Tinkering with the News

“In foreign questions it was often striking how newspapers would hold back their comments until they had received in this way a mot d’ordre from Washington.” 

Johann Bernstorff, German Ambassador to the United States, 1908-1917.

“The propagandists stood, therefore, in a position to find what methods would best serve to lash their own people into a fury of ‘righteous wrath’ . . .  They tried everything—artistic creation, plain canards, heavy argument, and finally tinkering with the news.  This last method proved by far the most effective.”

Will Irwin, Propaganda and the News (1936)

Mot d’ordre is normally translated as watchword, although a more literal translation would be word of command or perhaps simply order.  Bernstorff used the phrase to indicate the government-approved “angle” on the news, the official “treatment” a story should be given.  This is relevant to us, one hundred years later, because the mot d’ordre appears to be that the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines is no big deal.  Nothing like so big a deal as, say, the death of George Floyd.

As it happens, I was not snorkeling in the Baltic Sea last Monday and so am, like you, reliant on heavily tinkered news.  What I do understand is that propaganda is greatest in a democracy because in a democracy public opinion matters.  The propaganda of an authoritarian government is by comparison crude and perfunctory, for the simple and obvious reason that public opinion counts for little under an authoritarian government.

This is why Bernstorff said that “the United States is the land of propaganda par excellence.”  He meant, when it came to propaganda, the United States was second to none.  Citizens with the vote were especially in need of a mot d’ordre to tell them how to think.

Here is the entire passage from  Bernsdorff’s memoir explaining how the free press works in a democracy.

“The American daily papers are more important as a medium for influencing public opinion than as a mirror for reflecting it.  The United States is the land of propaganda par excellence! . . . . It is therefore not surprising that the political leaders of the country make very wide use of the Press in important questions of foreign politics, to influence public opinion in favor of the Government policy.  Not only the great news agencies, but also all leading newspapers of the Union maintain their permanent special correspondents in Washington, and these are received almost daily by the Secretary of State, and as a rule once a week by the President.  The information that they receive at these interviews they communicate to their papers in the greatest detail, without naming the high officials from whom it has emanated, and in this way they naturally act as megaphones through which the views of the Government are spread through the whole country.  In foreign questions it was often striking how newspapers would hold back their comments until they had received in this way a mot d’ordre from Washington.”*


* Johann Bernstorff, My Three Years in America (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1920), p. 33.

2 thoughts on “Tinkering with the News

  1. I always say, Democracy means rule by the press, or at least through the press. A voter can only vote based on what he knows, and since practically no voters have direct knowledge of the governing bodies he theoretically elects, that must come through some source delegated to the task. That source determines how the majority of voters will perceive the people they vote for. Thus, even in a democratic system where the voting apparatus operated with perfect honesty, it would still be those who set public opinion who actually control the course of the nation, not the voters themselves.

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