How American government propaganda was born

David Brancaccio and Candace Manriquez Wrenn Oct 21, 2020
Heard on:
The media during the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. A new book by John Maxwell Hamilton sees the origins of modern government persuasion in a World War I-era office set up by the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1917. Keystone/Getty Images

How American government propaganda was born

David Brancaccio and Candace Manriquez Wrenn Oct 21, 2020
Heard on:
The media during the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. A new book by John Maxwell Hamilton sees the origins of modern government persuasion in a World War I-era office set up by the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1917. Keystone/Getty Images

A Government Accountability Office report from 2016 found the federal government spends an average of $430 million a year to pay the salaries of more than 5,000 public relations people to “explain” things to the public. There’s little reason to think that number has gone down since. But when does public communication become government propaganda, where officials work to get the public to agree with its party line?

A new book released this week sees the roots of modern government persuasion in a World War I-era agency set up by the Woodrow Wilson administration in 1917. It was called the Committee on Public Information, and it got a lot of government spin placed in media far and wide.

John Maxwell Hamilton, a professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, has a new book out Wednesday called “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.”

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with Hamilton about it, and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So the Committee on Public Information, President [Woodrow] Wilson approved its creation to do what in the First World War?

John Maxwell Hamilton: Well, basically to get the United States behind the war, in all kinds of ways, both emotionally, but also in practical ways, like buying war bonds, enlisting in the military and sometimes rather basic things like sending in binoculars if they had any extra ones around the house to make sure that the Navy had enough on their ships.

Brancaccio: Now in a democracy the government is supposed to, I suppose, communicate with the public and let ideas get debated. That’s not exactly what we’re talking about with this thing.

Hamilton: Well, in fairness, the Committee on Public Information was populated by some very fine progressive journalists and progressive educators and the rest. But it ended up doing what propagandists often do, which is oversell and decide to take shortcuts rather than be democratic. And that’s just what the CPI did. It had front organizations, it subsidized publications but didn’t say that it did so, and the list goes on.

Brancaccio: And some of what it produced, you know, wasn’t really true in an objective sense.

Hamilton: They did, sometimes, not tell the truth. Mostly, they were just tendentious. They told one side of the story. But they also used techniques to stifle speech that was inconvenient. So today, we use the word “fake news,” which, by the way, isn’t an entirely new word. There was a book called “Fake News” in 1912. But we use the word “fake news” today, but in those days, they used the word “Creeling.” George Creel was the head of the Committee on Public Information, and he was seen as always putting spin on information, rather than providing a clear, full account.

Brancaccio: And that’s the thing about this committee in the First World War. It worked great. I mean, mass persuasion works.

Hamilton: Yes, and, you know, the beginnings of modern American advertising, public relations all begin with the Committee on Public Information. It gave them a huge boost. And, as I say, some of that was good. For example, public service advertising that we have today, that comes out of the CPI. On the other hand, anytime that somebody challenged the Wilson administration, the CPI called it enemy talk, the idea being that if you said something that opposed the administration, you were being unpatriotic.

Brancaccio: Now, in this modern world, these days, someone tried to count the number of public information professionals the government has on the payroll. There’s so many they couldn’t even count them up?

Hamilton: They couldn’t even begin to do it.  There was a GAO study done a while back, they found 5,000 of them under the title public affairs in a handful of agencies. But the problem is that people have all kinds of other titles. Just consider this: The Obama administration tried to count the number of federal websites that exist, and there were 24,000. Well, those all have to be manned by somebody, and usually somebodies, more than one person. And so, we don’t really have a very good sense of how much information the government’s putting out. Much of it’s good. Much of it’s important, but also much of it’s tendentious and manipulative.

Brancaccio: But do you think the public, here in 2020, is a little bit more sophisticated in terms of media literacy? And are maybe on the lookout for propaganda spin when the government speaks?

Hamilton: You know, that’s a hard question. You sometimes think the public should be more media literate. And yet you see all the disinformation that people retweet to each other. And much of the problem with government information is that it’s hard to draw the line between the information that’s useful and that information that’s pernicious. And you’d have to be pretty alert to follow it all.

And it’s not always just about not telling the truth. It could be something as simple as President Obama spending $700 million to do a PR blitz for Obamacare. Now, you may like Obamacare, but should the Obama administration use the tools of government, not to explain what Obamacare is, but to run a PR campaign? Basically, to use taxpayers money, to get them to change their point of view. And that’s the problem. And so, somebody would have to get in and find out exactly where the money came from, how it was used. Think about this way: No one has ever been investigated by the Justice Department for violating the few rules that exist on the use of propaganda. Never once, in the whole history of the country. The reason for that, of course, is the president would be basically policing him or herself.

