Media or state: who Controls the Manipulation of Public Opinion

Media or State: Who Controls the Manipulation of Public Opinion

The Committee on Public Information and The Los Angeles Times

On April 13, 1917, only one week after the United States declared war on Germany, the Los Angeles Times announced that President Woodrow Wilson named by executive order a “Press Agent: Blanche Bates’ (a famous actress) Husband Also to be Chief Censor” to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI), in order to “safeguard secrets of value to the enemy and at the same time to see that all affairs of the nation are laid before the people as fully and frankly as possible.” George Creel, “one magazine writer,” shortly afterward became its undisputed leader.  The committee’s tasks were on a huge scale: to concentrate the release of government news during the war, to generate “morale,” a euphemism for support for the war, and to administer self-censorship.

The CPI’s work was performed in a feverish rhythm. Until shortly before the declaration of war there still existed wide opposition to it, and even Wilson’s re-election campaign that ended that November based itself on a pacifist theme. Fulfilling its role, and through an ingenious combination of coercion, conviction, creativity and invention, the Creel Committee succeeded in turning, as Noam Chomsky describes it, “a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, and go to war and save the world.”[1] To achieve that goal, the CPI had to deal with the manufacturing of information supporting the draft, publicizing the victories in the front (real, exaggerated, or fabricated), demonizing the enemy and cultivating the hatred against it.[2] According to Creel in his “Final Report,” the Committee produced 6,000 press releases, as well as 75,000 “Four Minute Speakers,” who gave 755,190 speeches,[3], utilizing a political climate where “…even commercial announcements had a patriotic twist.”[4] The pace was unbelievable: “On any given week, more than 20,000 newspaper columns were filled with material gleaned from CPI handouts.”[5]

Mainstream media had until then a controlling, virtually monopolistic role in the manipulation of public opinion. The creation of the CPI, intended to let the Executive branch have a similar, even more powerful control over public opinion, posed a direct challenge to the media and created a tension between it and the Committee. The press had to decide if it would oppose the move or join it. A review of the Los Angeles Times, the main daily in the West, and one of the most important in the country, shows that the will to resist was not there. The Times, owned by an ultra-conservative, anti-union, nationalist, basically identified with the CPI policy, though not with Creel personally. Especially under the guidance of Henry Chandler and after the death of Harrison Gray Otis, it presented little opposition in each of three fields: the justification of war, the government encouragement of self censorship, and the hunt for spies and traitors.

The two owner-publishers of the Times at that period, Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, led the most conservative, pro-business and anti-union wing of the Republican Party in California. Both shrewd businessmen benefited from the building of the aqueduct that carries Owens River water to Los Angeles and lobbied for its approval; later they bought more than 40,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley from the Van Nuys family. With the arrival of water they lobbied for the annexation of the Valley and then made an enormous fortune. Their commercial and journalistic interests clearly interlocked.[6]

In the months before intervention, the newspaper remained formally in the hands of 80 year-old Otis, who opposed the war and struggled against it.[7] In 1913, he met with his friend, then President William Howard Taft on a “World-Embracing Plan to End Wars.” When Taft urged him to put his ideas on paper, Otis devoted himself to the task. Working for a month in his house in El Tejon, Otis drafted and wrote a revision of his own Peace Plan and then submitted it to Taft.[8] In theory, Otis’ position could have delayed or even prevented the Times support for Creel’s actions. But when Wilson joined the war, Otis no longer had the control. He transferred the chairmanship of the Times to his son in law, Harry Chandler, and his daughter. And on July 31, 1917, Otis died. Chandler, who supported the war, became the leading voice.

Chandler, a rabid conservative, did not oppose the path chosen by Creel, especially on labeling war opponents and labor activists as traitors. By that time, the Times fought a long campaign against organized labor. Anti-unionism constituted an obsession for both Otis and Chandler, such, according to the current Times website, that it “led to the October 1, 1910” bombing of the Times building.[9] Twenty-one people died in the fire. As an antidote to labor, the newspaper itself, along with the elite of California, always welcomed the intervention of the state on behalf of the employers and against unions. An expansion of these methods of intervention into matters related to the war, through the use of patriotic sentiment would have been welcomed as well. As Ross admits,

the forces of the state, long used against labor at the workplace, increasingly extended their powers into the arena of leisure. Federal agencies such as the CPI produced scores of films designed to fuel patriotism and quell dissent. The CPI also assumed the role of censor, banning for foreign distribution Hollywood films that featured scenes of strikes, labor protests, poverty, or domestic violence.[10]

There is no serious evidence of opposition to these limitations by the elite of California. The patriotic sentiment engulfed the state, one of only three to distribute films of the CPI through the respective State Council of Defense. In all the other states the CPI needed a commercial effort.[11]

