MASS COMMUNICATION THEORY Foundations, Ferment, and Future (Book)


Muckraker Crusading journalist, typically challenging the powerful on behalf of those less so.

Propaganda No-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations.

White propaganda Intentional suppression of potentially harmful information and ideas, combined with deliberate promotion of positive information or ideas to distract attention from problematic events.

Propaganda theorists abandoned idealism in favor of strategies they regarded as realistic and scientific. Propaganda must be resisted by whatever means possible. Even though the threat of propaganda was great, there might be a silver lining to this cloud. If we could find a way to harness the power of propaganda to promote good and just ideals, then we would not only survive its threat but have a tool to help build a better social order. This was the promise of what came to be called white propaganda—a strategy that used propaganda techniques to fight “bad” propaganda and promote objectives that elites considered good. After World War II ended, these white propaganda techniques provided a basis for the development of strategic (promotional) communication methods that are widely used today in advertising and public relations. In fact, propaganda theory is experiencing a resurgence of interest precisely for this reason: the techniques used in these modern promotional efforts appear to many observers to be even more effective in the contemporary world of corporate media ownership


The Propaganda Fide was originally founded in an effort to suppress the Protestant Reformation. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the meaning of propaganda was debated. Was propaganda necessarily bad or was it a good form of communication that could be corrupted? Many forms of communication seek to persuade people—were all of them propaganda? Gradually, the term propaganda came to refer to a certain type of communication strategy. It involves the no-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations. The ultimate goal of propagandists is to change the way people act and to leave them believing that those actions are voluntary, that the newly adopted behaviors—and the opinions underlying them—are their own. To accomplish this, though, propagandists must first change the way people conceive of themselves and their social world. A variety of communication techniques is used to guide and transform those beliefs.

Disinformation: False information spread about the opposition to discredit it

Black propaganda: Deliberate and strategic transmission of lies

Gray propaganda: Transmission of information or ideas that might or might not be false. No effort is made to determine their validity

Engineering of consent: Official use of communication campaigns to reach “good” ends


Watson’s theory became known as Behaviorism: The notion that all human action is a conditioned response to external environmental stimuli

One of the central notions in behaviorism was the idea of conditioning. Behaviorists argued that most human behavior is the result of conditioning by the external environment. We are conditioned to act in certain ways by positive and negative stimuli—we act to gain rewards or avoid punishments.

Magic bullet theory: Idea that propaganda is powerful enough to penetrate most people’s defenses and condition them to act in ways that are useful to the propagandist


Freudianism: Freud’s notion that human behavior is the product of the conflict between an individual’s Id, Ego, and Superego. To explain hysteria, Freud reasoned that the self that guides action must be fragmented into conflicting parts. Normally one part, the rational mind, or Ego, is in control, but sometimes other parts become dominant. Freud speculated that human action is often the product of another, darker side of the self—the Id. This is the egocentric pleasure-seeking part of ourselves that the Ego must struggle to keep under control. The Ego relies on an internalized set of cultural rules (the Superego) for guidance. Caught between the primitive Id and the overly restrictive Superego, the Ego fights a losing battle. When the Ego loses control to the Id, hysteria or worse results. When the Superego becomes dominant and the Id is completely suppressed, people turn into unemotional, depressed social automatons that simply do what others demand.


He argued that propaganda was more than merely using media to lie to people in order to gain temporary control over them. People need to be slowly prepared to accept radically different ideas and actions. Communicators need a well-developed, long-term campaign strategy (“multiplication of those stimuli”) in which new ideas and images are carefully introduced and then cultivated. Symbols must be created, and people must be gradually taught to associate specific emotions such as love or hate with these symbols. If these cultivation strategies are successful, they create what Lasswell referred to as master (or collective) symbols (Lasswell, 1934). Master symbols are associated with strong emotions and possess the power to stimulate beneficial large-scale mass action if they are used wisely. In contrast to behaviorist notions, Lasswell’s theory envisioned a long and quite sophisticated conditioning process. Exposure to one or two extremist messages would not likely have significant effects. And propaganda messages can be delivered through many different media, not just radio or newspapers.

