Larry Tye is the author of The Father of Spin: Edward R. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. He is currently writing a book about the legendary baseball player, Satchel Paige. I sat down with him last week at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University, to talk about Edward Bernays, his propaganda legacy, and how he might counsel President Obama today.
Why is there such an aversion to this concept propaganda in the United States?
Propaganda has different meanings depending on who is using the word. To Edward Bernays, it meant simply getting out there with information to counteract whatever was going on. He felt the best way to do it was with information. As long as the information was accurate and on point, then that was a wonderful way of persuading people. Today it has taken on a more cynical tone because it's assumed to be skewed information. Ironically, Bernays had a very pure notion of what propaganda was. It's the United States getting out there and telling its story. It has a lot of great stories to tell and it ought to be there doing that. That can serve a political purpose, as long as it's the truth.
Bernays later skewed his own concept by giving a lot of information that was not either truthful information or was not honest in terms of divulging the sources of it. So when he took America to war in Guatemala in the 1950s, he didn't tell people that the information was coming from his very self-interested client, United Fruit Company, which didn't want the leftist government in there, because United was losing the wonderful deal it had set up with the old Banana Republic dictators.
Is it possible to have propaganda in an age of transparency?
So [today] it is still partly a question of if the information is honest and partly a question of are the sources of information divulged, and as long as it's done in a straightforward way, it's very effective propaganda and it's something that is easy to get behind.
It is, only in the pure sense of what the word propaganda means. In an age of transparency, if your information truly comes from credible, openly divulged sources, and it's accurate information, transparency is a great thing, because it lets people go back and see that all that is true.
Edward Bernays represented both sides of just about every issue. He was the good guy and the bad guy on things. He was good in suggesting that propaganda can have a really positive educating value, and he was bad in giving it this pejorative sense that it has taken on today.
Regarding Barack Obama, Larry Tye had this to say to our new president. On the one hand, he doesn't think that Bernays would have much to counsel 44 about political persuasion and propaganda. "If Edward Bernays were the father of spin, then Obama is the son." So Bernays could only bow his head in deference to a president who may not need a full-time public relations counsel. On the other hand, every president has to take stock of his own political capital and the political persuasion tools he uses to control it. Where one has to pause is separating a righteous and noble cause from a distortion that conceals true motives and goals.
Every American president starts out believing in his righteous and noble cause that is strictly for the benefit of the people, but he often ends up getting involved in the Big Sell. As Tye says, "Bernays is instructive because he shows how it can be done right and how it can be abused. It's ironic that we can draw so many of the same right and wrong lessons from the same historical figure."
Public relations, according to Bernay's biographer Larry Tye, is a profession that has the capacity to do great good and great bad. Edward Bernays is instructive on both ends. By encouraging study of Bernay's philosophy and methods, then perhaps we can move this profession, and the American presidency that uses it, to its fullest potential of bettering the public good.
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