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News Critics (Block-I)

Unit 1

Block I News
Unit 1

Walter Lippmann, News and


Public Opinion

Structure
1.1 Introduction
1.1 Objectives
1.2 What is Public Opinion ?
1.3 The Sociological View
1.4 Myth and Reality
1.5 Lippmann and his Opinion
1.6 Summary
1.7 Self Test
1.8 Multiple Choice Questions

1.0 Introduction
This unit is designed to give an overview of the definition of news, public
opinion according to Walter Lippmann.

1.1 Objectives
After studying this unit, the student will be able to understand the basic
concepts of news and public opinion.

1.2 What is Public Opinion?


Despite enormous debate it is difficult to agree on any one common
definition of public opinion that orators, leaders, marketers, public relations
practitioners, propagandists, pamphleteers and journalists throughout the
world influence, advertently or inadvertently. Members of a round table of a
political science association in the West once divided into three groups:
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those who did not believe that there was such a thing as public opinion;
those who accepted its existence but doubted their ability to define it
precisely; and those who could offer a definition. Predictably, the last group
could not agree on the definition to be adopted.
Few scholars however dispute the existence of the public opinion although
the phenomenon is still not fully understood. The question is whether the
news media have the ability to cover it with the accuracy they flaunt. But
why is public opinion so important to news media? Political scientists and
historians have emphasized the function, influence and role of public opinion
in governance and policy. To some, public opinion is equivalent to the
national will, almost suggesting that there can be only one public opinion on
an issue at any one time, disregarding the plurality and large pockets of
expressed and unexpressed opinion in society.

1.3 The Sociological View


Sociologists explain this by stating that public opinion is a product of social
interaction and communication. According to them there can be no public
opinion without communication among members of the public who are
interested in a given issue. A large number of persons may even hold
similar views, but these will not converge into public opinion as long as each
person remains ignorant of the opinions of the others. They acknowledge
that there may be many different public opinions existing on a given issue at
the same time. One body of opinion may be dominant or may be reflected in
governmental policy, but this does not mean that other organized bodies of
opinion do not exist. Communication more particularly through mass
media like press, radio, and television or through face-to-face discussions
therefore are at the root of public opinion and thereby, democracy itself.
People learn how others think about a given issue and may also be exposed
to information from sources and opinions of others including and not only
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those expressed by news media or the political class. This means that the
public opinion phenomenon stretches into areas that need not be of concern
to government alone. This is perhaps why attitudes toward movie stars and
fashions are appropriate subject matter for newspapers and news channels
covering public opinion, as are matters of economy and polity.
Similarly, some attitudes even though widely shared may not be
expressed at all. In countries and societies bereft of free expression for
instance, a great many people may be opposed to their immediate rulers
and patriarchs but may fear to express their attitudes even to their families
and friends. In such cases, a truly reflective public opinion may fail to
develop.

1.4 Myth and Reality


Despite such problems at hand, the claims of experts including journalists
over the knowledge of the world and public opinion are confidently
forwarded and advertised.
For ages, newspapers have thrived on the myth they have created. That it is
indeed possible through

A few objective reporters placed in important locations with


appropriate contacts and

A few copy editors with a built-in nose for news, drawing a selection
from the news flowing into their newsrooms, to tell the reading public
what public opinions had formed and what happenings had overtaken
the world before the dawn breaks.

As Walter Lippmann has observed, there has been a tendency in


democracies to make a mystery out of public opinion but that "there have
been skilled organizers of opinion who understood the mystery well enough
to create majorities on election day." (Public Opinion, 1922).
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1.5 Lippmann and his Opinion

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann was an American newspaper commentator and author who
in a 60-year career became one of the most widely respected political
columnists in the world. Studying at Harvard University in 1909, Lippmann
was influenced by the philosophers William James and George Santayana.
He helped to found The New Republic, a weekly journal of opinion that was
one of the most influential liberal magazines in the United States. The journal
reflected the progressive movement and sought reforms in American
government and society. Early on, The New Republic supported the formation
of labor unions, the eight-hour workday, and woman suffrage in the United
States. His writings in the liberal weekly influenced the then American
President Woodrow Wilson, who is said to have drawn on Lippmann's ideas
for the post-World War I settlement plan and for the concept of the League of
Nations. In 1917, Lippmann was an assistant to U.S. Secretary of War,
Newton D. Baker. Wilson also sent Lippmann to take part in the negotiations
for the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. After writing editorials between 1921 and
1929 for the World, Lippmann served as its editor before moving to the New
York Herald Tribune in 1931. It was in 1931 that his famous column, "Today
and Tomorrow," first appeared. Eventually, it was syndicated in more than
250 newspapers in the United States and in 25 other nations. Lippmann won
two Pulitzer Prizes first in 1958 and then in 1962. In preparing his
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commentaries, Lippmann traveled throughout the world. While his first book,
A Preface to Politics in 1913, was mildly socialistic, his other works Drift and
Mastery in 1914 and The Good Society 1937 repudiated socialism. But
perhaps his most influential book is Public Opinion. Here, Lippmann suggests
that ordinary citizens can no longer judge public issues rationally, since the
speed and condensation required in the mass media tend to produce slogans
rather than useful understanding of the world.
In Public Opinion, Lippmann observed that:
1. It is impossible for all the reporters in the world working all the hours of
the day to witness all the happenings of the world.
2. News media rely on reporters stationed in some places which deal with
concerns of the public. The most obvious place is where peoples affairs
touch public authority.
3. Before a series of events become news they have usually to make
themselves noticeable in some more or less overt act and assume a
certain definable shape. News is therefore not a mirror of social
conditions but the report of an aspect that has obtruded itself.
4. Wherever there is a good machinery of record, the modern news service
works with great precision. There is a very direct relation between the
certainty of news and the system of record.
5. The publication of news material has a greater bearing on the sources
interests than on the reporter who may cover the event. The power of
press and publicity agents to control or manipulate news is great.
6. Journalists lay emphasis on the event or a happening than the issue or
the processes that may have led to it.
7. Every newspaper when it reaches the reader is a result of a series of
selections with no objective standards.
8. They evoke partisanship of readers in order to engage them and
therefore find it difficult to change opinion even in face of mounting
evidence to the contrary.

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In The Phantom Public written in 1925, Lippmann again treated the problem
of communication in politics. The clarity with which Lippmann elaborated
and explained each of his hypotheses, and the enormity of the evidence
gathered over time notwithstanding, the world continues to swear by the
news it reads, watches and hears, and news media by the omnipresence
and omnipotence they perhaps will never attain.

1.6 Summary
According to Walter Lippmann, Ordinary people are unable to judge public
issues rationally and news cannot be a mirror to judge social conditions.

1.7 Self Test


1. Trace the attempts to define Public Opinion.
2. What is the definition of public opinion according to sociologists?
3. Summarise Walter Lippmanns opinion on news.

1.8 Multiple Choice Questions


1) Walter Lippmann founded the weekly journal ___________
a) The New Republic
b) New York Herald Tribune
c) New York Times
d) None of the above
2) Walter Lippmanns book Public Opinion was published in the year _______
a) 1923
b) 1924
c) 1922
d) 1921
3) Walter Lippmann published the book The Phantom Public in the year ____
a) 1926
b) 1927
c) 1925
d) 1930
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