The manufacturers of consent: Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the “manufacture of consent” had deranged democracy
“Everywhere today”, Lippmann wrote in Liberty and the News, “men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. Increasingly they are baffled because the facts are not available; and they are wondering whether government by consent can survive in a time when the manufacture of consent is an unregulated private enterprise.”
Lippmann had witnessed firsthand how the “manufacture of consent” had deranged democracy. But he did not hold those in government solely responsible. He also described how the press corps was carried away on the wave of patriotism and became self-censors, enforcers, and sheer propagandists. Their careerism, cynicism, and error made them destroyers of “liberty of opinion” and agents of intolerance, who subverted the American constitutional system of self-government. Even the great newspaper owners, he wrote, “believe that edification is more important than veracity. They believe it profoundly, violently, relentlessly. They preen themselves upon it. To patriotism, as they define it from day to day, all other considerations must yield. That is their pride. And yet what is this but one more among myriad examples of the doctrine that the end justifies the means? A more insidiously misleading rule of conduct was, I believe, never devised among men.”
Public opinion was not a free marketplace of ideas, but was channelled and polluted by the managers of news. They concentrated their power at the expense of accurately informing the public, whose fears and hatreds they exploited. Reason was impossible to sustain in the whirlwind. Lippmann wrote:
“Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information’, then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumor, each man’s hope and each man’s whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people.”
A year before Liberty and the News appeared, the famous muckraking journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, published The Brass Check, the first contemporary exposé of the press as a corrupt special interest. Sinclair asserted that the press simply reflected its big business ownership and did its bidding. Lippmann’s analysis, though, was at once more subtle and more penetrating, elucidating a form of corruption that ran to the foundations of the nation’s politics.
By substituting propaganda for truth, brandishing jingoism to enforce conformity, and asserting arrogance and certainty over skepticism and humility, Lippmann contended, the manufacturers of consent confounded democracy. “In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”
A zealous conformism