Welcome to Posterity, Mr. Lippmann


Los Angeles. -- In the matter of O.J. Simpson, here is the comment of one journalist:

"The search for subjects on which to employ the new publicity machine is conducted under highly competitive conditions. This is a matter of business. The competition is fierce and the rules are few. The worst cases are invariably based on court proceedings. It is here that we have all gone mad."

That came from Walter Lippmann, writing in 1927. The man many consider still the most erudite of American newspaper commentators said that in an article called "Blazing Publicity" in the original Vanity Fair magazine. My wife happened to come across it in a used book and magazine store the other day.

Reading it makes it obvious that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, at least in regard to the behavior and nature of human beings. Among the points Lippmann makes is that the death the summer before of a movie star, Rudolph Valentino, was, all in all, covered better than what he called The War, what we now call World War I.

His major point, though, has to with the fact that newspaper owners, editors and reporters don't change and neither do their readers. He cited a popular feature in some papers, interviews with Valentino, speaking from the grave. What changes is communications technology, what we now call the "media."

"The publicity machine will have become mechanically perfect when anyone anywhere can see and hear anything that is going on anywhere else in the world," he wrote 67 years ago. "We are still a good long way from that goal, and the time has not yet come when the man in the quest of privacy will have to wear insulated rubber clothing to protect himself against perfect visibility. That is something for posterity to worry about."

Welcome to posterity, Mr. Lippmann. And Mr. Simpson, Mr. Shapiro, Ms. Clark, Judge Ito.

Lippmann (and scientists and engineers) saw what was coming. He wrote: "We can transmit sound over great distances. We can transmit photographs. We can make moving pictures. We can make moving pictures that talk. Tomorrow we shall have television. These inventions combined with the facilities of the great newsgathering organizations . . . [will be] like a powerful lantern which plays somewhat capriciously upon the course of events, throwing now this and now that into bright relief, leaving the rest in comparative darkness."

"The war was never reported to the people at home as we now understand reporting," he said. "The visit of the Prince of Wales, the death of Valentino, the channel swimming of Gertrude Ederle, the Dempsey-Tunney fight, the Hall-Mills [murder] case -- these events have been really reported in the modern sense of the word.

"The public interest works somewhat mysteriously and those of us who serve it as scouts or otherwise have no very clear conception as to just what will go down and what won't. . . . We do know that sensations have to be timed properly, for the public cannot concentrate on two sensations at the same time. It is no use trying to tell the public about the Mississippi flood when [a famous suspect] is on the witness stand. These excitements have to be taken in series with a certain interval of quiet."

And, he said, there was no way to control the news machines, though he suggested it might be a good idea for "courageous" judges to bring "us up before him for that contempt of court of which we are unquestionably guilty."

"The machine," he continued, "is after all a mechanical device. . . . [It] can no more be made to regulate itself according to accepted standards, or any standards of good taste and good policy . . . than an automobile can be made which will refuse to run if there is a drunken driver at the wheel."

Government, politics and other public affairs being his business, Lippmann ended on this note:

"There is no way of imagining where it will take us. We do not, for example, know how to imagine what the consequences will be of attempting to conduct popular government with an electorate which is subject to a series of disconnected, but all in their moments absolutely absorbing, hullabaloos, . . . a peep show with vast multitudes looking through the keyhole of the bedroom door. . . . The usual rhetoric of politics has in the meantime gone stale, and it cannot begin to compete in vividness and human interest with the big spectacles of murder, love, death and triumphant adventure which the new publicity is organized to supply."

Well, now we do know where we have been taken: to a courtroom in Los Angeles.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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