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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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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