The Mechanics of Propaganda (1928)
THE media by which special pleaders transmit their messages to the public through propaganda include all the means by which people to-day transmit their ideas to one another. There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda, because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.
The important point to the propagandist is that the relative value of the various instruments of propaganda, and their relation to the masses, are constantly changing. If he is to get full reach for his message he must take advantage of these shifts of value the instant they occur. Fifty years ago, the public meeting was a propaganda instrument par excellence. To-day it is difficult to get more than a handful of people to attend a public meeting unless extraordinary attractions are part of the program. The automobile takes them away from home, the radio keeps them in the home, the successive daily editions of the newspaper bring information to them in office or subway, and also they are sick of the ballyhoo of the rally.
Instead there are numerous other media of communication, some new, others old but so transformed that they have become virtually new. The newspaper, of course, remains always a primary medium for the transmission of opinions and ideas—in other words, for propaganda.
It was not many years ago that newspaper editors resented what they called “the use of the news columns for propaganda purposes.” Some editors would even kill a good story if they imagined its publication might benefit any one. This point of view is now largely abandoned. To-day the leading editorial offices take the view that the real criterion governing the publication or non-publication of matter which comes to the desk is its news value. The newspaper cannot assume, nor is it its function to assume, the responsibility of guaranteeing that what it publishes will not work out to somebody’s interest. There is hardly a single item in any daily paper, the publication of which does not, or might not, profit or injure somebody. That is the nature of news. What the newspaper does strive for is that the news which it publishes shall be accurate, and (since it must select from the mass of news material available) that it shall be of interest and importance to large groups of its readers.
In its editorial columns the newspaper is a personality, commenting upon things and events from its individual point of view. But in its news columns the typical modern American newspaper attempts to reproduce, with due regard to news interest, the outstanding events and opinions of the day. It does not ask whether a given item is propaganda or not. What is important is that it be news. And in the selection of news the editor is usually entirely independent. In the New York Times—to take an outstanding example—news is printed because of its news value and for no other reason. The Times editors determine with complete independence what is and what is not news. They brook no censorship. They are not influenced by any external pressure nor swayed by any values of expediency or opportunism. The conscientious editor on every newspaper realizes that his obligation to the public is news. The fact of its accomplishment makes it news.
Headquarters for the Committee on Public Information in Washington DC.
After the US entered the war, hired Bernays to build support for WWI both domestically and abroad.
If the public relations counsel can breathe the breath of life into an idea and make it take its place among other ideas and events, it will receive the public attention it merits. There can be no question of his “contaminating news at its source.” He creates some of the day’s events, which must compete in the editorial office with other events. Often the events which he creates may be specially acceptable to a newspaper’s public and he may create them with that public in mind.
If important things of life to-day consist of transatlantic radiophone talks arranged by commercial telephone companies; if they consist of inventions that will be commercially advantageous to the men who market them; if they consist of Henry Fords with epoch-making cars—then all this is news. The so-called flow of propaganda into the newspaper offices of the country may, simply at the editor’s discretion, find its way to the waste basket.
The source of the news offered to the editor should always be clearly stated and the facts accurately presented.
The situation of the magazines at the present moment, from the propagandist’s point of view, is different from that of the daily newspapers. The average magazine assumes no obligation, as the newspaper does, to reflect the current news. It selects its material deliberately, in accordance with a continuous policy. It is not, like the newspaper, an organ of public opinion, but tends rather to become a propagandist organ, propagandizing for a particular idea, whether it be good housekeeping, or smart apparel, or beauty in home decoration, or debunking public opinion, or general enlightenment or liberalism or amusement. One magazine may aim to sell health; another, English gardens; another, fashionable men’s wear; another, Nietzschean philosophy.
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In all departments in which the various magazines specialize, the public relations counsel may play an important part. For he may, because of his client’s interest, assist them to create the events which further their propaganda. A bank, in order to emphasize the importance of its women’s department, may arrange to supply a leading women’s magazine with a series of articles and advice on investments written by the woman expert in charge of this department. The women’s magazine in turn will utilize this new feature as a means of building additional prestige and circulation.
