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Barriers to Information'
Toward a Critique of Public Opinion
By WALTER LIPPMANN, Author of "A PREFACE TO POLITICS," etc.
HERE is an island in the ocean
Twhere in 1914 a few Englishmen,
Frenchmen, and Germans lived. No cable reaches that island, and the British mail-steamer comes only once in sixty days. In September, 1914, it had not yet come, and the islanders were still talking about the latest newspaper, which told about the approaching trial of Mme. Caillaux for the shooting of Gaston Calmette. It was, therefore, with more than usual eagerness that the whole colony assembled at the quay on a day in midSeptember to hear from the captain what the verdict had been. They learned that for over six weeks those of them who were English and those of them who were French had been fighting in behalf of the sanctity of treaties against those of them who were Germans. For six strange weeks they had acted as if they were friends, when in fact they were enemies.
But their plight was not so different from that of most of the population of Europe. They had been mistaken for six weeks; on the Continent the interval may have been only six days or six hours. There was an interval. There was a moment when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives.
There was a time for each man when he was still adjusted to an environment that no longer existed. All over the world as late as July 25 men were making goods that they would not be able to ship, buying goods they would not be able to import; careers were being planned, enterprises contemplated, hopes and expectations entertained, all in the belief that the world as known was the world as it was. Men were writing books describing that world. They trusted the picture in their heads. And then over four years later, on a Thursday morning, came the news of the armistice, and people gave vent to their unutterable relief that the slaughter was over. Yet in the five days before the real armistice came, though the end of the war had been celebrated, several thousand young men died on the battlefield.
Looking back, we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which, nevertheless, we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly, but that whatever we believe to be a picture of it, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they
This is the first of a series of papers on public opinion, culled from Mr. Lippmann's forthcoming book on "Public Opinion." The occasional transition paragraphs in brackets are not Mr. Lippmann's, but are inserted by the editor.THE EDITOR.
were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it and the world as they did know it were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed, in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A calif, obeying what he conceived to be the will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.
[The problem of public opinion, at least an important aspect of it, is the problem of making the picture of the world we carry about in our heads correspond as accurately as possible to to the world as it is. This means, of course, that we must manage somehow to get adequate and accurate information about the world. We find, however, that many barriers stand between us and such information-barriers that must be examined and understood before we can get far in any study of public opinion.]
French communiqués that these conferences were a regular part of the business of war; that in the worst moment of Verdun General Joffre and his cabinet met and argued over the nouns, adjectives, and verbs that were to be printed in the newspapers the next morning. Said M. de Pierrefeu:
The evening communiqué of the twenty-third [February, 1916] was edited in a dramatic atmosphere. M. Berthelot, director of the Prime Minister's office, had just telephoned by order of the minister asking General Pellé to strengthen the report and to emphasize the proportions of the enemy's attack. It was necessary to prepare the public for the worst outcome in case the affair turned into a catastrophe. This anxiety showed clearly that neither at G. H. Q. nor at the Ministry of War had the Government found reason for confidence. As M. Berthelot spoke, General Pellé made notes. He handed me the paper on which he had written the Government's wishes, together with the order of the day issued by General von Deimling, found on some prisoners, in which it was stated that this attack was the supreme offensive to secure peace. Skilfully used, all this was to demonstrate that Germany was letting loose a gigantic effort, an effort without precedent, and that from its success she hoped for the end of the war. The logic of this was that nobody need be surprised at our withdrawal. When, a half hour later, I went down with my manuscript, I found gathered together in Colonel Claudel's office, he being away, the major-general, General Janin, Colonel Dupont, and Lieutenant-Colonel Renouard. Fearing that I would not succeed in giving the desired impression, General Pellé had himself prepared a proposed communiqué. I read what I had just done. It was found to be too moderate. General Pellé's, on the other hand, seemed too alarming. I had purposely omitted von