How the Bourgeois Press Moulds 'Public Opinion'

Submitted by AWL on 29 July, 2011 - 4:09

James P Cannon reviews The Big Wheel by John Brooks (in four parts)

1. The Mind Molders at Work

What would people think about the larger questions of general interest and concern if they were free to make up their own minds; if they got full information and heard all points of view, and were not pressured, badgered, bulldozed and blackjacked into thinking what they are supposed to think? If the reference is to the state of affairs in the police-ruled and regimented domain of Stalinism behind the Iron Curtain, it will be recognised at once that this question is in order. When one source controls all agencies of information and instruction and uses them to serve special interests, it is pretty hard to tell what the people really think, or would think if they had access to all the essential facts and had a fair chance to decide for themselves.

But how do things stand with regard to the shaping of public opinion in the United States, which according to the self-righteous critics of the Stalinist regime, enjoys diametrically opposite conditions of unrestricted democracy? Just what does this free and fair democracy, the necessary premise for which is full information and free criticism from all sides, look like in practice in this marvelous country of ours? From a close-up view it doesn't look so good. People's minds are brutally bludgeoned and one-sidedly manipulated there, too, as can be demonstrated by an examination of the news and information factories of the country and the methods by which they mold public opinion.

Convincing testimony on this point is adduced in an important novel about life and work on the staff of a widely read national news and picture magazine. The book is The Big Wheel by John Brooks, first published in 1949 and now brought out in a 25-cent Pocket Book edition. Mr Brooks brings impressive credentials to his task. He has served on the editorial staffs of several large magazines, including Time and the New Yorker, and he knows what he is talking about. His book radiates authenticity from every page.

Taking advantage of the greater freedom offered by the novel form in these days of increasing censorship and witch-hunt suppression, the author brings information and depicts reality excluded from expression in other mediums. The truth, nowadays, must disguise itself as fiction. You can come closer to getting honest information about contemporary society in fiction than anywhere else.

The Big Wheel presents a composite picture of the inner workings of such so-called news magazines as Time and Life and the people who work there. The fictional name of the publication is Present Day, "the bright, four-colour purveyor of a popular culture that had all the answers, and behind the facade a staff of tortured and doubting men who feel that half of what they did was dishonest." Present Day like all the popular magazines of mass circulation, fat with advertising and expensive illustrations, is engaged in the business of slanting the news by the omission of some essential facts and the exaggeration of others under guise of objective reporting.

The technique of Present Day is somewhat different from that of the press in totalitarian countries, but it is no less effective in poisoning the wells of public information. The press behind the Iron Curtain monopolized by the Stalinist party-state lies outright, secure against any contradiction by anybody. The technique of the so-called free press of democratic America - in reality the monopoly of a small group of financial interests - is subtler, trickier and more hypocritical. Present Day, as the author depicts it bludgeons the minds of people with the systematic misrepresentation of reality, betrays them with half-truths which are the most treacherous of lies.

One of the central episodes in the book deals with the "editing" of a series of dispatches from Eastern Europe. They were written by Struther Carson, a noted correspondent who retained the habit of reporting what he saw, while "avoiding responsibility for what happened to his dispatches between the time they came over the trans-oceanic cable and the time they appeared on the newsstands" under his by-line. Barring this compromise with conscience- a gravely serious one to be sure, but even at that he was 50 percent better than his editors, being, only 50 percent crooked - "the instincts of a thorough honest and fair-minded reporter were still with him". His report was "calm in tone, but let the facts fall where they might; it pandered to nobody's prejudices". But by the time it got into the magazine, it was a different story altogether.

The device by which the dispatches went into the editorial hopper as one thing and came out something else is related in the account of the editorial conference on the matter. "It needs serious work on it, of course," says one of the editors in charge of fouling things up. "Rambles badly, Dick. Got to cut it down. Part about religious freedom in Yugoslavia. Got to go. Dull."
"Isn't that pretty important?"

"No. Now about the trouble with Polish visa. Kind of fascinating. Got to build it up. Elaborate. Set it off so nobody misses. Add a few sentences there."

"Military strength in Russia. Build that up. Get stuff out of files here. Stick it in."

The narrator. who was a green man on the staff, demurred at this butchery of an objective report, but it didn't do him any good. The editor just grinned and said: "Take it easy, will you? You're getting all steamed up about nothing. What the devil, it's only another story... Hell, we're not saints up here. We're in business."

