Walter Lippmann

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Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was a working newspaper columnist, long-form journalist, political commentator and public philosopher who exercised a powerful influence on twentieth century views of American democracy. Lippman was a Progressive. Along with Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl, he was one of the founding editors of The New Republic and a highly influential force in American journalism during the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to his role as a journalist, Lippman was a WASP elitist who moved freely (albeit informally) between the worlds of journalism and government. For decades, he served as an informal advisor to U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson.


Among other notable contributions, Lippman popularized use of the term stereotype which in his definition referred to "the pictures in our heads".

Lippman was a major defender of the role of the free press in establishing and maintaining democracy. In a 1922 book, Public Opinion offered his fullest statement of the role of newspapers in modern representative democracy, the public and a passive, information-processing view of public opinion formation. He was also an expositor of the basic idea of journalists as part of the elite whose distinct role was explaining public affairs to citizens in terms they could understand. Journalists and public officials were key figures in a meritocracy, or perhaps forms of something that might be termed modern bureaucratic aristocracy. Modern industrial democracies Lippmann argued, were too complex for ordinary citizens to understand and govern. Of necessity, government must be staffed and operated by an expert, governing class. He saw the accuracy of news and the protection of journalistic sources as major problems of democracy and presented the general public as a bewildered and largely passive herd. According to Lippmann, In modern, industrial society, it was the job of the journalist to translate the actions and motives of the governing class of bureaucratic experts and specialists into terms the general public could comprehend. He found the notion of actual government by the people (as opposed to their better-informed leaders) altogether implausible.

Three years later, in The Phantom Public (1925), Lippman's view reached its apex with the recognition that experts could themselves be unqualified outsiders to a problem beyond their individual, narrow domains of expertise. Apart from the few who understood any particular issue, even experts in other domains were not possessed of sufficient accurate information to be capable of effective action. Lippmann may have been influenced in this view, according to some authorities, by the views of fascists who were already in power in Italy and gaining strength elsewhere in Europe at the time. Others see the influence of advocates of technocracy.) In any case, Lippmann’s view in is that public affairs are largely the responsibility of elected representatives and appointed officials who are expert elites. In this same period, many other progressives expressed similar views, including Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly and Mary Parker Follett's early (1896) study of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lippman's view that ordinary citizens were incapable of self-governance under modern conditions did not go unchallenged. In 1927, in a book titled The Public and its Problems, John Dewey, who was the best-known American philosopher and public intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, offered a response to Lippmann’s case for representative democracy.Dewey argued that politics is the responsibility of all citizens, and that adequate education would provide citizens with the knowledge needed to be involved in politics. In the Dewey model, there was a place for ordinary citizens alongside elites and experts in government, and journalism assumed an educational role. Dewey also worked out the implications of expertise for the public as well as leaders: In reply to Lippman's implied (and debilitating) division of labor among experts, he posited multiple publics with specialized and focused interests paralleling those of the experts.