Saturday, May 20, 2006

Propaganda and the News or What makes you think so?

Propaganda and the News or What makes you think so?

an excerpt from:
Propaganda and the News or What makes you think so?
Will Irwin©1936
Whittlesey House
325 pages-First Edition-Out of print
An interesting book, 70 years old. Understanding where we have been helps see where “we” are going…


Chapter XXI
IN THE United States as in Europe, peace demobilized whole regiments of war propagandists. Naturally they looked for new jobs at this attractive trade; and they found a brisk demand. The mental maneuvers of the war had taught both business and politics the uses of indirect advertising. Individuals and companies formerly innocent of trying to influence the press now joined the movement. New issues arising from the war had generated new societies to revise the world—or to keep it just as it was—and in these, as of old, the publicity department was driving wheel of the machine. While it still seemed possible that the United States would either join the League of Nations or some other Parliament of Man, new nations like Poland maintained active offices of propaganda in Washington or New York. This period witnessed also the rapid growth of a phenomenon which the slang of sociology calls the" pressure group"—societies formed to bring about special legislation. These strive with one hand to influence congressmen or senators through lobbies, letters and telegrams, and with the other to distribute and plant propaganda. This, of course, was not a new factor in American affairs; but the five years following the war saw its expansion into a universal method.

The publicity agent was adjusting himself to new conditions, and much of his output during this period was stupid and mechanical. A visitor to a city editor of New York found the office boy carrying away three full wastebaskets.

"Mimeographed publicity stuff, every sheet of it," said the editor, "and all from this morning's mail. We don't even attempt to read it." After a year or so, the incompetent and unoriginal among the publicity agents began to drop out and the flood of mimeographed copy subsided.

The artists refined their methods. Commercial propaganda—really, glorified advertising—took a leaf from the notebook of the political propagandist and began to create wide backgrounds. During this period, first the medical profession and then the laity learned of vitamins. The California orange growers opened a highly successful campaign to make the public conscious of those particular vitamins contained in oranges and orange juice. Health hints, medical lectures faithfully reported, even the praise of vitamins in general without any reference to oranges—all helped. Before they finished, they established the glass of orange juice as the eye opener of the American people. So without doubt they served the cause of public health and also their own cause. When, just after the war, skirts rose to a height that shocked the conservative, the stocking became conspicuous. Until then, silk stockings had stood the symbol of affluence; politicians called the rich the "silk-stocking element." Now, every factory girl scrimped and saved to buy a pair of these gauds. Rayon arrived as a substitute for its more luxurious sister. And the struggles of stocking manufacturers to keep short skirts in fashion form a chapter in our commercial history. J. R. Hamilton, advertising expert of Chicago, was working for Wanamaker's in Philadelphia when a customer planted in his mind a seed which grew into the idea of Mother's Day. He "sold" it to the local florists. By another year, it had become an American institution. The manufacturers of small luxuries for men followed with Father's Day.

The counselor on public relations extended his operations until he advised and guided not only single firms but whole industries. Will H. Hays represents the elite of this class. For more than a decade he has mediated between the motion-picture producers and the public. Through the Age of Smut he worked with more than partial success to "hold down Hollywood" while at the same time averting a general legal censorship. Hays stands at the moral height of his curious trade. In the depths wallow some of the men who during the boom of 1923-29 corrupted the country press on behalf of public utilities and certain agents of stock-jobbery who in the same mad period helped to spread that fatal illusion "the new economic plane."

Many counselors on public relations had one foot in commerce and the other in politics—even international politics. The most eminent figure in this class was the late Ivy Lee. It seems a pity that he died silently, leaving behind, so far as anyone knows, no real record of his activities. The candid reminiscences of Ivy Lee would be as useful to a future historian as Pepys' Diary—and perhaps as interesting to the student of human souls. He began his larger career as counselor for certain Rockefeller interests. He was careful, nevertheless, not to identify himself with the Rockefellers or any other group, so leaving himself free to serve all clients. He had a hand in an agitation for recognition of Russia as a means of increasing our export market. Indeed, he may have directed this campaign. So, too, when an element among the bankers decided that cancellation of European war debts would benefit American finance, they used Lee's talent for sweetening unpopular causes. And in the last year of his life he was advising the new German government on ways and means for making Nazi principles and methods less hateful to the average American citizen.