Further: "Listen, it's just routine editing. Mostly cutting things out, not much putting anything in. The piece as it stands is too long, see? It rambles: it needs tightening up. It's not exactly a revolutionary assignment, Dick, asking a man to do some cutting."

That was the way they cut up Struther Carson's unprejudiced report of what he saw in eastern Europe and made it fit Present Day's conception of what he should have seen, Hatchet jobs of this kind on every item and article in every department, fashioned Present Day into a club to beat public opinion into the desired shape, and gave the editor-in-chief the self-satisfaction of a man of accomplishment, a man with a mission. "'It's a good and important job we've got, Dick molding people's minds, shaking them out of their ruts and putting them onto the path into the future." By the "future" the editor meant more of the present: more of "Our Way of Life" extolled by the magazine, a "way" generally recommended by its beneficiaries to its victims.

It's time here to follow the author of The Big Wheel in his clinical examination of the motives and morals of the staff members on Present Day, who "mold people's minds" to the acceptance of things as they are by these dirty and dishonorable methods. But space is running out. and the chapter oil The Men Who Mold People's Minds will have to hold over for next week.

2. The Men Who Mold People's Minds from the Militant.

In last week's review of The Big Wheel by John Brooks I dealt with the author's exposition of the techniques used by Present Day, a national news and picture magazine, in mangling the news and dishing out phony culture for the disorientation and befuddlement of the masses. The trick, in short, is to start out with a predetermined aim to mold people's minds to acceptance and support of the status quo and then to slant the news to serve the design.

But The Big Wheel does more than describe the mechanics of this devious enterprise. It is a novel and its major theme is people. The author introduces us to the literary craftsmen who work on the assembly line of this misinformation factory, and lets them speak for themselves about the motivations which bind them to their grimy trade. The dialogue reveals their philosophy of life - if you want to call it that.

They are all conventionally educated men, presumably instructed in the basic precept of the Christian doctrine that it's a sin to tell a lie, and the more cogent Yankee supplement that honesty is the best policy from a practical standpoint. But in their case the instruction didn't take. The world-weary cynics on Present Day are convinced that the lie runs faster than the truth and pays better, too.

There was Sturtevant Smith, and all-around journalist who could fill most any post, who was stuck with the job of religious editor. He didn't like it and tried to get transferred, but it was no go; you can't pick your spots on Present Day. "I've asked them a hundred times. I've cajoled and I've threatened and I've flatly refused. It's no use. Burnside says I'm good at the religious page."

What made him good for this particular job, in the view of Burnside, a sub-editor who liked to badger his underlings, was perhaps the minor circumstance that Smith didn't believe in the religion which Present Day heartily recommended to its readers. "His basic assumption on politics and morality seemed to be at variance with the magazine's" in fact, as he said, he was an agnostic.

Nevertheless he worried over this job and did the best he could. "If he started a piece thinking that he agreed with the magazine, he would change his mind while working on it. The next week the magazine might change its mind, and decide to do another piece. In that case Sturtevant would change his mind too."
Why the hell didn't he quit such a disagreeable and degrading job? "How can it? I tell you, I need ten thousand a year to keep the apartment! Besides, where could I go from here? This is the top, Dick... All I could do would be to get some grubby job in the newspapers for half the dough I get now." That was the trouble with Sturtevant Smith; he needed - or thought he needed - the extra dough.

"His choice seemed to be between a duplex in the East Eighties with his soul in chains, and a tiny place- say five or six rooms - in some outlandish neighborhood like Riverside Drive, with his soul free. Was his soul worth the difference?" This is an interesting speculation, which as far as I know, has not arisen before in literature. Faust sold his soul to the devil, and that was considered a mistake; but here is a man- and he typifies many - who sold his soul to a God he didn't believe in. The difference, if any, is not clear to me.

There was Herb Katzman, whose department was "critical work, art, music and literature". He was an outspoken fellow of exceptional ability who regarded journalistic integrity as a lot of nonsense. As Herb saw it, his connection with Present Day was a business transaction, pure and simple. He tailored his writings and critical judgments to Present Day's requirements, and they paid him handsomely for his services, and that's all there was to it. No pretensions.

"You know," he said, "that I dislike the magazine's standards from here to Thursday and back again ... but let me tell you some of the things I like about it. I like the place it lets me live. and lets my wife live, outside town, I like the meals it lets me buy people in restaurants, the drinks in bars.. So they own my talent. Well, Dick, listen to this: I'm proud and lucky to have sold my talent at so high a figure."