Brancaccio: And here you are, Jack writing a history book about the Wilson presidency. And pieces of it look torn right out of today’s news. I mean, this year, the government drummed up an ad campaign, the Department of Health and Human Services, it was going to pull together actors and celebrities to cheer up Americans and tell them that COVID-19, you know, it may be bad, but not that bad.

Hamilton: Right, $300 million is being spent on that. But think about it this way: Everything the CPI did can be found today. Take for example, social media. You look at your social media feeds, whatever they are, and all of a sudden other kinds of messages creep in that you didn’t ask for. The antecedent for that with the CPI is that in World War I, they created something called the Four Minute Men, who stood up during the change of reels in movie theaters for four minutes to speak on some subjects that the federal government told them to talk about. And they were heavily scripted. They looked like they were local activities, because it was local people that did them. But that’s like social media, you were just sitting there in the movie theater, and all of a sudden somebody comes out with a message that the government wants you to have.

Brancaccio: And there were thousands of these Four Minute Men who would stand up in these movie theaters.

Hamilton: Seventy-five thousand.

Brancaccio: And it was shown to work at some level.

Hamilton: It worked, it absolutely worked. And the CPI, its work was pervasive. There’s a quote, I particularly like. There’s a wonderful poster that was done about the Red Cross called the Greatest Mother poster. The CPI helped put it together and help distribute it. And the head of the advertising division of the CPI, once wrote a letter back to the CPI and said “it’s been interesting to see the Greatest Mother poster in the windows of towns on the prairies, towns hardly as big as a postage stamp, out in the flat arid lands.” CPI messages were everywhere, you couldn’t miss them.

Brancaccio: Now back to this Health and Human Services advertising campaign that ran into some trouble. It was having some difficulty attracting A-list actors and celebrities in the end, and also the $300 million you mentioned was from the CDC budget, apparently?

Hamilton: Right. And it wasn’t appropriated either. That is to say, the money wasn’t specifically designated for this. And that’s a problem. And by the way, that was a problem for the CPI as well. I think you can argue the CPI was unconstitutional. It was created by Wilson, by himself without any congressional approval, and he paid for everything it did out of his own war budget, which didn’t even need to be reviewed by Congress. In a sense, that’s emblematic of all of what American propaganda tends to be about, which is it’s somewhat out of control. It’s not being monitored adequately.

The following is an excerpt from John Maxwell Hamilton’s new book, “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.

On Nov. 11, 2018, under a bright blue sky, the leaves golden with autumn color, dignitaries from many nations and citizens such as myself crowded into the Washington National Cathedral to commemorate the end of the fighting exactly one hundred years before. In the presence of Woodrow Wilson’s tomb, on the south side of the nave, celebrants recited prayers and sang hymns, recounted sacrifices made on battlefields, and remembered the dreams of world peace spun by the bloody conflict. In passing, a speaker called the Great War “the founding catastrophe of the modern age, ushering in the greatest period of change in human history. A world forever changed.”

Immediately after the war one of these changes reverberated through the staid editorial rooms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Censorship, war-bias, and the “perversion of fact” – the editors concluded – had “cut a Grand Canyon gash in the whole intellectual structure of the world.” Their 1911 edition, which was supposed to remain current for years, had no entry for “Propaganda.” In the three-volume supplement they now felt obliged to publish, “Propaganda” ran nearly ten pages of small, densely packed type.

The warring nations had conducted propaganda on a scale previously unimagined, let alone attempted. The United States joined them in propagandizing its own citizens, its allies’ citizens, and its enemies in their trenches and in their homes. Although it claimed purer motives than even its allies, the Wilson administration used the same tools as the enemy and employed them as perniciously. When the peace came, propaganda was entrenched in governing.

A world forever changed. And yet, we are only vaguely aware of the Information State that emerged out the Committee on Public Information’s experiment at mass manipulation of opinion or of the threat that it poses to democracy.

Propaganda has become the air government breathes, vital to its operation; like air, it is difficult to discern as a pervasive daily enterprise, let alone control. When the word is mentioned, evasion and euphemism are employed. It is freighted with sinister overtones thanks to the Great War. It has the curious property of being done by every government leader and admitted by none. The CPI’s War Cyclopedia carried a lone entry for propaganda. It appeared under the heading “Propaganda, German.” The first iron law of propaganda is that only the enemy does it.

Excerpted from Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda by John Maxwell Hamilton. Copyright © 2020 by John Maxwell Hamilton. Reprinted with permission of LSU Press.

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