Simon-pure political propaganda—limitations of space will confine me to those recent instances which illuminate new methods.

One would overstate his case if he said that propaganda alone brought about national prohibition and then killed its own creation. Behind its birth and its death worked complex and subtle social forces. But half-truths, slanted news, deliberate creation of a false picture, pressure on the channels of publicity, all sped up the prohibition movement and rushed it on to its extreme in the Eighteenth Amendment. Similar methods, even more cleverly employed, carried along the movement for repeal so fast that it caught most politicians flat-footed.

The women's temperance organizations of the nineteenth century were our earliest pressure groups. Even when the average woman shuddered at the thought of voting, they were carrying into legislatures the humble petitions' of a dear, disenfranchised class. In the seventies and eighties, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union gathered up the scattered groups into a national organization. These ladies understood from the first the uses of made news. They would pick a small town for a "cleanup" and proceed to hold before its doors all-day prayer meetings wherein they craved mercy for the souls of the rum-seller and his drunkards. The proceeding was so picturesque and so full of action that New York, Philadelphia and Chicago newspapers sent special correspondents to follow the militant ladies and report their doings. So from the very beginning the W.C.T.U. attained to front pages all over the country.
When the able Frances Willard took charge, she established a policy of instilling hatred for beverage alcohol into the souls of the younger generation. Hence the temperance rallies of the Sunday schools with the children singing "Cold water, cold water, oh that is my song" and "Tremble, Demon Alcohol, we shall grow up some day!" Further, her followers used all the rising political influence of woman to force "temperance education" into the curricula of the public schools. Eventually, the textbooks on personal hygiene in nearly every state included chapters describing the effects of strong drink. In some cases this literature was merely yellow science; in some, it read like the peroration of a temperance orator. But Frances Willard fulfilled her mission. When she died, she left behind a rising generation whose typical member either repudiated alcohol or took it with a bad conscience.

Then the Anti-Saloon League appeared to transform distrust, dislike and hatred into positive action. It applied a new method in politics which has shown the way to in-numerable other pressure groups—the balance of power. It neither nominated a ticket nor permitted any of its members to run for office. Beginning with the small units and going on to the larger, it interviewed candidates and endorsed that one whose pledges most nearly fitted the ideals of the Anti-Saloon League. Before it finished, many a politician who drank a quart of straight whisky a day was making speeches in favor of prohibition. The very name of the society was a piece of clever propaganda. It did not imply legal prohibition of beverage alcohol, although such was the intention from the beginning. The saloon, the system of retail distribution, was the weak point in our old liquor business. Men who drew back from prohibition would join or support an organization aiming to destroy a social nuisance. And as the struggle grew more intense, the Anti--Saloon League, with its sister, the W.C.T.U., employed publicity agents to affect the newspapers.

The brewers and distillers supported all this time a counterpropaganda. In spite of large supporting funds, they lost most of their battles through failure of the men who employed the publicists to grasp the strategies of such a campaign. Notably—and most stupidly—they took on two opponents at once when they opposed the movement for woman suffrage, which was in this period rolling up like a snowball.

The sentiment for repeal of prohibition arose with the suddenness and violence of a cloudburst. In 1928, Smith's declaration for repeal probably constituted his chief political liability. This, more than the religious issue, was the reason why Hoover broke the solid South. Yet four years later an out-and-out declaration for repeal in the Democratic platform, contrasted with a muted declaration in the Republican, served Roosevelt as an asset. For, just as the tide began to turn, the opponents of prohibition organized, began their own pressure and launched their own propaganda. The astute Jouett Shouse took general direction of this agitation in its later stages. The publicity men assigned to this job perceived one plausible and useful half-truth. In the boom period, when materialism ruled and all classes were a little drunken with greed, crime had followed the tendency of the times. Criminals had organized, had begun to play for higher and higher stakes. Crime grew insolent and violent to an unprecedented degree. In most cities, the murderous activities of the underworld centered about the distribution of illicit alcohol. The eminent traders in sudden death were also "beer barons." It is impossible to say, however, whether the greed of boom days might not have engendered similar sores on the body politic, prohibition or no prohibition. Certainly, the commercial rackets of Chicago, which during one year cost the city more than a hundred million dollars, had little direct connection with bootleggers. But at best or worst, prohibition gave steady employment to hosts of young city toughs who employed murder as a means of competition. Also, the organized gangs of bankrobbers which stamped a gory mark on the social history of this period drew most of their personnel from the pr[a]etorian guards of illicit alcohol.

