In the public sphere there have long raged battles between capital and labor, business and government, industrial interests and humanist concerns, and no doubt many others. Attempts to exert control over the messages in the public sphere are undertaken to benefit special interests, consolidate power structures, change public policy, or enforce new social codes. An interesting example of this battle can be found in the history of US newspapers, in which social justice reformers and the captains of industry used the power of language to captivate and provoke their audiences.
In 1912, Will Irwin wrote a 15-piece series for Collier’s Weekly called The American Newspaper, in which he called out the newspaper industry for disguising ads as stories, publishing editorials favorable to major advertisers and other problems in a seemingly incestuous relationship between newspapers, advertisers, and industry. The entire series has been digitized online, and it is as much worth a look for the stylistic difference in language as it is for its familiar criticisms of mass media and its relationship to advertising.
But if his complaint against newspapers is that they exist primarily to serve industry and commerce, there is another side of the coin. Muckraking was the term used to refer to investigative journalism between the late 1800s and early 1900s, which investigated and published “watchdog” reports that exposed corrupt practices of industry and/or government. The muckrakers’ aim was to promote social reform and justice. This was a phenomenon mostly noted in the NYT and on the east coast. Some examples are Julius Chambers, who went undercover in a mental hospital to report on the abuse of patients. After his report, a number of patients were forced to be released because they were not mentally ill and were being held against their will. Ida B. Wells wrote influential pieces about racism and lynching in Memphis. Her writing arguably helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement to come 60 years later.
Another example of muckraking was Robert Abbott, who started the Chicago Defender in 1905, as detailed by the documentary The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords. The Defender reported the problems facing the African American community—including job discrimination, racism, and lynching. The newspaper quickly gained circulation in cities outside of Chicago and was a major player in the great migration, in which African Americans left southern cities and improved their stations in life by moving north. The muckrakers’ efforts to try to improve society became the heart of what is known as the “social responsibility theory of media.”
At the same time, the powers that be—e.g.: captains of industry and political leaders—were more than a little concerned about the effect of muckraking on the general population. They saw that widespread reporting of poor living conditions, injustice, and unfair treatment of the disenfranchised could cause backlash, disorder, and general unruliness.
For maintaining class privilege and keeping a nation’s lights on, social order is a prized commodity. When there is social order, for instance, the peasants don’t storm the Bastille. Conveniently for them, there were breakthroughs in psychology that led to new understandings of people’s intrinsic motivations. It turned out that people are illogical, irrational, and more likely to be motivated by emotion than hard facts. This is partly why muckraking had worked, and it led to a practice called yellow journalism—using sensationalism and loose reliance on facts to sell papers. People were figuring out that the population is easily manipulated by language and symbols, an understanding that led to a field called public relations.
“By 1914,” writes Stuart Ewen in PR! A Social History of Spin, “the dread social chaos had restructured the priorities of mainstream progressivism. A conservative ‘search for order’ as historian Robert Wiebe had defined it, was eclipsing once-revered ideals of popular democracy” (63). In other words, Ewen and Wiebe suggest that the ruling elite were looking for ways to influence the direction of society, and that public relations was the apparent solution. Based on French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon’s pivotal 1895 work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, the field of PR sought to maintain the control of an unruly public, ensuring that the “divine right of kings” was not usurped by the “divine right of the masses” (qtd in Ewen 66). The hope was that careful manipulation of words and symbols could affect public attitudes. Thus, again we see a struggle over the control of information in the public sphere.
Edward Bernays is often eulogized as the father of public relations (though arguably the distinction could belong to Le Bon), and a look into his personal philosophy offers insight into the field. His philosophy is neatly summed up by journalism professor Marvin N. Olasky, who interviewed the aged Bernays at his home in 1984:
Bernays’s fundamental faith has been his lack of belief in God….He saw what he called ‘a world without God rapidly descending into social chaos’ …and contended that social manipulation by public relations counselors was justified by the ends of creating man-made gods who could assert subtle social control and prevent disaster….Pulling strings behind the scenes was necessary not only for personal advantage but for social salvation (Olasky qtd in Tye).
Words are powerful tools for achieving justice or maintaining control. We see through comparing muckraking and public relations that a battle has been waged over the press and how to use its power. If muckrakers could use the to shine a light on the plight of the disadvantaged and marginal, then the elite could just as surely use it to the opposite end. The battle to control the public sphere is the same one that has been waged for millennia, as rulers punished those who wrote against them, the church sought and exercised the power to approve or deny all books that would be printed, and those both in and out of power used writing to attain their ends.
Inasmuch as control and influence of the public sphere shape how society progresses or regresses, people should be keenly interested in the forces driving the conversation and the tools they use to do so. Journalistic ethics may fall victim to sensationalism in order to sell more papers. Public relations tactics, sometimes known as spin, may be used to frame information in a way that hinders rational or ethical decision making. Evaluating such information for authority, credibility, and timeliness may uncover a more nuanced picture of the facts than originally presented. Doing so, however, is not without its challenges. Sometimes various media present the same false or flawed narrative, thus reinforcing and appearing to lend credibility to something that is not true. Sometimes public relations is difficult to discern, including deliberately misleading efforts, such as astroturfing. Being aware of these tactics and problems is a necessary first step for participation in the information age.