Scientific technocracy: An educated social science–based elite charged with protecting vulnerable average people from harmful propaganda.


Lippmann shared Lasswell’s skepticism about the ability of average people to make sense of their social world and to make rational decisions about their actions. In Public Opinion (1922), he pointed out the discrepancies that necessarily exist between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” Because these discrepancies were inevitable, Lippmann doubted that average people could govern themselves as classic democratic theory assumed they could. The world of the 1930s was an especially complex place, and the political forces were very dangerous. People simply couldn’t learn enough from media to help them understand it all. Even if journalists took their responsibility seriously, they couldn’t overcome the psychological and social barriers that prevented average people from developing useful pictures in their heads.

Pragmatism: School of philosophical theory emphasizing the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it.

A scientific technocracy could be developed to ensure the dissemination of good propaganda. Others, despite their fear of propaganda, believed that propaganda analysis, like that undertaken at the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, was the only truly democratic way to deal with propaganda. That is, rather than use “good” propaganda, teach average people how propaganda operates so they can defend themselves against it. John Dewey’s solution to propaganda’s threat relied on traditional notions of democracy. Because people were in fact good and rational, the counter to propaganda was not control of media by a technocratic elite, but more education of the public. Contemporary propaganda theory, centered in critical theory, argues that public discourse is shaped and limited by powerful elites to serve their own ends. Advertising’s underlying theme that consumption and capitalism are beneficial is another area of interest to propaganda theorists.

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By the end of the 1930s, pessimism about the future of democracy was widespread. Most members of the old-line elites were convinced that totalitarianism couldn’t be stopped. They pointed to theories like those of Lasswell and Lippmann as proofthat average people could not be trusted. The only hope for the future lay with technocracy and science.

In the next chapter, we will trace the development of theories that arose in opposition to these technocratic views. Advocates of these emerging ideas didn’t base their views of media on social science; rather, they wanted to revive older notions of democracy and media. If modern democracy was being threatened, then maybe the threat was the result of having strayed too far from old values and ideals. Perhaps these could be restored and modern social institutions could somehow be purified and renewed. Theorists sought to make the Libertarianism of the Founding Fathers once again relevant to democracy. In doing so, they created views of media that are still widely held.



A normative theory

that sees people

as good and

rational and able

to judge good

ideas from bad

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Consider the Hippler and Sproule characterizations of propaganda from earlier in this chapter: simplify a complex issue and repeat that simplification; use covert, massively orchestrated communication; and use tricky language to discourage reflective thought. Some contemporary critical theorists argue that propaganda conforming to these rules is alive and well today and that it is practiced with a stealth, sophistication, and effectiveness unparalleled in history. They point to a number of “natural beliefs” that have been so well propagandized that meaningful public discourse about them has become difficult if not impossible. Political discourse and advertising are frequent areas of modern propaganda study, and the central argument of this modern propaganda theory is that powerful elites so thoroughly control the mass media and their content that they have little trouble imposing their Truth on the culture.

Close your eyes and think welfare. Did you envision large corporations accepting government handouts, special tax breaks for businesses, companies building ships and planes that the military does not want? Or did you picture a single mother, a woman of color, cheating the taxpayers so she can stay home and watch Jerry Springer? This narrowing of public discourse and debate is examined in works such as historian Herb Schiller’s Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (1989); communication theorist Robert McChesney’s Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (1997) and The Problem of the Media (2004); mass communication researchers Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman’s The Press Effect (2003); and linguist Noam Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Deterring Democracy (1991), and with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). All offer a common perspective. In Jamieson and Waldman’s words, it is, “‘Facts’ can be difficult to discern and relate to the public, particularly in a context in which the news is driven by politicians and other interested parties who selectively offer some pieces of information while suppressing others” (xiii).