The organized enemies of prohibition tuned their propaganda on this note. The Eighteenth Amendment was the father of crime. Our scandalous murder rate, the growing corruption of our police, all went back to that source. They used other devices such as presenting partial statistics going to prove—probably contrary to the truth—that drinking had increased under prohibition, and rather bizarre estimates to show that the revenue from legalized alcohol would lighten taxation, balance the budget and restore prosperity. But the crime theme dominated the symphony. The newspapers needed small encouragement to publish stories of bootleg murders; such matter has been the common denominator for readers ever since the days of the chapbooks. Where encouragement was needed, the wet publicity agents applied it. Events worked with them. Just as the movement for repeal began to gather force, Hollywood discovered almost by accident the "pulling power" in films of underworld life. The characters in these dramas were mostly bootleggers, and the plots usually centered round tangles in the illicit alcohol business. Guardians of our public morals protested against setting such shocking examples before our young. The directors of the agitation for repeal drew their own moral to these immoral tales and drove it home through every channel of publicity: prohibition caused all these things to be.

Then, when the inevitable reaction had begun in the public mind, came that Lindbergh case which stirred our people as no other event of the decade. No one knew at the time whether this was the work of a gang or of some free-lance criminal. But the public in general, its eyes and ears full of gangster stories, interpreted it as part of a general background. And wet propaganda had already pointed to prohibition as the generator of these villainies. The Lindbergh episode was the spark that ignited the powder. But propagandists laid the train.

The propaganda of the Ku-Klux Klan is worth mention, now that the Invisible Empire has passed, for its successful use of the isolated instance. Some of the men who founded it were honest fanatics of provincial patriotism; more, probably, were good businessmen, interested in profits from the sale of regalia, or politicians trying to break in. This last element realized that the spread of the Klan was distinctly limited so long as it worked merely to "keep the negro in his place" and to regulate small-town morals. Its charters restricted membership to "white, native-born, Protestant, Gentile Americans." From the first, hatred had proved its best selling point—that hatred which in small minds is the best touchstone for patriotism. For a time the management considered emphasizing the word "Gentile," and starting, in advance of Hitler, a wave of anti-Semitism. But the Jew is typically a dweller in cities, while the Klan made its best appeal in the rural districts or the small towns. Here, "Protestant" would have the stronger pull. This policy decided, the rough but astute propagandists of the Klan turned all their guns against the Roman Catholic Church. The Know-Nothing party of the early nineteenth century founded its agitation on The Confessions of Maria Monk, a book which in collections of odd and mendacious literature occupies a place beside The Protocols of Zion. These new propagandists used the news-slanted, touched up, or dispensed without sense of proportion. Owing to the reverence with which Roman Catholics regard their priest-hood, American newspapers had tended to suppress or to minimize stories of those moral lapses happening occasionally among the clergy of this church—as among that of all churches. In the early days of Christian Science, the newspapers were critical of instances where the sick died under treatment of a healer. The new sect thereupon organized a committee to stimulate floods of protesting letters. This policy, continued year after year, stopped all criticism. So far as appears on any record, the Roman Catholics had never proceeded in such systematic fashion. Pressure was not necessary. Simply, editors and—especially—business managers hesitated to offend a large element of the community, with the risk of losing circulation and advertising. So the Ku-Klux Klan raked up every suppressed or muted story of the kind, old or new, often adding imaginative decorations, and put it forth in pamphlet, lecture and periodical. When the supply ran short, it hammered upon the civic offenses of Catholic laymen in trouble with the police. Axiomatically, the sins, follies and weaknesses of almost any individual, if recorded without mention of his virtues, wisdoms and strengths, could make him appear a creature unfit for membership in the human race. The Klan propagandist applied this principle to an organization. The average Klansman, being a trifle narrow between the ears, had a dull sense of proportion; to him, this matter appeared as well-rounded truth. It was the main stimulant for that bizarre movement which blossomed so rapidly and withered so suddenly.

