Contemporary debates over the spread of mis- and disinformation and the damage this may be doing to public discourse often strike notes of nostalgia in their alarm. Many lament the loss of shared facts that serve as the basis for debate and normative disagreement. Some even warn of an epistemic crisis, a sense that we are reaching a point where we will no longer be able to agree on which sources of information are reliable. Implicit in many of these discussions is a suggestion that things were somehow better before, and they are worse now. But is this really the case?
The three essays the Knight Institute is publishing today, by RonNell Andersen Jones and Sonja West, John Witt, and Sam Lebovic, take a closer look at historical precedents for our present moment, in which trust in many of our institutions has eroded and a global rise in populist sentiment has left us uneasy about the manipulation of public opinion. These essays were first presented at our “Lies, Free Speech, and the Law” symposium held at Columbia Law School in April 2022, as part of a year-long project spearheaded by our 2021-22 Senior Visiting Research Scholar Genevieve Lakier to explore how the law regulates, or should regulate, false and misleading speech.
These are fascinating papers, offering vivid depictions of concerns about information quality, the volatility of popular sentiment, and the press’ ability to serve democracy that will resonate with readers today as much as they did a century ago. Each essay provides a view into how past generations have weighed the trustworthiness of institutions including the press, the courts, and “the people.” Taken together, the essays show that there was more ambivalence, and frequently profound concern, about each of these than current accounts sometimes assume.
To begin, Andersen Jones and West present a review of references to the press in Supreme Court decisions from 1784 to 2020, employing quantitative methods to determine whether and how the Court’s view of the press has shifted over time. Here the trendline indeed points toward a loss: The authors find a distinct decline in the level of trust and respect the Court expresses for the press, a decline that is particularly apparent in the Roberts Court’s opinions. While the change they observe has generally been gradual, Andersen Jones and West single out the 2010 Citizens United case as a pivotal moment: The Court signals that it no longer sees the press as trustworthy in an opinion that “depict[s] media companies as corporations that often have ‘immense aggregations of wealth,’ and often express views that ‘have little or no correlation to the public’s support’ or as entities that are controlled by conglomerates seeking to ‘influence or control the media in order to advance [their] overall business interest[s].’”
Oddly enough, though, this expression of distrust is mirrored in the pair of accounts John Witt and Sam Lebovic offer of progressive reformers working in the 1920s. Witt’s paper introduces us to Walter Lippmann and Roger Baldwin, whose efforts a century ago centered on finding “a solution to the crisis of information in the modern age.” As Witt tells us, the power of speech in the 1920s was seen largely as something to fear, not cause for optimism:
“Four long years of war propaganda had shown that speech by the powerful could dangerously destabilize public opinion in ostensibly democratic societies. The return to peace, too, had been accompanied by stunning displays of communications power. Storms of racist and nativist public opinion produced a wave of postwar racial pogroms. Employer propaganda smashed postwar strikes in the steel industry and elsewhere.”
Against this backdrop, Lippmann struggled with how to ensure that the people and their elected representatives could access the kinds of accurate, impartial information required to make decisions about complex issues, and how to inoculate the public against the influence of propaganda and demagogues—eventually concluding that establishing “neutral expertise in the administrative state” was the way forward. By contrast Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, first put his faith in the power of populist measures like ballot initiatives and referenda to fight “economic wrongs,” only to find that these measures were soon being deployed to entrench segregation and racism. Nor did he see much hope in appealing to the courts, judging these to be “the staunchest allies of the capital classes” and declaring that the “fiction that constitutional American rights can be maintained through law has been pretty well exploded.” Baldwin instead turned to the labor movement, or industrial democracy, as the best hope for “rescu[ing] democratic values by offering a better ecosystem for the formation of opinion on collective questions.”
Neither man thought of the press as a particularly promising avenue for their goals. As Lebovic describes Lippmann’s views, “The press was—and is—a commercial enterprise, providing content that will attract reader eyeballs that can be sold onto the advertiser.” Witt shows us Baldwin working as a spy for the American Federation of Labor during the massive Great Steel Strike in Pittsburgh in 1919, watching as “Pittsburgh newspapers simply repackaged the company’s press releases and presented them as news. A reader of the papers encountered a steel strike that always seemed to be fading and near its end,” while the papers studiously ignored “the actual industrial grievances of the steel workers.”
These pessimistic voices from a century ago provide a peculiar comfort in their echoes of our current despair, in their confirmation that the present moment is perhaps neither more acute nor more dire than the crises of information confronted by past generations. Lippmann’s and Baldwin’s choices to pursue “neutral expertise” and industrial democracy, respectively, as the most promising means of informing the public provoke useful questions for us today as well: Are these problems—lies in politics, an ill-informed public, a polarized political climate—ones in which the law has any role to play?
It’s not clear that Lippmann or Baldwin thought so. In his paper Lebovic, too, argues that what is required is not a focus on changing law or policy, but
“difficult, long-term, granular political work, focused on restoring faith in the possibilities of governance and social policy at all levels of the polity, from local elections to national office. ... Much of what is needed therefore has little to do with freedom of expression or media policy—the key domains for reform and activism lie elsewhere, in the political economy, in social relations, in political institutions, and so forth.”
With worries about the public’s susceptibility to lies and propaganda once again at a peak, Lippmann’s pithy observation that “Under the influence of headlines and panicky print, the contagion of unreason can easily spread through a settled community” reads like a line that could have been written by a commentator today. And yet while these views from the 1920s show many similarities to the present day, they also highlight some differences that give cause for hope.
We still struggle with many of the same intractable problems and fears, but it is clear that we have made incredible progress over the past century. Reading these essays, I was struck by the association Lippmann and Baldwin drew between “the public’s” opinion and horrors like racial pogroms and racist laws, violent attacks on socialists, and nativist mobs. From a present-day perspective, the actions they described represented not “the public’s” will but rather the desires, opinions, and acts of a sub-group of the public—at the time, largely white men—who felt emboldened to carry out these deeds because of their own political dominance and the relative powerlessness of their targets. In the 1920s, some women (but not all) had just won the right to vote. Most Black Americans were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws until at least 1965. But these men and women too, all the groups of people who were harmed or silenced by the actions that so appalled Lippmann and Baldwin, are now members of the body politic and full contributors to the public’s opinion and will.
We sometimes make the same mistake today, conflating the loudest, most belligerent voices in our society with the views of the majority, or the will of the people. Yet one of the driving forces of our politics now is a conviction that “We the People” does and must include all of us, not only the powerful, wealthy, and privileged. We have much work to do to establish a truly representative democracy, but there is power in insisting on this more inclusive view of the public. And the work to be done to achieve it—the “difficult, granular, political work” Lebovic prescribes—is being done every day, by the grassroots organizations and labor unions and neighborhood activists and leaders working tirelessly across the country to register and turn out voters, to organize workplaces, and to inform and energize their fellow citizens. Most of these efforts do not attract a media spotlight, but it is this kind of patient, brick-by-brick work that has achieved most of the political gains we have enjoyed in the past century.
I hope this introduction will lead you to read the essays in full. They are engaging, surprising, and thoughtful, and the windows they offer into not-so-distant U.S. history may inspire new insights into our difficulties today. Looking ahead, the next set of essays from this symposium will look at some of the institutional and cultural preconditions for the production of truth—or falsity. All of the essays from the symposium, as well as recordings of the panel discussions, are available here.
Katy Glenn Bass is the Knight Institute’s research director.