Take one such “interested party,” advertisers and their advertising, as an example. Different ads may tout one product over another, but all presume the logic and rightness of consumption and capitalism. Our need for “more stuff” is rarely questioned: the connection between wealth/consumption and success/acceptance is never challenged; and concern about damage to the environment caused by, first, the manufacture of products and second, their disposal, is excluded from the debate. The point is not that consumption and capitalism are innately bad, but that as in all successful propaganda efforts, the alternatives are rarely considered. When alternatives are considered, those who raise them are viewed as out of the mainstream or peculiar. By extension, this failure to consider alternatives benefits those same economic elites most responsible for limiting that consideration and reflection. Sproule has written thoughtfully and persuasively on advertising as propaganda in Channels of Propaganda (1994) and Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion (1997).

This current reconsideration of propaganda theory comes primarily from critical theorists and, as a result, its orientation tends to be from the political Left (Chapter 2). For example, economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman identified five filters that ensure the “multi-leveled capability of powerful business and government entities and collectives (for example, the Business Roundtable; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information” (1996, p. 117). These filters enable powerful business and government elites “to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding, and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward” (p. 118). The first two of Herman’s elite-supporting filters are ownership and advertising, which “have made bottom line considerations more controlling. . . . The professional autonomy of journalists has been reduced” (p. 124). The next two are sourcing and flack, increasingly effective because “a reduction in the resources devoted to journalism means that those who subsidize the media by providing sources for copy gain greater leverage” (p. 125). Here he is specifically speaking of the power of corporate and government public relations. Finally, the fifth filter motivating media toward propagandists’ support of the status quo is the media’s “belief in the ‘miracle of the market.’ There is now an almost religious faith in the market, at least among the elite, so that regardless of the evidence, markets are assumed benevolent and non-market mechanisms are suspect” (p. 125). These themes, as you will see in Chapters 8 and 11, accurately mirror many of the core assumptions of critical cultural theory.

Behaviorists Richard Laitinen and Richard Rakos (1997) offer another critical view of contemporary propaganda. They argue that modern propaganda—in their definition, “the control of behavior by media manipulation” (p. 237)—is facilitated by three factors: an audience “that is enmeshed and engulfed in a harried lifestyle, less well-informed, and less politically involved, . . . the use of sophisticated polling and survey procedures, whose results are used by the propagandists to increase their influence, . . . [and] the incorporation of media companies into megaconglomerates” (pp. 238–239). These factors combine to put untold influence in the hands of powerful business and governmental elites without the public’s awareness. Laitinen and Rakos wrote:

In contemporary democracies, the absence of oppressive government control of information is typically considered a fundamental characteristic of a “free society.” However, the lack of aversive control does not mean that information is “free” of controlling functions. On the contrary, current mechanisms of influence, through direct economic and indirect political contingencies, pose an even greater threat to behavioral diversity than do historically tyrannical forms. Information today is more systematic, continuous, consistent, unobtrusive, and ultimately powerful. (1997, p. 237)

There is also renewed interest in propaganda theory from the political Right. This conservative interest in propaganda takes the form of a critique of liberal media bias (see, for example, Coulter, 2002, 2006; Goldberg, 2002, 2003, 2009; Morris and McGann, 2008). Other than surveys indicating that a majority of journalists vote Democratic, there is little serious scholarship behind this assertion. In fact, what research there is tends to negate the liberal media bias thesis, as the large majority of media outlet managers and owners tend to vote Republican, the majority of the country’s syndicated newspaper columnists write with a conservative bent, and the majority of “newsmakers” on network and cable public affairs talk shows are politically right-of-center (Alterman, 2003). McChesney commented:

The fundamental error in the conservative notion of the “liberal” media [is] it posits that editors and journalists have almost complete control over what goes into news. . . . In conservative “analysis,” the institutional factors of corporate ownership, profit-motivation, and advertising support have no effect on media content. . . . The notion that journalism can regularly produce a product that violates the fundamental interests of media owners and advertisers and do so with impunity simply has no evidence behind it. (1997, p. 60)

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Should the power of propaganda be used for democratic ends (the Lasswell/Lippmann view), or because propaganda, by its very existence, was antidemocratic, was education the best way to deal with it (the Dewey view)? The disagreement over the proper place of propaganda in a democracy was no theoretical exercise. Social scientists believed the fate of the country, the world in fact, rested on its outcome.

