How We Advertised America (1920)

December 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

If you like to think that media, in the US, frame audiences’ view of reality, I have the reading just for you. George Creel, How We Advertised America, published in 1920, tells the efforts of the Committee on Public Information, created by President Wilson in 1917, and discontinued in 1919 by order of Congress. Creel was in charge of all the efforts of the Committee, and was he an active busybody for a while ! His responsibility was to organise the effort of the US government to communicate efficiently about its war effort, and to win hearts and minds, both at home and abroad among allies and enemies. (I’ll let you decide if it’s a sign of a healthy democracy or not to have a book about such a subject published so quickly after the facts — and then again, no need to read in the past our own problems is there?)

Back then embedding correspondents was not an option (rather, official tours of the front were the norm, or faked reconstitutions of battles). What Creel attempted was to bring the government news to the newspapers of the world — without it being government propaganda. It’s quite a trick to pull and it doesn’t quite work out, at least in his book. (I’m yet to check on how some of the newspapers covered his activities back then).

  • On the one hand, he is adamant that no censorship was ever established, but that he communicated the facts, and only the facts. This is his defense of the Division of News in his Committee: 

 “On the part of the press there was the fear, and a very natural one, that the new order of things meant “press-agenting” on a huge scale. This fear could not be argued away, but had to be met by actual demonstration of its groundlessness. Our job, therefore, was to present the facts without the slightest trace of color or bias, either in the selection of news or the manner in which it was presented. Thus, in practice, the Division of News set forth in exactly the same colorless style the remarkable success of the Browning guns, on the one hand, and on the other the existence of bad health conditions in three or four of the cantonments. In time the correspondents realized that we were running a government news bureau, not a press agency, and their support became cordial and sincere.” p. 73

colorless style”: enough here to give fodder to those who see how Hollywood’s famed transparent style as masked ideology…(1)

  • but on the other hand, he is equally clear about the role of the Committee: to win the support of the American (and later, the world’s) population for the war, including a fascist-like call for the fusion of the individual with the State:

“What we had to have was no mere surface unity, but a passionate belief in the justice of America’s cause that should weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination. The war-will, the will-to-win, of a democracy depends upon the degree to which each one of all the people of that democracy can concentrate and consecrate body and soul and spirit in the supreme effort of service and sacrifice. What had to be driven home was that all business was the nation’s business, and every task a common task for a single purpose.” p.5

The interesting point, for me, is how he reconciles the obvious contradictions between truth and government message. He is aware of the contradiction, since he himself points out that such committee could only exist in war-time,

since “peace is far from simple, and has as many objectives as there are parties and political aims and prejudices. No matter how honest its intent or pure its purpose, a Committee on Public Information operating in peace-times would be caught inevitably in the net of controversy, affording the highly improper spectacle of a government organization using public moneys to advance the contentions of one side or the other.” p. 401-2

But he’s not too concerned with it either. Concurrent with a time when news was faked, when documentaries pretended to show the real thing (an example of that is given in this note on Homer Croy) but did not, truth and the ideological opinion I have of truth tends to be the same thing for him.

 We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of facts. p. 5

But later, this educational and “informative” emphasis gives way to something more sinister:

it was not only that the committee put motion pictures into foreign countries. Just as important was the work of keeping certain motion pictures out of these countries. As a matter of bitter fact, much of the misconception about America before the war was due to American motion pictures portraying the lives and exploits of New York’s gun-men, Western bandits, and wild days of the old frontier, all of which were accepted in many parts of the world as representative of American life. What we wanted to get into foreign countries were pictures that presented the wholesome life of America, giving fair ideas of our people and our institutions. What we wanted to keep out of world circulation were the “thrillers,” that gave entirely fallse impressions of American life and morals. Film dramas portraying the exploits of “Gyp the Blood” or “jesse James” wee bound to prejudice our fight for the good opinion of neutral nations. p. 281

Creel wants to have it both ways. He wants to show America in a good light (and he is proud of his success, pointing that “From being the most misunderstood nation, America became the most popular. A world that was either inimical, contemptuous, or indifferent was changed into a world of friends and well-wishers” p. 11), and he wants the world to believe that this is the truth about America.

In other words, this is another hit taken by the already much-maligned notion of authenticity. He’s not blind to ideology, he just plainly states that his is the authentic version. 


(1) That would be…basically everybody today ? It probably all started taking shape with NARBONI Jean, and COMOLLI Jean-Louis: “Cinema/ideology/criticism.” in John Ellis éd., éd.: Screen Reader. Londres, SEFT, 1977, pp. 5-8.


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