After the death of Otis, the Times promptly corrected its own initial neutrality and indifference into enthusiastic support for the war. Beginning in June 2, 1915, the Times ran a story from the war in Europe. The headline is neutral: “Official Communiqués from the Great War.” The text, word by word, copied four releases about “the progress of the war.” Three of them belonged to the Central Powers (two came from Vienna, one from Berlin), and only one from the Allied forces in Paris). The text did not convey preference for one of the sides in the war, nor rhetorical passion. With a different tone, on March 23, 1917, an editorial calls President Wilson to reorganize the cabinet with military men. Still, the demeanor is contained and serious. “If we go to war with Germany,” the editorial says, “…We will have to put our army into the field and our navy across the horizon.”  On August 27, 1917, another editorial’s headline simply states “Benefits of War,” and asks, “May not wars be looked upon as curative rather than destructive agencies…?” Finally, the metamorphosis is complete in an editorial from March 15, 1918, deeply derogatory toward the German emperor, maintaining a very patriotic and bellicose line and supporting unconditionally the intervention in the war.

By mid 1917, newspapers all over the country were trying to outdo each other in being more patriotic, more pro-war, than George Creel himself. They even attacked him as being soft on anti-patriots. Creel became an easy target also because of his progressive background, a muckraking journalist from Denver who supported Wilson in 1912 and 1916, and many years later, a Democratic candidate for governor of California against the ex socialist Upton Sinclair. But he started on the Far Left, collaborating with the weekly Masses. Consequently, he became vulnerable to attacks on his patriotism based on his past. Another explanation for the attacks on Creel represents the perception that he was so close to Wilson, by then politically untouchable. For anyone who wanted to criticize the President, Creel provided a nice target. Consequently, while the newspapers widely utilized the CPI articles, relying on them to instill content in their coverage on the war and quality to their analysis and commentary, they used their attacks against George Creel as a substitute for criticism of President Wilson, which would have amounted to political suicide. After the end of the war, when the Red Scare replaced the hunt for the Huns, the attacks on Creel increased incrementally. In a story published by the Times on February 5, 1920, he himself is turned into an alleged spy for Soviet Russia, by the “Self Styled Russian Ambassador,” namely, the representative of White Russia.

Although the Times argued against a censorship law and resisted with editorials to the demand for voluntary censorship by the Creel Committee, it eventually fully complied with the requirement. With the war still looming, ominous predictions appeared regarding censorship: on March 16, 1917, John Callan O’Daughlin reported in “Preparing for Riots” from Washington D.C. that “Suppression of Seditious Newspapers and a Censorship are Likely.”  With lack of legal censorship, the Secretary of the Navy had appealed a week earlier for patriotism, in a piece called “Navy Head as Censor,” a headline that by itself denotes an editorial opinion, both describing an incongruence and using “censor” as with a known derogatory cultural meaning.

The government, through Creel, asked to prevent the disclosure of information directly related to the war, such as the names of the commercial ships bound to carry soldiers to the scene, the dates of their arrivals, or the composition of the units sent to the warfront. This debate reflected the one in Congress surrounding legislation of the Espionage Act, which made illegal expressing most opposition to the war.[12] The Los Angeles Times, like other big dailies, opposed those parts of the Espionage Act that amounted to full political censorship. When on April 21, the Senate incorporated a censorship clause in the Espionage Bill, the Times “termed it ‘a Kaiserism’.”[13] On May 24, 1917, its bureau in the Capitol ran a story implicitly but unequivocally criticizing Creel for calling the editor of a Washington publication to protest the publishing an editorial about defective shells, deeming him the head of a “gag bureau,” and contrasting him to the promises of Wilson not to limit criticism of the government.

Along this same line it ran, on June 1, 1917, “The Proposed Censorship,” an editorial piece opposing censorship on three grounds: first, that government agents assigned to different newspapers could not possibly confer between themselves about what to censor, thus lacking uniformed criteria.  Second, that the censorship establishment could be used to favor some outlets and ruin others, and third, that the censor could read opinion articles by critics of the government, thus endangering freedom of speech. On the same day, the House of Representatives finally rejected Wilson’s demands, voting 184 to 144 against the censorship sections introduced into the espionage bill by the Senate.  Thirty-seven Democrats voted against the wishes of the President, and the Times did not hesitate to call it, on Page One, Column 1, [The] “Administration loses Fight for Censorship.”