In 1937, the threat of external propaganda was so great that a group of social scientists, journalists, and educators founded the Institute for Propaganda Analysis with the goal of orchestrating a nationwide educational effort to combat its effects. During the four years of its existence, the institute was quite productive, generating numerous pamphlets, books, and articles explaining how propaganda works (read more about propaganda techniques in the box entitled “Applying the Seven Propaganda Techniques”). The institute was successful in developing an antipropaganda curriculum adopted by high schools and adult education programs across the country. It was so successful that it came under attack for undermining the effectiveness of propaganda techniques seen as essential to defending democracy.

In 1941, an opponent and a defender of the institute’s educational efforts faced off in the pages of Public Opinion Quarterly, a journal that devoted considerable attention to propaganda during the 1930s and 1940s. Bruce L. Smith questioned the value of propaganda analysis, that is, education, because he believed it fostered cynicism that could actually lead most students toward authoritarian views. At the time he wrote this article, he headed the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to censor propaganda and arrest foreign agents who engaged in it. He argued:

Students at first become tremendously interested in the sportive side of launching an attack on “propaganda devices.” . . . After this first excitement, they tend to become morally indignant, at least in most cases, about the sheer quantity of fraud and misleading utterance to which they have been exposed all their lives, especially in paid advertising and in political speeches. At this point they have a tendency to espouse some program or other of violent censorship and even suppression of those who issue “antisocial” propaganda. They demand a Board of Public Opinion Censors, with wide and confiscatory powers. At this level of opposition to free speech many of them remain, even if it is pointed out to them that censorship of anyone who claims to support democracy is in no way compatible with the traditions and program of the American people.

Smith was cynical in his assessment of the ability of ordinary students to learn how to deal with propaganda on a day-to-day basis. Only a few could be expected to be “far-sighted” and able to develop the “intellectual vitality” to “undertake the lifelong burden of preserving free speech.” His argument was that the burden would prove to be so heavy that those who carried it would demand censorship rather than education as the solution to combating propaganda. Smith saw the American social order as inherently, and properly, elitist—a democracy of the few because the many had little ability to participate effectively. Average people must necessarily be governed by a paternalistic elite. But if education wouldn’t work, then what was the alternative? According to Smith (1941, p. 252), “The teacher, therefore, needs to look ahead. To be sure, democracy demands that we constantly and vigorously practice propaganda analysis (education). But we must also look beyond it to the establishment of a ‘science of democracy,’ of which propaganda analysis is but one indispensable part.”

But what was the “science of democracy” and how would it be superior to propaganda analysis’s educational approach? Smith explained:

Students frightened by their recent discovery of the gullibility and irrationality of the great mass of mankind cannot be expected to retain much faith in the value of social control by democratic discussion. To preserve and develop this faith, it is necessary to encourage them to analyze and appraise the potency of such common mechanisms of wishful thinking as regression, rationalization, repression, projection, sadism, and masochism. It is not necessary, however, to clutter up their vocabularies with a great number of terms like these in order to put over the essential points. What is needed is a concise, structuralized picture of individual human motives, comparable with the structuralized picture of society already drawn. (Smith, 1941, p. 258)

What Smith was proposing was a form of “democratic propaganda” that could be used to combat the cynicism generated by propaganda analysis. Students who suddenly realized just how gullible they and others were and how systematically they were being manipulated had to be reassured that there were elite experts who understood this phenomenon and had developed concepts to deal with it. But since these concepts were too hard and too complicated to explain, they needed to be simplified into a “concise, structuralized picture” that didn’t “clutter up the vocabularies with a great number of terms.” In other words, they needed to be subjected to “good” propaganda; in Bernays’s terms, they needed to have their consent engineered.

