Public Opinion (book)
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Title page of the first edition
|Publisher||Harcourt, Brace & Co.|
|Text||Public Opinion at Wikisource|
Public Opinion is a book by Walter Lippmann, published in 1922. It is a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially of the irrational and often self-serving social perceptions that influence individual behavior and prevent optimal societal cohesion. The detailed descriptions of the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their sociopolitical and cultural environments, leading them to apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to a complex reality, rendered Public Opinion a seminal text in the fields of media studies, political science, and social psychology.
The introduction describes man's inability to interpret the world: "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance" between people and their environment. People construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People "live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones."
Human behavior is stimulated by the person's pseudo-environment and then is acted upon in the real world. Some of the general implications of the interactions among one's psychology, environment, and the mass communications media are highlighted.
More recent research uses the term "social constructionism" or "constructed reality" to describe what Lippmann (1922) called "pseudo-environment".
News and truth
By definition, pertinent facts are never provided completely and accurately; by necessity they are arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event. Those who are most familiar with the greatest amount of facts regarding a certain environment, construct a pseudo-environment that aligns with their own 'stereotypes' and convey this to the public, knowingly or not, to suit their own private needs. This is inescapable human nature. Propaganda is inherently impossible without a barrier of censorship between the event and the public. As a consequence, the mass communication media, by their very nature as vehicles for informational transmission, are essentially vulnerable to manipulation.
The blame for that perceptual parallax falls not upon the mass media technology (print, radio, cinema, or, inferentially, television) or logistical concerns but upon certain members of society who attend to life with little intellectual engagement. That causes the following:
- The buying public: the "bewildered herd" (a term here borrowed from The Phantom Public) must pay for understanding the unseen environment by the mass communications media. The irony is that although the public's opinion is important, it must pay for its acceptance. People will be selective and will buy the most factual media at the lowest price: "For a dollar, you may not even get an armful of candy, but for a dollar or less people expect reality/representations of truth to fall into their laps." The media have the social function of transmitting public affairs information and their business profit role of surviving in the market.
- Nature of news: people publish already-confirmed news that are thus less disputable. Officially-available public matters will constitute "the news" and unofficial (private) matters are unavailable, are less available, or are used as "issues" for propaganda.
- News truth and conclusion: the function of news is to signal an event, and that signalling, eventually, is a consequence of editorial selection and judgement; journalism creates and sows the seeds (news) that establish public opinion.
Manufacture of consent
Lippman argues that, when properly deployed in the public interest, the manufacture of consent is useful and necessary for a cohesive society, because, in many cases, "the common interests" of the public are not obvious except upon careful analysis of the collected data, a critical intellectual exercise in which most people are uninterested or are incapable of doing. Therefore, most people must have the world summarized for them by the well-informed, and will then act accordingly.
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.... Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.— Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapter XV
The political elite are members of the class of people who are incapable of accurately understanding, by themselves, the complex "unseen environment" wherein the public affairs of the modern state occur; thus, Lippmann proposes that a professional, "specialized class" collect and analyze data, and present their conclusions to the society's decision makers, who, in their turn, use the "art of persuasion" to inform the public about the decisions and circumstances affecting them.
Public Opinion proposes that the increased power of propaganda and the specialized knowledge required for effective political decisions have rendered the traditional notion of democracy impossible. The phrase "manufacture of consent" was introduced, which the academics Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used as the title of their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Chomsky has extensively criticized Lippman's thesis as deeply opposed to democracy.