The war between the Communist propagandists on one hand and the professional patriots on the other has its comic features. On its serious side it illustrates several principles; among others, the odd way in which extreme opponents sometimes find themselves singing the same song. In the two or three years following the war, the wisest could not even guess at the future of Communism in the United States and Western Europe. It was new; and it had brought off the most drastic internal revolution since the 1790's. It might capture the strong Socialist faction in every civilized country and set the workers of the world on fire. The French policy of the Cordon Sanitaire about the Russian border, the American and British appeals to patriotism and reason, had behind them a sense of necessity. Then, as the Soviet government settled down to the long pull, the movement lost ground on all its edges. Except in limited districts of China, the Communists have never gained an inch of territory which did not belong to old Imperialist Russia. Nevertheless, Moscow encouraged the agitation in other lands; though with smaller hope and enthusiasm in later years. So far as the United States is concerned, the "flood of Russian money" supporting Communist agitation is most probably a myth. According to my information—and it comes from very good sources—the lords of the new Russia have tended to reverse the process. Occasionally they have made a contribution to a special purpose, as when they subsidized a sick daily newspaper, which died nevertheless. If we knew the secrets of Soviet finance, we should probably find that the greatest single appropriation for work in the United States went to support the campaign of propaganda for recognition of Russia. And this had ends more mercenary than "freeing the workers" of America. The Russian government has, on the other hand, helped to direct the agitation in the United States; has even claimed the right to dictate appointment and removal of officers in the American Communist party.

Communist agitation on our side of the water has failed, to put the matter badly and bluntly. The depression was its opportunity; yet in the national election of 1932, when the party made its strongest "drive on the political front," it polled only 200,000 votes—about one-half of one per cent of the electorate. Numerically it remains distinctly a minor faction. But, like any political party, it exaggerates its own spread and importance in order to stimulate the fainthearted. And in this instance, so do its most active opponents. Every night some orator quotes to an audience of affrighted patriots the exaggerations of the Communists; every night some Red spellbinder repeats from a soapbox the multiplications of his militant enemies.

Less than moderately successful in rounding up votes, the Communists have proved themselves the best publicity men ever known to American politics. And they have used, virtually, only one device. They make the news. Here, again, their opponents have helped mightily by surrounding the operations of Communists with an aura of fear and melodramatic mystery. A common laborer who murders his neighbor attracts less space and attention from the newspapers than a common laborer who finds himself marked for deportation as a Communist. Two factions fighting it out at a Sunday picnic, with the police taking a battering from both sides—unless it ends in a killing, this recurrent event is good for six inches on an inside page of the local newspaper. A Communist riot of no greater magnitude and violence may achieve the honor of front-page notice all over the country. Barred by circumstances from ordinary channels of publicity, the Communists have specialized on action. Every strike, no matter by whom called, has a fringe of Communist agitators. If they manage to make themselves conspicuous, the employers assert that this is a "Red strike"—splendid advertising. Whenever a poor man runs dramatically afoul of the law, be his case good or bad, one of the multiple Communist-inspired societies considers it. If the prosecution can be warped to appear an assault on the workers, with picket lines, small riots and other devices for attracting attention they join the fray.

Specifically they have made millions of capital out of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the Mooney case, the prosecution of the Scottsboro negroes. Communist support usually injures any cause. But the party managers are indifferent to the fate of individuals. If the defendant loses, then the event only goes to prove that the worker cannot expect justice from the "bosses." If he wins, they can point to the party as the one potent champion of labor. Meantime, win or lose, they have been crowding the front pages.

Constantly they have staged riots to keep the publicity moving. These have varied from small and rather comic brushes, as when the Young Pioneers demonstrate against their school-teachers, to dazzling generators of publicity like a stage-managed riot in Union Square, New York, a few years ago.