Clyde Miller, an education professor at Columbia University and secretary for the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, found Smith’s call for good or democratic propaganda unpersuasive:

In propaganda analysis the Institute has been emphasizing an objective, scientific approach to controversial issues and, as an integral part of that approach, has been trying to build—to use Mr. Smith’s phrase—“a vigorous faith in the values and ultimate triumph of democratic practice.” Mr. Smith states that many teachers have been making early attempts to build “propaganda resistance” among their students. True. It is not propaganda resistance, however valuable as that may be at times in dealing with antidemocratic propagandas, which is stressed in the educational program of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis; it is understanding of why and how propaganda works— how it relates to our fears and hopes, our hates and loves, our mental and emotional conditioning, our basic needs. . . . As Secretary of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, I can assure Mr. Smith that I have not heard of any students demanding authoritarianism as a means of dealing with propaganda, but I do know for a fact that the educational program has caused many thousands of teachers and students to have a surer faith in the present and ultimate values of the scientific method and democratic practices. (Miller, 1941, pp. 657–659)

Miller also defended the effectiveness of the Institute’s efforts to combat Fascism, racism, and class hatred. He shared many of Smith’s views about why propaganda is effective, but he remained convinced that propaganda could best be defeated by teaching students to understand how propaganda works—not by using democratic propaganda to oppose bad or undemocratic propaganda:

In the task of combating the unscientific theories of racism, which Hitler and Goebbels have utilized so effectively to create class hatreds, the Institute may be doing its best work. No student, once he has gone through the recommended educational program of the Institute, is likely to succumb to propaganda causing him to hate Jews as Jews and Negroes as Negroes. This approach does immunize students against propagandas inciting to hatred based on racial and religious differences. The process of scientific analysis in combination with a faith which holds fast to the values of democracy is the most powerful instrument for combating the wave of Ku Klux Klanism that is developing rapidly as a result of war tensions. (Miller, 1941, p. 664)

Who won this debate? Did Miller manage to persuade other elites that education was the best strategy for dealing with propaganda, or did Smith’s views win out? About the time that Miller’s article appeared, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis published a newsletter entitled “We Say Au Revoir.” It announced that it had been persuaded that for the good of the war effort, it should cease all activities. You will read much about these “democratic propaganda” campaigns such as the Why We Fight films in later chapters. And even when World War II ended and other wars—the Korean and the Cold—began, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis never reopened, and John Dewey’s calls for education were similarly marginalized. The task of defending democracy was handed over to Lasswell and his colleagues. The “science of democracy” ushered in an era of propaganda-for-good, or democratic propaganda.


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Lasswell and Lippmann’s propaganda theories seemed to carry the weight of realworld proof—the globe had been engulfed by a devastating world war, The War to End All Wars in fact, yet global turmoil continued to rage. These conflicts were infused with sophisticated and apparently successful propaganda. Yet there was opposition. One prominent critic of propaganda theory was philosopher John Dewey. In a series of lectures (Dewey, 1927), he outlined his objections to Lippmann’s views. Throughout his long career, Dewey was a tireless and prolific defender of public education as the most effective means of defending democracy against totalitarianism. He refused to accept the need for a technocracy that would use scientific methods to protect people from themselves. Rather, he argued that people could learn to defend themselves if they were only taught the correct defenses. He asserted that even rudimentary public education could enable people to resist propaganda methods. Dewey “took violent issue” with Lippmann’s “trust in the beneficence of elites.” “‘A class of experts,’ Dewey argued, ‘is inevitably too removed from common interests as to become a class of private interests and private knowledge.’… He saw democracy as less about information than conversation. The media’s job, in Dewey’s conception, was ‘to interest the public in the public interest’” (Alterman, 2008, p. 10).