The lecture, once a powerful means of influencing public opinion, has changed its value. The lecture itself may be only a symbol, a ceremony; its importance, for propaganda purposes, lies in the fact that it was delivered. Professor So-and-So, expounding an epoch-making invention, may speak to five hundred persons, or only fifty. His lecture, if it is important, will be broadcast; reports of it will appear in the newspapers; discussion will be stimulated. The real value of the lecture, from the propaganda point of view, is in its repercussion to the general public.
The radio is at present one of the most important tools of the propagandist. Its future development is uncertain.
It may compete with the newspaper as an advertising medium. Its ability to reach millions of persons simultaneously naturally appeals to the advertiser. And since the average advertiser has a limited appropriation for advertising, money spent on the radio will tend to be withdrawn from the newspaper.
To what extent is the publisher alive to this new phenomenon? It is bound to come close to American journalism and publishing. Newspapers have recognized the advertising potentialities of the companies that manufacture radio apparatus, and of radio stores, large and small; and newspapers have accorded to the radio in their news and feature columns an importance relative to the increasing attention given by the public to radio. At the same time, certain newspapers have bought radio stations and linked them up with their news and entertainment distribution facilities, supplying these two features over the air to the public.
It is possible that newspaper chains will sell schedules of advertising space on the air and on paper. Newspaper chains will possibly contract with advertisers for circulation on paper and over the air. There are, at present, publishers who sell space in the air and in their columns, but they regard the two as separate ventures.
Bernays in his Later Years
Large groups, political, racial, sectarian, economic or professional, are tending to control stations to propagandize their points of view. Or is it conceivable that America may adopt the English licensing system under which the listener, instead of the advertiser, pays?
Whether the present system is changed, the advertiser—and propagandist—must necessarily adapt himself to it. Whether, in the future, air space will be sold openly as such, or whether the message will reach the public in the form of straight entertainment and news, or as special programs for particular groups, the propagandist must be prepared to meet the conditions and utilize them.
The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.
The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation. Because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions. The motion picture avails itself only of ideas and facts which are in vogue. As the newspaper seeks to purvey news, it seeks to purvey entertainment.
Another instrument of propaganda is the personality. Has the device of the exploited personality been pushed too far? President Coolidge photographed on his vacation in full Indian regalia in company with full-blooded chiefs, was the climax of a greatly over-reported vacation. Obviously, a public personality can be made absurd by misuse of the very mechanism which helped create it.
Yet the vivid dramatization of personality will always remain one of the functions of the public relations counsel. The public instinctively demands a personality to typify a conspicuous corporation or enterprise.
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There is a story that a great financier discharged a partner because he had divorced his wife.
“But what,” asked the partner, “have my private affairs to do with the banking business?”
“If you are not capable of managing your own wife,” was the reply, “the people will certainly believe that you are not capable of managing their money.”
The propagandist must treat personality as he would treat any other objective fact within his province.
A personality may create circumstances, as Lindbergh created good will between the United States and Mexico. Events may create a personality, as the Cuban War created the political figure of Roosevelt. It is often difficult to say which creates the other. Once a public figure has decided what ends he wishes to achieve, he must regard himself objectively and present an outward picture of himself which is consistent with his real character and his aims.
There are a multitude of other avenues of approach to the public mind, some old, some new as television. No attempt will be made to discuss each one separately. The school may disseminate information concerning scientific facts. The fact that a commercial concern may eventually profit from a widespread understanding of its activities because of this does not condemn the dissemination of such information, provided that the subject merits study on the part of the students. If a baking corporation contributes pictures and charts to a school, to show how bread is made, these propaganda activities, if they are accurate and candid, are in no way reprehensible, provided the school authorities accept or reject such offers carefully on their educational merits.
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It may be that a new product will be announced to the public by means of a motion picture of a parade taking place a thousand miles away. Or the manufacturer of a new jitney airplane may personally appear and speak in a million homes through radio and television. The man who would most effectively transmit his message to the public must be alert to make use of all the means of propaganda.
Undoubtedly the public is becoming aware of the methods which are being used to mold its opinions and habits. If the public is better informed about the processes of its own life, it will be so much the more receptive to reasonable appeals to its own interests. No matter how sophisticated, how cynical the public may become about publicity methods, it must respond to the basic appeals, because it will always need food, crave amusement, long for beauty, respond to leadership.
If the public becomes more intelligent in its commercial demands, commercial firms will meet the new standards. If it becomes weary of the old methods used to persuade it to accept a given idea or commodity, its leaders will present their appeals more intelligently.
Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.