Thus deprived of a more far reaching legal censorship, the government went back to collaborative tactics and gave credit to Creel’s idea of voluntary censorship. According to his own account, he sent a letter to the President “in which I explained to him that the need was for expression… As for censorship, I insisted that all proper needs could be met by some voluntary methods.”[14] On June 15, 1917, the day Wilson signed the Espionage Act, the Times reported in “Newspapers Warned to Censor Themselves” that Creel insisted in establishing a “voluntary censorship,” after the New York Times and the New York World published “the name of a ship and the name of the captain” of a “merchantman” encounter with a submarine. On July 16, an editorial explicitly stated “Censorship Not Needed,” asking “Why… should any dangerous and un-American press censorship law… be enacted?” A week later, the Times ran an account of the position of the Associated Press, which received a request to “kill” information about the arrival of American troops at a European port which the censors approved at the point of origin. The Times complained that “[the Censor] Wants to Suppress What the Europeans Pass.” Finally, on July 30, 1917, the Creel Committee published “a new list of press regulations,” commented the next day in the Times under “The Voluntary Censorship is Materially Changed. Dispatches Passed in Europe are Made Tabu [sic] Here.” The story from AP characterized the new regulations as far reaching: “…sections of the old regulations are made more severe by specific stipulations in place of the more general language employed in the rules in force until now.”

These regulations were declared by a government agency dedicated to encourage good news and discourage the bad. Moreover, Creel himself participated in the official censorship board created by the Trading With the Enemy Act of the fall of 1917, and which had the authority of indicting and punishing the violators of those rules. These facts, together with its inclination to support the government, convinced the reticent. Almost no further expressions of opposition appeared since in the Los Angeles Times editorials. The paper voluntarily withheld military news of its own. After the war Creel would reject any accusation of being an accomplice to imposing censorship: “In no degree was the Committee an agency of censorship, a machinery of concealment or repression. Its emphasis throughout was on the open and the positive. At no point did it seek or exercise authorities under those war laws that limited the freedom of speech and press.”  Nevertheless, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker insisted on Creel’s participation in regard to censorship, saying: “I think it was Mr. Creel’s idea, and it was certainly a great contribution to the mobilization of the mental forces of America.”[15]

While battling the imposition of censorship, the Times gladly disseminated fabricated or exaggerated stories about alleged spies and traitors. The same publishers that opposed the Espionage Bill affirmed that the newspapers were a main source of disinformation and dissemination of lies, creating an anti spy obsession and looking for their financial interest of circulation and advertisement.[16] The spy scare led a mob in April 1918, to lynch Robert Prager, a German American coal miner. Almost four months later, President Wilson decried the act as murderous after the German press used it in its propaganda:  “No man who loves America, no man who really cares for her fame and honor and character, . . . can justify mob action while the courts of justice are open and the governments of the States and the Nation are ready and able to do their duty,” said Wilson.[17] Echoing his words, George Creel found that “lawless passion” so un-American that, “he could explain it only as the work of German spies.”[18]

An important aspect of the penetration of the CPI was the consequent incitement against opponents to the war and labor leaders, in order to quell opposition by comparing them to real spying and treason. A short piece published by the Times on 4/17/1917, only a few days after the declaration of war, covers the establishment of patrol lines to watch the “Nation’s Steel Arteries” in California. “Yesterday it was announced that practically every point which might be threatened by anti-war cranks, spies or other viciously-inclined persons, has been taken care of.” The piece ran without byline or attribution, but with the underlying logic that spies and anti-war activists were no different. On September 19, 1917, there appeared further evidence that the Times editor did not need a nod from the CPI to incite against pacifists and unions. He did it himself, specifying that all America’s enemies “are tarred with the same stick,” actual “German agents” and spies and “alien and native malcontents who in time of war hearken to the exhortations of the labor agitators,” the politicians “who would sell their country for the votes of German and pacifist constituencies,” and “the American Publisher” who sows “the seeds of distrust, depression and sedition.”

The CPI shared the same logic, and repeatedly during the first half of 1918 it ran an ad in American newspapers called “Spies and Lies,” in which it warned the public not to pass military information or “become a tool of the Hun by passing on the malicious, disheartening rumors which he so eagerly sows.” Calls for sanity also appeared, even though in an oblique and indirect way, as a satire on the myths of the war published on July 16, 1917, that points calmly “Useless for the Government to Deny Any Truth in Popular Fables.”  By early 1918 the Times was riddled with allied propaganda.

The lack of real opposition to the CPI appeared at the core of the reaction of newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times to the establishment of the Committee of Public Information, which Wilson abolished August 21, 1919. That position opened the doors for the state to take direct control of public opinion. In the question of the transition from neutrality or opposing the war to supporting it, as in the question of censorship, and in the comparison of union leaders and pacifists to spies and traitors, the Los Angeles Times led in supporting the government efforts. The Times did not oppose the direct challenge to the issue of free speech by the state as a propagandist. The press generally welcomed the propaganda material which the Creel Committee created to promote artificial unity and impose patriotism. The attacks on Creel focused generally on the context of his past as a radical or as a disguised way to criticize the President. As Anthony Marro, a former editor of Newsday affirms, paraphrasing the late editor of the New York World, “the government conscripted public opinion just as it had conscripted men and money and materials. And once having conscripted it, the government then mobilized it and taught it to stand at attention.”[19]


Berges, Marshall. The Life and Times of Los Angeles: A Newspaper , a Family , and a City. New York: Atheneum, 1984.