Dewey’s critics saw him as an idealist who talked a lot about reforming education without actually doing much himself to implement concrete reforms (Altschull, 1990, p. 230). Dewey did no better when it came to reforming the media. He argued that newspapers needed to do more than simply serve as bulletin boards for information about current happenings. He issued a challenge to journalists to do more to stimulate public interest in politics and world affairs—to motivate people to actively seek out information and then talk about it with others. Newspapers should serve as vehicles for public education and debate. They should focus more on ideas and philosophy and less on descriptions of isolated actions. They should teach critical thinking skills and structure public discussion of important issues. His efforts to found such a publication never got very far, however. Dewey based his arguments on Pragmatism, a school of philosophical theory emphasizing the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it. We’ll take a closer look at this theory in Chapter 11. James Carey (1989, pp. 83–84) contends that Dewey’s ideas have continuing value. He argues that Dewey anticipated many of the concerns now being raised by cultural studies theories. And as you’ll also read in Chapter 11, Dewey’s belief that educating people to think critically about media content and how they use it is at the heart of the media literacy movement and current concerns about public education and public discourse.

In one very important respect, Dewey’s ideas about the relationship between communities and media were quite innovative. Lasswell and Lippmann saw media as external agencies, as conveyor belts delivering quantities of information to isolated audience members. In Chapter 7 we will consider Lasswell’s classic linear model of mass communication: who says what to whom through what medium with what effect. Dewey believed models like this were far too simplistic. They ignored the fact that effective media must be well integrated into the communities they serve; media are at the center of the complex network of relationships that define a community. Media should be understood not as external agents but as servants that facilitate public discussion and debate, as guardians and facilitators of the public forum in which democratic politics are conducted. Dewey believed that communities, not isolated individuals, use communication (and the media of communication) to create and maintain the culture that bonds and sustains them. When media assume the role of external agents and work to manipulate the “pictures in people’s heads,” they lose their power to serve as credible facilitators and guardians of public debate; they become just another competitor for our attention. The potentially productive interdependence between the community and media is disrupted, and the public forum itself is likely to be destroyed. This argument concerning the disconnection of media from communities is now of considerable interest (see Chapters 10 and 11) and foreshadows contemporary debate over the proper role of media in communities.


INSTANT ACCESS Propaganda Theory


1. Is first systematic theory of mass communication

2. Focuses attention on why media might have powerful effects

3. Identifies personal, social, and cultural factors that can enhance media’s power to have effects

4. Focuses attention on the use of campaigns to cultivate symbols


1. Underestimates abilities of average people to evaluate messages

2. Ignores personal, social, and cultural factors that limit media effects

3. Overestimates the speed and range of media effects

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Throughout the 1930s, many other members of the social elite, especially those at major universities, shared Lasswell’s vision of a benevolent social science–led technocracy. They believed that physical science and social science held the keys to fighting totalitarianism and preserving democracy. As such, Lasswell’s work commanded the attention of leading academics and opinion leaders, including one of the most powerful opinion makers of the time—Walter Lippmann, a nationally syndicated columnist for the New York Times.

Lippmann shared Lasswell’s skepticism about the ability of average people to make sense of their social world and to make rational decisions about their actions. In Public Opinion (1922), he pointed out the discrepancies that necessarily exist between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” Because these discrepancies were inevitable, Lippmann doubted that average people could govern themselves as classic democratic theory assumed they could. The world of the 1930s was an especially complex place, and the political forces were very dangerous. People simply couldn’t learn enough from media to help them understand it all. Even if journalists took their responsibility seriously, they couldn’t overcome the psychological and social barriers that prevented average people from developing useful pictures in their heads. Political essayist Eric Alterman quoted and summarized Lippmann’s position:

Writing in the early twenties, Lippmann famously compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. “He lives in a world he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” Journalism, with its weakness for sensationalism, made things worse. Governance was better left to a “specialized class of men” with inside information. No one expects a steel-worker to understand physics, so why should he be expected to understand politics?

