The world has become too confusing to understand, and people are bombarded with fake news, trapped by stereotypes and embroiled in partisan politics. Sound familiar? Walter Lippmann made these observations a century ago, before the dominance of radio and television – much less Twitter and Facebook – but after governments had mastered the art of propaganda during World War I. Lippmann favored a democracy led by experts over what he saw as inevitable mob rule. His views may sound elitist to the contemporary reader, but the problems he was trying to solve are familiar, and they are as pressing today as when Public Opinion was written in 1922.
People create mental images of their environment that are far from the truth.
In a complex world, it is impossible for people to see everything with their own eyes. Most of what individuals feel or think relates to events – war, famine, political maneuvering – that they haven’t actually experienced. People form indirect opinions, creating mental images of distant happenings and taking their beliefs for the truth. This fiction is by no means the same as believing in lies. It’s simply a person’s representation of reality. After all, human culture is the process by which people make sense of and establish order in a disorderly and constantly changing world.
This fictitious order is based less on knowledge and more on the expectations in people’s minds. Yet the resulting actions are painfully real, particularly in the realms of politics and public affairs. When a multitude of diverse fictions collide, the result, more often than not, is chaos. This is why public opinions – the opinions individuals have of themselves and their relationships to others – should be organized and formulated to facilitate decisions that serve the public...
Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) was an American journalist and commentator, media critic, amateur philosopher, speechwriter and political adviser. He is credited with creating the concept of the Cold War and coining the term “stereotype.” Today Lippmann is considered one of the founding fathers of modern journalism and media studies.