Capozzola, Christopher. “The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America.” The Journal of American History 88, no. 4 (2002): 23-27.

Chomsky, Noam. “Media Control.”

Cornwell, Elmer E. “Wilson, Creel, and the Presidency.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 23 no. 2 (1959): 189-202.

Creel, George. How the War Came to America. Washington, D.C.: The Committee on Public Information, 1917.

—. How We Advertised America: the first telling of the amazing story of the Committee on the Public Information that carried the gospel of Americanism to every corner of the Globe. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920.

—. The Creel Report: Complete report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, 1917: 1918: 1919. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.

Delwiche, Aaron. “Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War.”

Greenstein, Albert. “Harrison Gray Otis.” Historical Society of Southern California. Biographies/otis.htm.

Hart, Jack R. The Information Empire: The rise of the Los Angeles Times and the Times Mirror Corporation. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.

Lansing, Robert. “When Wilson Failed as Peacemaker.” The Saturday Evening Post June 20, 1931.

Larson, Cedric & James R. Mock. “The Lost Files of the Creel Committee of 1917-1919.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 3 no. 1 (1939): 5-29.

The Los Angeles Times. History of the Los Angeles Times. /newspaper /mediacenter/la- mediacentermilestones,0,117814.story.

Marro, Anthony. “Fighting Words: The Silencing Power of War.” Columbia Journalism Review 43 no. 4 (November/December 2004): 65-66.

Mock, James R. “The Creel Committee in Latin America.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 22 no. 2 (May 1942): 262-279.

Mock, James R. and Cedric Larson. Words that won the war: the story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.

Ross, Steven J. “Struggles for the Screen: Workers, Radicals, and the Political Uses of Silent Film.” American Historical Review 96 no. 2 (April 1991): 333-367.

Stone, Geoffrey R. “The Origins of the ‘bad tendency’ test: free speech in wartime.” Supreme Court Review (2002): 411-453.

Thompson, J.A. “American Progressive Publicists and the First World War, 1914-1917.” Journal of American History 58 no. 2 (Sep., 1971):364-383

[1] Noam Chomsky, Media Control. Excerpted in the Alternative Press Review, Fall 1993, p 1. In .” According to Chomsky, this “manufacture of consent” used the same techniques later perfected during the Red Scare, which led to “destroying unions and eliminating such dangerous problems as freedom of the press and freedom of political thought.” Chomsky sees the work of the CPI as seminal to later efforts where “the picture of the world that’s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter is buried under edifice after edifice of lies.”

[2] James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that won the war: the story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), ix. Mock and Larson quote Harold D. Laswell to describe “the specific objectives of war propaganda,” and they are: 1. To mobilize hatred against the enemy. 2. To preserve the friendship of allies. 3. To preserve the friendship and, if possible, to procure the cooperation of neutrals. 4. To demoralize the enemy. This paper deals only with the first objective.

[3] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Arno Press, 1972). 4. See also Creel, George. The Creel Report: Complete report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, 1917: 1918: 1919. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 2.

[4] Mock, 7.

[5] Aaron Delwiche, “Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War”, The War to End all Wars, accessed 1/28/2006.

[6] Albert Greenstein, “Harrison Gray Otis.” Historical Society of Southern California. Biographies/otis.htm.

[7] Jack R. Hart, The Information Empire: The rise of the Los Angeles Times and the Times Mirror Corporation. (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 71.

[8] Marshall Berges, The Life and Times of Los Angeles A Newspaper, a Family and a City (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 27-28. See also Hart, 59.

[9] The Los Angeles Times, History of the Los Angeles Times, mediacenter/la-mediacentermilestones,0,117814.story

[10] Steven J. Ross, “Struggles for the Screen: Workers, Radicals, and the Political Uses of Silent Film,” American Historical Review 96, no 2 (April 1991): 333-367.

[11] Mock, 137.

[12] “Text of the U.S. Espionage Act, 15 June 1917” source/ espionageact.htm, accessed 2/15/06. An amendment on May 16, 1918, expanded the act to include “whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”

[13] Mock, 31.

[14] George Creel quoted in Mock, 11.

[15] Creel, The Creel Report, xiii-xiv

[16] According to Mock, “The press itself was the most important agency in spreading fears of espionage, and at the same time was attempting to limit the provisions of the Espionage Bill” (33)

[17] Christopher Capozzola, “The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America” The Journal of American History 88 no. 4  (2003): 23.

[18] Capozzola, 34.

[19] Anthony Marro, “Fighting Words: The Silencing Power of War”. Columbia Journalism Review 43 no. 4 (November/December 2004): 65.