This affair deserves special mention. The Party declared its intention of moving as a body on the mayor to present a petition for redress of some forgotten grievance. When they applied for permission to parade from Union Square to City Hall, the police refused. They would have refused a similar application from the most conservative society, since a procession in the narrow, crowded streets of the wholesale district would have tied up business for hours. Concealing their intention, the Communists ordered a rally in Union Square. The police, scenting trouble, turned out a strong guard. Grover Whalen, police commissioner, himself took charge. When the meeting had begun, a committee approached him with a last demand—the Communists, never do anything so mild as request—for a permit to parade. Whalen, of course, refused. Whereupon Robert Minor, who was speaking from the platform at the time, appeared at least to give marching orders. The procession fell in and started. The police could do nothing but try to break it up. Some of them lost their tempers and used fists or nightsticks roughly. On the other hand, Communist women, burning for the crown of martyrdom, threw themselves under the hoofs of the horses—which, being among the nobler element present at this party, stepped daintily over them. The result: some broken heads, a few really serious injuries, minor trials in the police courts and a front-page story in every newspaper of the land.

In the summer of 1934 a series of small strikes disturbed the cotton and rayon factories of the Blackstone Valley in Rhode Island. This is one of the most densely populated regions of the United States, and it lives entirely by weaving. The depression struck it early; for six years, boys and girls had been finishing school and then simply festering in idle-ness. Brushes between pickets and police grew in to a series of riots wherein youth worked off its energies and expressed its resentment against the world. Of course, the Communists had sent up a few organizers, as they always do. One or two of these had harangued a crowd a little before trouble started. A commander of militia, hearing of this, jumped to a hasty conclusion and informed Governor Theodore F. Green that the Communist Revolution had broken out in Rhode Island. The governor spread this revelation over the world; and again the Communist party, at a minimum of trouble and expense, made display headlines..… Later, the police conducted a roundup of Communists in Rhode Island. They bagged none in the Blackstone Valley and less than twenty in Providence.

Propaganda, in the invidious modern sense of the word, stands almost synonymous with insincerity. To advance a cause in which he mayor may not believe with all his heart, the propagandist puts forth data which he knows to be false or-more usually—incomplete. Anti-Communist propaganda in the United States has given a new quaver to this note. Much of it may be described as propaganda for the by-product. The originator is not vitally concerned with the Red peril; but by stretching definitions a little, he manages to include in "the network" that set of opinions, which he is trying to refute. Harry Daugherty, attorney general in the Harding administration, conducted his office—well, in a political spirit at least. After Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, Daugherty resigned under fire. However, he managed for a time to wrap himself in the American flag and dare any traitor to strike at him through its sacred folds. He transformed the valuable Division of Investigation, since notable as the model police force of the United States, into an organization for showing up the Communists. By stretching the facts a little, he managed to include in the Red Plot innumerable citizens of merely liberal opinions; a task much lightened by the somewhat imaginative Lusk Report for the New York State Legislature.

Meantime, another element with an ax to grind had found a special device to make anti-Communist propaganda useful. Though the country had in 1920 repudiated the letter of Wilson's policy for securing universal and permanent peace, its spirit still held the imagination of the country. The League of Women Voters, formed to educate the newly enfranchised sex, turned itself for a time into a pressure group and was mainly responsible for bringing about President Harding's successful conference on Naval Disarmament. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, stood even more radically for peace. Men's organizations, like the Rotary Clubs, endorsed the principle.

The militarists, together with those who sincerely believed the fallacy that heavy armament is insurance against war and those who held a stake in the game of the munition makers, were temporarily on the run. They grouped themselves into societies, some with purely patriotic impulses, a few the creation of individuals who scented revenue—"patrioteers." The Intelligence Department of the army had during the war paid some attention to "subversive activities," especially those of the I.W.W., and had collected data on suspected citizens. The men who did this work were mainly amateur soldiers, filled with that hatred for dissenters which is part of the war spirit; and they interpreted the subversive spirit a trifle loosely. From these official records and from those of Harry M. Daugherty in the Department of Justice, publicity agents for certain patriotic societies compiled "blacklists" of "dangerous citizens." These seem at first to have circulated only privately and for the most part among the Officers' Reserve. Brigadier General Amos A. Fries, head of the gas warfare service, belonged to a militaristic faction of the army. An employee in his office put forth a curious document entitled "The Spider-Web Chart" which set a milestone for anti-Communist propaganda. A series of squares enclosed the names and" records" of certain eminent and suspected citizens, mostly women. Lines, making a web, joined the boxes; and all the lines met at the top in—Moscow.

