Lippmann, Walter (1889-1974)
Lippmann, Walter (1889-1974)
Renowned twentieth-century American journalist and political analyst, Walter Lippmann, championed a responsible press in a time when, beneath the posture of detachment, elite journalists were deeply involved in the mechanics of the government. Lippmann was one of the chief architects of a professional journalism characterized by independence and objectivity. At the same time, however, he also renounced the ideals of citizen-based democracy as unfeasible. His column appeared in hundreds of newspapers as a syndicated feature from 1931 into the 1970s. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, the Medal of Freedom, and three Overseas Press Club awards. In addition to authoring several books, he was the founding editor of New Republic and director of the editorial page at the New York World.
Lippmann was born in New York City to Jacob and Daisy Baum Lippmann. His father was a successful clothing manufacturer who provided his son with exposure to the high culture of New York and summer travels to European and American resorts. By the time he enrolled at Harvard, in 1906, Lippmann had already toured Europe extensively. His privileged upbringing was reflected throughout his career: in his friendships, in his political philosophies and, perhaps most conspicuously, in his skeptical view of the public.
Set against the soaring rhetoric of democracy flourishing in America at the time, Lippmann's Public Opinion, written in 1922, outlines the limitations of the media in performing the function of public enlightenment. In this widely influential tome, Lippmann argues that the vast majority of citizens are unable to comprehend, let alone synthesize, complex national and international political issues, thus an informed and engaged public is an illusion. Journalists, he claims, are of little help because they cannot produce a complete image of the political scene, offering instead an inadequately selective series of glimpses. Describing this limited view of complex subjects, Lippmann coined the expression "stereotype," borrowing the term for a printer's mold. John Dewey called Public Opinion "perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned."
To relieve the public of the burden of participation in government, Lippmann advocated the establishment of a class of experts, which would shape the public mind and character. The press would serve to transmit the judgements of these well-informed opinion leaders, thereby considerably reducing the role of the public. In addition news would expose the experts to publicity in order to keep them honest and focused on public rather than private interests.
Throughout his career Lippmann enjoyed prestige, access to heads of state and royalty, and the confidence of "insiders," whom he decided early on were the truly important people in society. Many believed he helped author Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen Points which shaped the Versailles Peace treaty, and he was advisor to numerous political figures, including President John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson.
Yet he maintained what he felt was a professional distance as a journalist. He criticized the United States-supported invasion of Cuba despite his ties to the Kennedy administration and he disagreed in his columns with President Johnson's decision to send troops to Vietnam. Offended by Johnson's later attempts to sway his coverage, Lippmann resigned from writing his column, which was syndicated in over 275 papers.
Although Lippmann's views on the press still reverberate in the writing of mass media scholars and critics, he is often quoted out of context in a way that emphasizes his concerns with professionalism while down-playing his largely elitist opinions. His ideas endure because debates regarding the role of the mass media in democracy remain unsettled. While his views regarding the limitations of the press have profoundly influenced the way journalism is practiced today, Lippmann's powerful work as a columnist, reporter, and philosopher suggest that he neither accepted these restrictions for himself nor imposed them on his readers.
Childs, Marquis and James Reston, editors. Walter Lippmann and His Times. New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1959.