These ideas raised serious questions about the viability of democracy and the role of a free press in it. What do you do in a democracy if you can’t trust the people to cast informed votes? What good is a free press if it is impossible to effectively transmit enough of the most vital forms of information to the public? What can you do if people are so traumatized by dealing with everyday problems that they have no time to think about global issues? The fact that Lippmann made his living working as a newspaper columnist lent credibility to his pessimism. In advancing these arguments, he directly contradicted the Libertarian assumptions (free speech and free press; see Chapter 5) that were the intellectual foundation of the U.S. media system.

Like Lasswell, Lippmann believed that propaganda posed such a severe challenge that drastic changes in our political system were required. The public was vulnerable to propaganda, so some mechanism or agency was needed to protect them from it. A benign but enormously potent form of media control was necessary. Self-censorship by media probably wouldn’t be sufficient. Lippmann shared Lasswell’s conclusion that the best solution to these problems was to place control of information gathering and distribution in the hands of a benevolent technocracy— a scientific elite—who could be trusted to use scientific methods to sort fact from fiction and make good decisions about who should receive various messages. To accomplish this, Lippmann proposed the establishment of a quasi-governmental intelligence bureau that would carefully evaluate information and supply it to other elites for decision making. This bureau could also determine which information should be transmitted through the mass media and which information people were better off not knowing.

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Lasswell’s theory of propaganda blended ideas borrowed from behaviorism and Freudianism into a particularly pessimistic vision of media and their role in forging modern social orders. Lasswell was one of the first political scientists to recognize the usefulness of various psychological theories and to demonstrate how they could be applied to understanding politics. The power of propaganda was not so much the result of the substance or appeal of specific messages but, rather, the result of the vulnerable state of mind of average people. This state of mind can be assessed using psychological theories. Lasswell argued that economic depression and escalating political conflict had induced widespread psychosis, and this made most people susceptible to even crude forms of propaganda. When average people are confronted daily by powerful threats to their personal lives, they turn to propaganda for reassurance and a way to overcome the threat.

In Lasswell’s view, democracy has a fatal flaw. It seeks to locate truth and make decisions through openly conducted debates about issues. But if these debates escalate into verbal or even physical conflict between advocates for different ideas, then widespread psychosis will result. Spectators to these conflicts will be traumatized by them. According to Floyd Matson (1964, pp. 90–93), Lasswell concluded that even relatively benign forms of political conflict were inherently pathological. When conflict escalates to the level it did in Germany during the Depression, an entire nation could become psychologically unbalanced and vulnerable to manipulation. Lasswell argued that the solution was for social researchers to find ways to “obviate conflict.” This necessitates controlling those forms of political communication that lead to conflict. In Lasswell’s view, even routine forms of political debate could escalate into conflicts threatening the social order. Matson stated, “In short, according to Lasswell’s psychopathology of politics, the presumption in any individual case must be that political action is maladjustive, political participation is irrational, and political expression is irrelevant” (1964, p. 91). But how do you maintain a democratic social order if any form of political debate or demonstration is problematic? Lasswell had an answer to this question: replace public discourse with democratic propaganda.

Lasswell rejected simplistic behaviorist notions about propaganda effects. Here is how he described the task of the propagandist in a 1927 article: The strategy of propaganda, which has been phrased in cultural terms, can readily be described in the language of stimulus-response. Translated into this vocabulary, which is especially intelligible to some, the propagandist may be said to be concerned with the multiplication of those stimuli which are best calculated to evoke the desired responses, and with the nullification of those stimuli which are likely to instigate the undesired responses.

Putting the same thing into terms of social suggestion, the problem of the propagandist is to multiply all the suggestions favorable to the attitudes which he wishes to produce and strengthen, and to restrict all suggestions which are unfavorable to them.