The ladies honored by this singular document were officers or outstanding members of societies for the promotion of international good feeling and permanent peace, not Communists nor—for the most part—adherents of any theory resembling Communism. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, whose name stood near the head of one column, was a Democrat; Mrs. Maud Wood Park, almost equally condemned for treason, a Republican. But the brief text took that hurdle gracefully. All American pacifists of any degree were auxiliaries of the Communist plot. Their function was to soften us up so that the Red Revolution would find us easy picking. Propagandists for militarism or armament or national defense seized upon this by-product of anti-Communist propaganda. Even today, political orators trying to stir up chauvinistic patriotism lump off pacifists—meaning both non-resisters and workers for international good feeling—with Communists and anarchists. Presently, the blacklists came out from their concealment in wallets and began to find print. Usually they led off with such eminent and useful citizens as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Carrie Chapman Catt, Sinclair Lewis, James T. Shotwell and Stephen P. Duggan, and went on to persons of lesser importance. Professional secretaries of manufacturers' asso-ciations, fighting for the open shop, saw the uses of the by-product and joined in. The authors of the lists hunted constantly for new names. Y.W.C.A: secretaries and school-teachers who promoted peace meetings were almost sure to make the blacklists; often this honor cost them their jobs. In those days the speaking radio had not reached its importance, and the lyceum lecture was in its heyday. Scarcely an American town of more than five or six thousand souls but had its winter "course." A local manager arranged the program; but he had usually behind him a committee of sponsors whose tastes and wishes he consulted. During the period when we were lashing ourselves up to the dis-armanent conference, lectures in favor of peace had come into demand. By 1925, most lecturers on this topic found themselves blacklisted as accessories to the Communist plot. The societies which dispensed the lists had members all over the country. They, as a patriotic service, made it their business to pass the information on to the sponsors of local lecture courses. Two times out of three, a hint was enough. The proportion of peace lectures on lyceum programs steadily declined.

This campaign blazed sometimes into action—and into comedy. A woman novelist of New York, who at the time voted the Republican ticket, went to a city of the Middle West to address a banquet on a literary topic. Some years before, she had taken the unpopular side in a labor controversy; that sufficed for the dispensers of blacklists. When her name was announced, affrighted patriots informed the ladies in charge of the affair that their speaker was a dangerous Red and unquestionably had no other object than to rouse her Communist cohorts—perhaps even start the revolution then and there. The committee stood by its guns and refused to alter the program. On the night of the performance, volunteer saviors of the commonwealth and city detectives lurked in the lobby, crouching to rush in and arrest the speaker at her first treasonable utterance. The ladies in charge, fearful of precipitating a case of nerves, had kept her in ignorance of the situation. For an hour she aired her ideas concerning the process of creating fiction; and she could not understand—then—why there was so much cheering and laughter when she sat down.
When a libel suit brought these odd documents to sudden public attention, the newspapers called them the "D.A.R. Blacklists." In that, they did a partial injustice. The lists originated elsewhere; but the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose officers of the period had swallowed the "Pacifist-Communist" theory hook, line and sinker, helped out by encouraging their circulation. This suit appealed to the comic sense, rather than the civic sense, of the public and the newspapers. When finally an assemblage of prominent citizens held in New York a banquet to celebrate their elevation to this eminence, a gust of laughter sent the blacklists fluttering to the trash heap. Yet this artificial link between Communism and the desire for peace does service yet. It is one reason why the American public has accepted so complacently and casually both the gradual withdrawal of our government from attempts to promote peace through disarmament, and our own increase in armaments. It is one reason why Father Coughlin, by a single speech over the radio, was able to keep us from joining the World Court. He crystallized sentiment, yes; but the sentiment was already in the minds of those who reason faintly and feel vividly.

pp. 265-282


Onward to the utmost of futures!


Aloha, He'Ping,
Om, Shalom, Salaam.
Em Hotep, Peace Be,
All My Relations.
Omnia Bona Bonis,
Adieu, Adios, Aloha.
Roads End