Fighting Fake News

By Toa Lohe (@Toamatapu) | 5 min read

Frank Cobb was a journalist who succeeded Joseph Pulitzer as editor of Pulitzer’s newspaper the New York World. He was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson’s during the First World War until he noticed that propaganda continued to be produced following the end of the war. Cobb wrote in the magazine Editor and Publisher to publish his frustrations with media at the time. His world is ours today.

Our Enemies are the Propagandists

“Bands of propagandists are wandering around terrorizing public opinion and trying to frighten [public opinion] into submission and to theories of government that are strange to American institutions.” These “marauders represent radicalism.” This kind of radicalism “pretends to be engaged in restoring human liberty to its primitive simplicity” and “is ready to have everybody else die for the Constitution as it thinks the Constitution ought to be interpreted.” It professes to be the champion of “human freedom.”

“We are in danger of forgetting [liberty] under the terrorism of mass thought, but we can forget it only at our imminent peril.”

The People are the Best Defense Against Propaganda

Cobb believes that since Americans are fit to govern themselves they are able to contribute to public opinion and defeat foreign propaganda on their own. People “are fit to govern” and “protect themselves” against bad propaganda. But their self governance can only be preserved with protecting the truth. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the United States Supreme Court stated that “‘the best test of the truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.’” People need to be given the facts for them to be able to make the best possible decision which hardly ever happens.

But Cobb does concede that “day by day [the people] like to get their news from headlines and to rely for their judgments on what somebody tells them.” Americans have “no passion for profound study of public questions until these questions reach the stage of a crisis.” For these reasons, legislators believe the government should be the “nursemaid of the people, to train their immature minds to suits its own purposes and to guard them from all influences that it considers contaminating.” Those who believe it is in the people’s best interest for certain individuals to be assigned with the task of protecting the state from propaganda are only acting like the leaders of old Soviet Russia.

Following the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky said they wanted to“‘protect the people from revolutionary propaganda’” and ended up “suppressing all but [their own] Bolshevist newspapers.”

Public Discussion Produces Healthy Public Opinion

Cobb wants there to be freedom of discussion. Without it, no public opinion deserves any attention because it is only serving the objectives of one individual or group.” This is where our media fails us. It does not facilitate fair, accurate and free discussion. With many facts disfigured, people remain uninformed. We cannot receive our facts from “misguided self-constituted masters.” They will only discuss an irrelevant “revolutionary doctrine” that will refuse to recognize the elephant in the room which will be “whispered everywhere in the ear of discontent” and will lead to “martyrdom.” We must allow for all ideas, especially the bad ones to be discussed openly since they will be argued, and eventually disregarded by the American people. This kind of approach is never applied since government officials will call for the suppression of propaganda from a “foreign origin.” They will say foreign propaganda is advocating for “an alien population” that is “antagonistic to the principles of the Republic” and will convert the American people to those ideologies. That is a lie.

Cobb cites a historical example of how the American people are historically known to not accept radical ideas. “American conservatives were once quite terrified by the spread in this country of the extreme theories of the French Revolution…They were quite as eager for repression; yet the French Revolution never shattered a single American institution. It raised up no American breed of Marats and Robespierres. It set up no guillotines on American soil and beheaded no aristocrats. The American people threshed the issue out and went on their way.”

Americans will always favor their own government and way of life. “But government protecting the American people against revolutionary propaganda is a new manifestation of paternal authority.” This will only lead to ideas being discussed in “secrecy” making “disaster” inevitable.

Propaganda is Government’s Favorite Tool

“There were two kinds of propaganda, one that represented the appeal to reason and the other that represented the appeal to any emotions that could be directed toward the winning of the war.” The latter “resembled in a general way the activities of the cheer leaders at a football game.” That is why propaganda is easy to spot when it is produced by the government: “When government lies, it does not lie sneakingly and furtively, but proudly and ostentatiously.” This is why Cobb believes propaganda works against favorable conclusions the American people will draw for themselves.

The Newspaper’s Role

“The first duty of a newspaper to public opinion is to furnish the raw materials for it and the tools for its formation.” But American newspapers “are still skimming the surface, and it is only now and then that a reporter gets under the skin of these great events.” With a number of rights at risk of being sacrificed, especially today with surveillance, Cobb states that “we shall have no public opinion at all except that which cringes under the last of office holders. If government is to be erected into a god, who of us can be sure of salvation?” Our appropriate response should be to remove government from the seat of propaganda and call for “the barrier of propaganda” to be “broken down.” “The American people cannot deal intelligently with any of these problems without knowing the facts until the newspapers brush aside the propagandists of contending factions and get back to the first principles of news gathering.”

Facts Cannot be Hidden

Cobb uses an example of a coal strike to explain our fractured news cycle: “The reason none of us can get at the basic truth is very simple. The coal operators meet in secret and through their publicity agent they give out a statement of their side of the case. The leaders of the miners meet in secret and they give out a statement of their side of the case. Either statement by itself is plausible and believable. The two of them, taken together, are wholly irreconcilable and simply add to the sum total of human ignorance.” Cobb is “pleading for the restoration of the traditions of the Republic, for the restoration of the proved safeguards of human liberty, for the restoration of the free play of public opinion, without which democracy is stifled and cannot exist; for the restoration of the old faith of the Fathers which has never yet failed the Nation in a crisis — the faith that they themselves sealed in their own blood.”

Is it possible for us to return to the liberty our country was founded upon? Yes. Read more about Walter Lippmann’s thoughts on redefining liberty today here on Myth Composer.


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