Government and Propaganda

Dorothy Thompson

Pasadena Post/January 25, 1937

The publication at Christmas time of the second annual report of the Resettlement Administration, in the form of a 175-page book, handsomely printed, illustrated in color and distributed to the customers at a fraction of its cost price, raised some critical comment in Washington. Now the first printing has been exhausted, and the answer to criticism is to publish another edition. The whole matter seems trifling, but it has connotations that are not trifling at all. No administration in the history of the United States and apart from the dictatorship no government in the world, has so used publicity as the Roosevelt regime. Propaganda has been introduced as an adjunct of government on an unprecedented scale. We have not, like the Germans or the Italians, established a special government department of “propaganda and enlightenment,” but we have attached such departments to practically every branch of administration. The policies and achievements of this Administration are being “sold” to the American people by experts in the business, by the high-pressure methods already developed by Councilors on Public Relations in the great corporations.

The rumpus raised over this particular book brought out that the Resettlement Administration alone turned out in eight months, between November and last June, over a quarter of a million copies of printed matter. Heaven only knows what the total production of all the departments—agriculture, as a whole, relief, labor, commerce, Relief Administration, etc.—would amount to, if printed stuff, reports, mimeographed hand-outs to the press, photographs for publicity purposes, news releases, and pamphlets were all combined in one place. Huge forests would be needed to replace the paper consumed; whole buildings would be insufficient to house the mass.

Other Techniques

Nor does government propaganda confine itself to printed and mimeographed hand-outs to the press and public. It has adopted other press-agent techniques. A stunt of the commercial press agents has long been to interest special writers, whose names carry weight, in the commercial projects which they represent, and offer such writers free trips, hotels, automobiles and other perquisites to make “investigations,” and write articles which are then sold through normal channels to magazines and newspapers and appear as completely disinterested reports. A while ago when there was a campaign on the part of Hawaiian sugar interests to persuade Congress to let their product come into the United States free of tariff, and give it preference over Cuban sugar, writers were offered luxurious trips to Hawaii with all expenses paid, if only in whatever they wrote they would point out that “Hawaii is an integral part of the United States.”

Same Methods

Several celebrities accepted the suggestion and had a pleasant and profitable winter vacation. The Administration uses the same technique. Special writers who are known to be favorable to the Administration have been offered opportunities to get “on the inside” on special stories. They have been invited to accompany commissions, been given access to all sorts of privileged material, and otherwise aided in earning their livings. Those who have been critical have found the doors slammed. For the free-lance writer who earns his living by special reporting, or for the correspondent whose effectiveness for his paper depends on his having ready access to important material, this sort of discrimination amounts to real economic pressure.

Baffling Problems

For the independent and objective reporter who wants to find out what is actually going on, the Resettlement Administration offers some baffling problems. A number of housing projects, costing many millions of the taxpayers’ money, have been started or completed. I defy a reporter to find out what they have actually cost. That information, in any specific detail, is simply not forthcoming. It is not even easy to view the projects. Some months ago the New Jersey garment workers’ housing project was so surrounded by guards that I, visiting it, had to use the utmost cajolery to be allowed to see one of the houses. A few weeks later I went a quarter of the way across the country at my own expense to visit a suburban project near Cincinnati, and met the same difficulty. There it stood, open to the four winds and partly completed, but a very icy gentleman barred my way from even walking through the streets. But at the gate I was handed a handsome little brochure, describing the whole thing in glowing terms and containing photographs which presented the project as though it were practically completed and the houses ready for occupancy. I was told that both these projects had huge waiting lists. Then why the sales talk? The sales talk is expensive, and gave me the impression that it was not designed to rent the houses but to promote the government!

Why Advertise It?

I see no reason on earth why press agents and promotion experts should be attached to a relief administration. Certainly it is not necessary to advertise Santa Claus to the relief clients. They will find the place without any high pressure salesmanship. And why must it advertise itself to the taxpayer? He has to pay anyhow, whether he likes it or not. His subscription is not solicited. It is collected. Yet the Relief Administration and all its branches have press agents, under one name or another, whose business is to turn out “stories” about the poor, about the nobility of the government, and about specific cases. Photographers, ex-newspaper men, special writers, are all busy, not at administering a government bureau, but at selling that bureau’s necessity, wisdom, and efficiency to the people who pay for it.

Dangerous Departure

This is a new departure for democratic government and a dangerous one. It got its start during the war, when expert molders of public opinion and public psychology were turned loose by the government to sell the people the war. Before that in most countries the foreign offices and the chancelleries had secretaries who were really press attaches, contact men with the correspondents, whose business it was to facilitate their getting news. That was a useful and probably necessary function. But they did not write editorials and news releases and press them into journalists’ hands! And even now, after the experience of the war, there is nothing in any democratically governed country to compare with what is going on here. We have been accustomed to seeing the people lobby the government, but it is a new thing to see the government lobby the people. With the people’s money.

Who Paid For It?

I wonder who paid for the very handsome and convincing exhibition which was organized at the Democratic Convention last June to show all that the Roosevelt administration had done. It was a sort of before-and-after exhibition, designed, of course, to excite the greatest admiration for the government’s accomplishments. Did the Democratic party, bidding for re-election, pay for it? I was told that much of the work was done by WPA workers on white collar projects. And certainly the material was assembled by government employees. But is it not a curious thing to see government use the taxpayers’ money for a campaign for its own re-election?

Undermine Free Press

Liberals and a liberal government rightly demand a free press. Business first began undermining the free press when it hired experts to get advertising into the press columns instead of in the advertising columns where it belongs. Now the government is busy at the same game, and because it is a liberal government the liberals do not protest. God help them if they wake up one day with a reactionary government in power and see what instruments precedent has put at its disposal!

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