But, for all that, Katzman was a queer duck who drew the line at a certain point. He wouldn't pretend to believe in the work he was doing. This got him into trouble with Masterson, the editor--in-chief, who insisted that his staff men must be convinced and have faith in their mission to mold people's minds in the Present Day pattern. Katzman's quixotic scruple, which prompted him to insist on his right to recommend a religious book he didn't believe in and said so, eventually cost him his job.

The book in question "was a thin little tract, brought out by an obscure publisher, giving a mystical interpretation of the modern world with special reference to recent political events The chief point in it was that anything goes in the holy war to the death against the forces of Russian materialism. The author, to cap the climax had a leftist past - had, in fact, or so the dust cover proclaimed, once been a prominent and active member of the Communist Party".

This was right down Present Day's alley. Masterson was delighted with the recommendation, for he was deeply convinced, that in furtherance of the American way of life, the people, especially those who are shy of material things, need religion and plenty of it. "Let's do all illustrated review," he said. "Pictures of the Devil as interpreted by various ages, that sort of thing. And excerpts from the book, boxed off in heavy type. We'll really get our weight behind it."

Katzman's discovery and recommendation of the religious tract which hit the boss man's fancy so hard, might have meant a feather in his cap and more important from his point of view a bonus in his pay envelope, if he had only had sense enough to keep his mouth shut and let the ex-radical's spiritual revelations work their own mysterious way. But no, he had to pop off. "Candidly," he had said, "I think it stinks to the skies. It makes me actively ill." That did it.

Masterson. the man with a mission to mold people's minds, had no room on the staff of Present Day for a man who could recommend a book he didn't believe in but still hold out his right to say: "It stinks. It makes me ill." Herb Katzman was fired forthwith. This action stirred up mild revolt among the minor mind molders on the staff - as ridiculous a revolution as ever could be imagined, which brings this remarkable novel to its climax.

A number of the staff writers drew up and signed it petition protesting against the firing of Katzman "because he expressed an opinion indicating that he had submitted to the magazine material in which he does not personally believe." Masterson, the anachronistic romanticist who demanded sincerity from the news-twisting and culture-faking technicians on the staff, blew up over their demand for the right to write what they didn't believe.

"Could they really insist on their right to be whores?" he asked himself indignantly. They did, and they were quite stubborn about it for it was a matter or principle with them. "What we're trying to do," said their spokesman, "is force you to lower the moral standards you require of your staff."

After somewhat of a ruction and the intervention of the Board of Directors, Masterson, whose impractical insistence on belief in falsehood caused the trouble, resigned. He was replaced by Jack Jolitis, who didn't believe in anything, himself and didn't give a damn whether others did or not as long as they kept quiet about it, A tacit compromise was arrived at, and everything remained substantially as before. The staff members won "the right to be whores", but in practice thereafter they kept their private opinions to themselves.

The revolution ended in a draw, and Present Day just keeps rolling along.

3. What is a Man Profited?

The Big Wheel, by John Brooks, paints a devastating picture of literary work reduced to a mere commodity in the magazine market.

Writers are bought and sold like meat on the hoof, and scant consideration is given to the artistically squeamish. The conscience of men and their dignity, the highest things they have attained to in millenniums of upward striving from primeval times, count for no more in the mass magazine market than the hair colorings and markings on a steer bred for beef.

"It is axiomatic that we can replace a writer more cheaply than a typewriter," said the memorandum of the Board of Directors in commenting on the protest petition of staff members over the firing of one of their number, the critic, Herb Katzman, who had been pretentious enough to say openly that he didn't believe in the stuff he wrote or the books he recommended. Burnside, the sub-editor who incidentally bore the burden of no beliefs of any kind, said: "The trouble is you're a bunch of prima donnas! You think you can indulge your intellectual pretensions up here! You think you can express your asinine, epicene, immortal souls! Hell, we're in business. "

The staff members couldn't answer back or dispute the plain talk then were subjected to. As one of them said to another. "You know how easy we all are to replace. They could an entire new staff up here by tomorrow morning, and a good one. Ever see the lines waiting down on Thirty-Seven, in personnel?"

