Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda
Manipulating the Masses tells the story of an enduring threat to American democracy that arose out of World War I: the establishment of pervasive, systematic propaganda as an instrument of the state. During the Great War, the federal government exercised unprecedented power to shape the views and attitudes of American citizens. Its agent for this was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), established by President Woodrow Wilson one week after the United States entered the war in April 1917.
Driven by its fiery chief, George Creel, the CPI established a national newspaper, cranked out press releases, and interfaced with the press at all hours of the day. It spread the Wilson administration’s messages through articles, cartoons, books, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines; through feature films and volunteer Four Minute Men who spoke during intermission; through posters plastered on buildings and along highways; and through pamphlets distributed by the millions. It enlisted the nation’s leading progressive journalists, advertising executives, and artists. It harnessed American universities and their professors to create propaganda and add legitimacy to its mission.
Even as Creel insisted that the CPI was a conduit for reliable, fact-based information, the office regularly sanitized news, distorted facts, and played on emotions. Creel extolled transparency but established front organizations. Overseas, the CPI secretly subsidized news organs and bribed journalists. At home, it challenged the loyalty of those who occasionally questioned its tactics. Working closely with federal intelligence agencies eager to sniff out subversives and stifle dissent, the CPI was an accomplice to the Wilson administration’s trampling of civil liberties.
John Maxwell Hamilton, a longtime journalist, author and public servant, is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication; a global scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.; and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington, D.C.
Hamilton’s most recent book (2020) is “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.” His previous book, “Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting,” won the Goldsmith Prize from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics & Public Policy, the Book of the Year Award from the American Journalism Historians Association and the Tankard Award from the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He is editor of the LSU Press book series, “From Our Own Correspondent.”
Hamilton received the Freedom Forum’s Administrator of the Year Award in 2003. Other honors include two Green Eyeshade Excellence in Journalism Awards, the Byline Award from Marquette University and an MLK Day diversity award from LSU. He has received funding from the Carnegie and Ford foundations, among others. In 2002, he was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He has served twice as a Pulitzer Prize jurist. He is a member of the Metropolitan Club of Washington. Hamilton earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Marquette and Boston universities, respectively, and a doctorate in American Civilization from George Washington University.