Notes on Walter Lippmann

Lippmann writes as if the antagonism determined by national geo-politics is more real than the lived relations of human beings. He thinks in all honesty that they were mistaken to have been acting as friends! (Public Opinion, 6).

But isn't it far more reasonable to say that indeed they were friends, despite the war, because they knew nothing of any reasons to oppose one another? And that it was only the media, which acted as a sort of informational tentacle of the state, which informed them that they should be opposed to one another? The news delivery functioned as a sort of order, and here Lippman testifies to this insofar as he literally attributes the messages of national war propaganda more reality than lived relations.

This is really quite extraordinary! He suggests that there is a real world outside and merely a picture in our heads, but it strikes me as far more reasonable to say that the world we live in with the people around us is the “world outside”“ and that newspaper reports of conflicts between nation-states often literally only exist as pictures? It is an extremely curious question what permits him such confidence to suggest the opposite, despite the seemingly obvious play in the words here.

One can think of the fidelity of news reports as a distribution (Public Opinion, 15). We tend to think of it as a distribution from "left” to “right” on the traditional partisan political spectrum, but the more interesting distinction to me is the distribution across which a report locates true reality versus a false ideological picture. Obviously this raises very difficult questions about what is truth, but I'm very interested in conceiving news reports to exist on such a spectrum anyway. To my mind, one way to approach this would be to oppose institutional-system causes of problems (probably the truest) vs. other false blame targets which all parties on the institutionalized political spectrum agree on. So perhaps we could imagine a true-false distinction orthogonal to the left-right distinction?

Today, it seems to me that we certainly all live in a variously different world in no small part to the explosion of media choice, but the political issue here is very different than what Lippman identified in the 1920s (Public Opinion, 18). It is not that the rich and poor live in different worlds in which they believe the other to be an enemy, it is that they live in different worlds in which they do not see each other as enemies. This strikes me as a remarkable fact today, and it would have to be determined how this came about. One hypothesis might be that the market's explosion of media choice and advertising's ability to create various specific identity niches solved the “class war” by simply removing any common ground required for even having any antagonism whatsoever.

What is interesting about Lippman is that he has the honesty to reject the optimism that a “free press” could somehow be a guarantor of society's larger interests. He says quite frankly that the press cannot be expected to supply the truth about the world, because they are too much determined by precisely the political forces which distort our image of the world (Public Opinion, 26).

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Murphy, Justin. 2014. "Notes on Walter Lippmann," (December 14, 2018).