Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889 – December 14, 1974) was an American writer, reporter, and political commentator famous for being among the first to introduce the concept of Cold War, coining the term "stereotype" in the modern psychological meaning, and critiquing media and democracy in his newspaper column and several books, most notably his 1922 book Public Opinion. Lippmann was also a notable author for the Council on Foreign Relations, until he had an affair with the editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong's wife, which led to a falling out between the two men. Lippmann also played a notable role in Woodrow Wilson's post World War I board of inquiry, as its research director. His views regarding the role of journalism in a democracy were contrasted with the contemporaneous writings of John Dewey in what has been retrospectively named the Lippmann-Dewey debate. Lippmann won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his syndicated newspaper column "Today and Tomorrow" and one for his 1961 interview of Nikita Khrushchev.
He has also been highly praised with titles ranging anywhere from "most influential" journalist of the 20th century, to Father of Modern Journalism.
Michael Schudson writes that James W. Carey considered Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion as "the founding book of modern journalism" and also "the founding book in American media studies".
Walter Lippmann was born in New York City, to Jacob and Daisy Baum Lippmann; his upper-middle class German Jewish family took annual holidays in Europe. At 17, following his graduation from New York's Dwight School, he entered Harvard University where he studied under George Santayana, William James, and Graham Wallas, concentrating upon philosophy and languages (he spoke German and French), and he earned his degree in three years, graduating as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society.
At some time, Lippmann became a member, alongside Sinclair Lewis, of the New York Socialist Party. In 1911, Lippmann served as secretary to George R. Lunn, the first Socialist mayor of Schenectady, New York, during Lunn's first term. Lippmann resigned his post after four months, finding Lunn's programs to be worthwhile in and of themselves, but inadequate as Socialism.
Lippmann was a journalist, a media critic and an amateur philosopher who tried to reconcile the tensions between liberty and democracy in a complex and modern world, as in his 1920 book Liberty and the News. In 1913, Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and Walter Weyl became the founding editors of The New Republic magazine.
During the war, Lippmann was commissioned a captain in the Army on June 28, 1918, and was assigned to the intelligence section of the AEF headquarters in France. He was assigned to the staff of House in October and attached to the American Commission to negotiate peace in December. He returned to the United States in February 1919 and was immediately discharged.
Through his connection to House, he became an adviser to Wilson and assisted in the drafting of Wilson's Fourteen Points speech. He sharply criticized George Creel, whom the President appointed to head wartime propaganda efforts at the committee on Public Information. While he was prepared to curb his liberal instincts because of the war saying he had "no doctrinaire belief in free speech," he nonetheless advised Wilson that censorship should "never be entrusted to anyone who is not himself tolerant, nor to anyone who is unacquainted with the long record of folly which is the history of suppression."
Lippmann examined the coverage of newspapers and saw many inaccuracies and other problems. He and Charles Merz, in a 1920 study entitled A Test of the News, stated that The New York Times' coverage of the Bolshevik revolution was biased and inaccurate. In addition to his newspaper column "Today and Tomorrow", he wrote several books. Lippmann was the first to bring the phrase "cold war" to common currency, in his 1947 book by the same name.
It was Lippmann who first identified the tendency of journalists to generalize about other people based on fixed ideas. He argued that people, including journalists, are more apt to believe "the pictures in their heads" than to come to judgment by critical thinking. Humans condense ideas into symbols, he wrote, and journalism, a force quickly becoming the mass media, is an ineffective method of educating the public. Even if journalists did better jobs of informing the public about important issues, Lippmann believed "the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation." Citizens, he wrote, were too self-centered to care about public policy except as pertaining to pressing local issues.
Following the removal from office of Secretary of Commerce (and former Vice President of the United States) Henry A. Wallace in September 1946, Lippmann became the leading public advocate of the need to respect a Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, as opposed to the containment strategy being advocated at the time by George F. Kennan.
Lippmann was an informal adviser to several presidents. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson presented Lippmann with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He later had a rather famous feud with Johnson over his handling of the Vietnam War of which Lippmann had become highly critical.
He won a special Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1958, as nationally syndicated columnist, citing "the wisdom, perception and high sense of responsibility with which he has commented for many years on national and international affairs." Four years later he won the annual Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting citing "his 1961 interview with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, as illustrative of Lippmann's long and distinguished contribution to American journalism."
Lippmann retired from his syndicated column in 1967.
Lippmann died in New York City.
He has been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 6¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
He was mentioned in the monologue before Phil Ochs' recording of "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" on the 1966 album Phil Ochs in Concert.
Though a journalist himself, Lippmann did not assume that news and truth are synonymous. For Lippmann, the "function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act." A journalist's version of the truth is subjective and limited to how they construct their reality. The news, therefore, is "imperfectly recorded" and too fragile to bear the charge as "an organ of direct democracy."
To Lippmann, democratic ideals had deteriorated: voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies and lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that modern realities threatened the stability that the government had achieved during the patronage era of the 19th century. He wrote that a "governing class" must rise to face the new challenges.
The basic problem of democracy, he wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. By seeing first, he argued, it is possible to sanitize polluted information. Lippmann argued that interpretation as stereotypes (a word which he coined in that specific meaning) subjected us to partial truths. Lippmann called the notion of a public competent to direct public affairs a "false ideal." He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain.
Lippmann was an early and influential commentator on mass culture, notable not for criticizing or rejecting mass culture entirely but discussing how it could be worked with by a government licensed "propaganda machine" to keep democracy functioning. In his first book on the subject, Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann said that mass man functioned as a "bewildered herd" who must be governed by "a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality." The élite class of intellectuals and experts were to be a machinery of knowledge to circumvent the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the "omnicompetent citizen". This attitude was in line with contemporary capitalism, which was made stronger by greater consumption.
Later, in The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann recognized that the class of experts were also, in most respects, outsiders to any particular problem, and hence not capable of effective action. Philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) agreed with Lippmann's assertions that the modern world was becoming too complex for every citizen to grasp all its aspects, but Dewey, unlike Lippmann, believed that the public (a composite of many "publics" within society) could form a "Great Community" that could become educated about issues, come to judgments and arrive at solutions to societal problems.
In 1943, George Seldes described Lippmann as one of the two most influential columnists in the United States.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Lippmann became even more skeptical of the "guiding" class. In The Public Philosophy (1955), which took almost twenty years to complete, he presented a sophisticated argument that intellectual élites were undermining the framework of democracy. The book was very poorly received in liberal circles.
Similarities between the views of Lippmann and Gabriel Almond produced what became known as the Almond–Lippmann consensus, which is based on three assumptions:
- Public opinion is volatile, shifting erratically in response to the most recent developments. Mass beliefs early in the 20th century were "too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent"
- Public opinion is incoherent, lacking an organized or a consistent structure to such an extent that the views of US citizens could best be described as "nonattitudes"
- Public opinion is irrelevant to the policymaking process. Political leaders ignore public opinion because most Americans can neither "understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend."
A meeting of liberal intellectuals mainly from France and Germany organized in Paris in August 1938 by French philosopher Louis Rougier to discuss the ideas put forward by Lippmann in his work The Good Society (1937), Colloque Walter Lippmann was named after him.
The Walter Lippmann House at Harvard University, which houses the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, is named after him too. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used one of Lippmann's catch phrases, the "Manufacture of Consent," for the title of their book, Manufacturing Consent, which contains sections critical of Lippmann's views about the media.