Where do they get the people to man the staffs of the great magazines where news and culture are processed and squeezed into slick, neat packages for the masses? From what ranges and feed lots are the literary cattle rounded up and shipped to the market? Quite a few of them, especially on such publications as Present Day, regarded as "probably the leading force against communism in this country", are graduates of the radical movement which had offered the compensation of working for the truth, but where the pickings otherwise were slim.

"You know," said Masterson - -who was an old "ex-radical" himself --"you know we still take some of our best men from the little magazines." Such publications as Present Day are crawling with one time radicals and dissenters who have "learned their lesson" that opposition to the existing social system is tough going, and now devote their talents, and the smattering of knowledge on social questions they picked up in the radical movement, to opposite ends.

I once knew a man, a writer with an exceptional style and considerable reputation who was better acquainted with Marx than most people who think they have "read" him. He knew all the ins and outs of the labor movement, and even wrote understandingly about the Moscow Trials of the Thirties from the revolutionary standpoint of their victims. It seemed, for a time, that the good cause had found a powerful new champion. He soon tired of that, however - it wasn't getting him anywhere in his profession. When I argued with him that his writings could have a great influence on the younger generation, and urged him to write more on the great theme of socialism - indeed, to devote his whole talent to revolutionary journalism he answered me wearily: "Where am I going to publish it? No magazine or paper of large circulation will take such writings."

Soon after that conversation, he turned around and began to write on the other side of the social question. He had no trouble in finding publishers for that kind of stuff. The more he prospered the more conservative his writing became. He finally ended up as a publicist in the right wing of the Republican Party, and died there not long ago. I knew him well, and sometimes wondered where he went when he died.
Renegacy has become a paying profession in the United States in recent years, especially among the intellectuals. But what do they get for it, after all? According to the testimony of the characters in The Big Wheel, they get bigger apartments than they really need, and more money to spend on other superfluous things which a writer with a "mission" - if he really has a mission - would disdain even if he could afford them. Thoreau did all right in a one-room cabin he built himself.

"What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" This is a fair question but it hardly applies to the minions of the public opinion makers. It is understandable that a man- if he is sick enough - should be willing to exchange his soul to gain the whole world: for the whole world is a great prize and no doubt tempting to ambition grown into megalomania. But even in this exchange we are told there is no profit. It is understandable if millions of ordinary people, hemmed in on every side by pressures and sanctions, feel constrained to keep their opinions to themselves, or even formally to profess contrary opinions, as the price of daily bread for their families Polite feet that they must live and bide their time until they get a fair chance to assert themselves and proclaim their own truth.

But what of men of talent and education such as those The Big Wheel portrays-writers, no less-who trade off their souls, if one grants for the sake of argument that they came into the world endowed with such attributes, not for the whole world and not for daily bread but just for a few extra comforts and trappings which they don't really need and which serve, rather, to complicate their lives and bog them down? The very best you can say for such people is that from a moral standpoint they belong to the lower orders of life, whereas one who has been nominated to the high office of writer should be bound by his calling to the strictest artistic scrupulousness and personal disinterestedness. In other words, to the truth.

Under present conditions in the world a man should disdain material advantages for himself at the expense of others. Superfluous comforts and display, and soft living in general, at this moment in history, are for the slothful, the self-indulgent, the people with a pig-like mentality who have no mission and no purpose in life, and are content to fill their own bellies while others, who make up more than half the world's population, go hungry. Such people are not fit to lead and to shape public opinion.

Yet - and this is the terrible misfortune of America. the curse of America - it is just such people who are today in full charge of the business of forming and shaping, that is, poisoning and corrupting, public opinion. in the service of the privileged few, they monopolize all the great channels of public information, of which Present Day is only one example, and use them to serve the special interests of the privileged: while the truth-tellers, deprived of adequate mediums for lack of material means, are voices crying in the wilderness, obliged to restrict their utterances to little, poorly-circulated papers and magazines and small meetings, unnoticed by the great agencies of publicity and advertising.

The people, seeking light and leading, are up against this monstrous monopoly of all the sources and instruments of information and instruction, manipulated in a great coordinated conspiracy for the defense of the present condition of affairs. The "news" and argument issuing from this monopoly are all the people get. The great majority probably don't even know there is another side to the story. But there is another side just the same, and the people are going to find out about it, and then there will be some changes made.

4. The Writer and the People.

John Brooks' novel, The Big Wheel, tears aside a curtain to reveal the methods by which a big news magazine selects and slants the news, and phonies up its presentations of culture, with the prior aim of molding public opinion in favor of the social system which exploits the many for the profit of a few. And Present Day, the magazine of Mr Brooks' story, is only one wheel in the gigantic mechanism of the American press, all parts of which are coordinated to the same purpose.