In other words, a few well-targeted messages couldn’t bring down a democratic social order. He argued that propaganda was more than merely using media to lie to people in order to gain temporary control over them. People need to be slowly prepared to accept radically different ideas and actions. Communicators need a well-developed, long-term campaign strategy (“multiplication of those stimuli”) in which new ideas and images are carefully introduced and then cultivated. Symbols must be created, and people must be gradually taught to associate specific emotions such as love or hate with these symbols. If these cultivation strategies are successful, they create what Lasswell referred to as master (or collective) symbols (Lasswell, 1934). Master symbols are associated with strong emotions and possess the power to stimulate beneficial large-scale mass action if they are used wisely. In contrast to behaviorist notions, Lasswell’s theory envisioned a long and quite sophisticated conditioning process. Exposure to one or two extremist messages would not likely have significant effects. And propaganda messages can be delivered through many different media, not just radio or newspapers. Lasswell wrote: The form in which the significant symbols are embodied to reach the public may be spoken, written, pictorial, or musical, and the number of stimulus carriers is infinite. If the propagandist identifies himself imaginatively with the life of his subjects in a particular situation, he is able to explore several channels of approach. Consider, for a moment, the people who ride the street cars. They may be reached by placards posted inside the car, by posters on the billboards along the track, by newspapers which they read, by conversations which they overhear, by leaflets which are openly or surreptitiously slipped into their hands, by street demonstrations at halting places, and no doubt by other means. Of these possible occasions there are no end.

Lasswell argued that successful social movements gain power by propagating master symbols over a period of months and years using a variety of media. For example, the emotions we experience when we see the American flag or hear the national anthem are not the result of a single previous exposure. Rather, we have observed the flag and heard the anthem in countless past situations in which a limited range of emotions were induced and experienced. The flag and the anthem have acquired emotional meaning because of all these previous experiences. When we see the flag on television with the anthem in the background, some of these emotions may be aroused and reinforced. Once established, such master symbols can be used in many different types of propaganda. In the case of the flag, it is used continually during political campaigns as a means of suggesting that political candidates are patriotic and can be trusted to defend the nation.

Lasswell believed that past propagation of most master symbols had been more or less haphazard. For every successful propagandist, there were hundreds who failed. Although he respected the cunning way that the Nazis used propaganda, he was not convinced that they really understood what they were doing. He respected Joseph Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist, because he had a Ph.D., but he regarded Hitler as a mad genius who relied on intuition to guide his use of propaganda. When it came to using media, Hitler was an evil artist but not a scientist. Lasswell proposed combating Hitler with a new science of propaganda. Power to control delivery of propaganda through the mass media would be placed in the hands of a new elite, a scientific technocracy who would pledge to use its knowledge for good rather than evil—to save democracy rather than destroy it. Lasswell and his colleagues developed a term to refer to this strategy for using propaganda. They called it the “science of democracy” (Smith, 1941). But could a democratic social order be forged by propaganda? Wouldn’t essential principles of democracy be sacrificed? Is democracy possible without public discourse?

In a world where rational political debate is impossible because average people are prisoners of their own conditioning and psychoses (remember behaviorism and Freudianism) and therefore subject to manipulation by propagandists, Lasswell argued, the only hope for us as a nation rested with social scientists who could harness the power of propaganda for Good rather than Evil. It is not surprising, then, that many of the early media researchers took their task very seriously. They believed that nothing less than the fate of the world lay in their hands.

Lasswell’s propaganda-for-good was adopted by the Office of War Information as its basic strategy during World War II. In the Cold War that followed that global hot war, using agencies such as the Voice of America, the United States Information Agency, the Office of International Information and Educational Exchange, and the State Department, it served as the foundation for numerous official efforts to counter Communism and spread democracy (Sproule, 1997, pp. 213–215). Not all of Lasswell’s contemporaries, however, were taken by his call for elite control of media. Floyd Matson, a severe critic of Lasswell’s theory, complained that Lasswell’s “contemplative analysis of ‘skill politics and skill revolution’ has disclosed to Lasswell that in our own time the most potent of all skills is that of propaganda, of symbolic manipulation and myth-making—and hence that the dominant elite must be the one which possesses or can capture this skill” (Matson, 1964, p. 87).

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