearly and directly as possible, information and ideas. In a mass culture, after all, public opinion is everything, which means that the media helps corrupt the entire process if it doesn't hold itself to higher ideals.

It's easy to dismiss such a belief as naive or sentimental, especially in these days of the 24-hour news cycle, of Fox News, Drudge and the Daily Kos. Yet Lippmann was a hard-boiled realist who knew the power of the press.

"If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow,” he writes in one of this little volume's most cogent passages, "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 if I lie about Japan, for example. I can announce that every Japanese valet is a reservist, and every Japanese art store a mobilization center. And if there should be hostilities with Japan, the more I lied the more popular I should be."

David L. Ulin

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