In the United States of America, the press is absolutely free. That's what the Constitution says. But there's a catch to it, All the instruments and agencies for the dissemination of news and opinion - the big magazines and newspapers, the motion-picture companies and radio and television stations - are owned and controlled by a small minority of the rich and privileged and used to serve their special interests.

They differ in their methods and techniques. Some are crude and vulgar; others are stick and subtle. Sometimes they argue and quarrel over secondary issues. But on the main questions of social implication they all tell the same story and sing the same song. The world of capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, sacrosanct and unchangeable. Its true name is "Free Enterprise", the national poetic version of which is "The American Way of Life". This way of life has the unique distinction of being good for everybody, for the majority of the exploited as well as the minority of the exploiters.

Of course, you are free to dissent if this contention violates your sense of logic and knowledge of the history and prehistory of man, or contradicts your personal interests as one of the exploited. You can even write an article to this effect if you want to. But you can't. publish it in any of the monopolized publications which reach the millions. That's the gimmick in the formal, constitutional freedom of the press in the United States as of today. This kind of free press is 99 percent fraud. There is no honest, objective reporting of all the news. It is all one-sided. There is no real free play of opinion and controversy. No real freedom of choice.

In face of all the systematic misinformation and calculated demagogy with which the people are bombarded by the monopolized press, how will they ever learn the truth and find the means to act on it in their own interest? The struggle between the truth and the lie appears to be an unequal one at this stage of the- game, and to some it may appear to be a hopeless struggle. But that is not really so. The truth has great allies. The falsifiers and distorters of social reality overlook one small detail: the reality does not therefore cease to be. Sooner or later the contradiction between the misrepresentations and the reality must lead to an explosion.

Inexorable economic laws, stronger than any specious propaganda, are working to push the masses of the people on the road to struggle for a social transformation as the condition for their own survival. Moreover, the instinctive striving of the great majority for cooperation and equality, inherent in the nature of the human race, as demonstrated in tens of thousands of years of prehistoric society, is working powerfully to counteract, to negate and eventually to conquer the propaganda lie. The truth will break through. And the truth itself is revolutionary.

In their search for the truth and the road to emancipating action, the people will need the help of the writers who are to come from the Younger generation of uncorrupted intellectuals. Let them serve the people and scorn all special privileges for themselves. Let them take for their own the affirmation of Whitman: "By God, I will not have anything for myself that others cannot have on even terms."

The writer, the artist and the scientist, the soldier and the revolutionist in this time- they should all be of one order, dedicated to the service of humanity. What need have they of softening luxuries and burdensome impediments? I read somewhere that a famous scientist - think it was Einstein - early in his life decided to reduce his personal requirements to the essentials- clothing for utility, plain food, one room to work in and one bed to sleep in, no foolish extravagances - so that his time would not he devoured and his life cluttered up with things and the pursuit of things he didn't need, and which might distract him from his scientific work or tempt him to abandon it for a better-paying occupation. I think it was a good decision.

Ours is a time of wars and revolutions, and we should not be alien to our time. Soldiers and revolutionists must travel light. And so, too, must their brothers, the artists and writers, if they want to be free to employ their gifts to serve the people, and not to fool them and mislead them. The world must be transformed. ft would be unrealistic to deny the immensity of the task and to discount the heavy odds against as at the moment. But it would be absurd to abandon the battle on that account, for the stakes are great. They are nothing less than the survival and further progress of the human race. That justifies and even necessitates the struggle.

The hazards and penalties for the pioneers can be heavy, but the end in view is worth whatever it may cost. And even under such conditions the compensation of the struggle are not to be despised. They are the satisfaction of devoting one's life to an honest purpose; of identifying one's personal fate with the fate of the whole human family. Those who avow the nobility of this ideal, and serve it-their lives shall not be lived in vain.

The world is in agony, and the great majority of the people everywhere live in poverty, insecurity and fear, because of an outlived social system propped up by lies. The overthrow of this bankrupt system of capitalism is historically necessary and even overdue, and therefore inevitable. By our efforts we will hasten the day. With our help the truth will knock out the lie, and bring freedom and equality to all the people in the socialist society of the future. That's what we believe, and that's what we're fighting for.

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