So you think we’ve never been in a mess like this before?

You think that last week’s reference by Trump administration senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to the “Bowling Green massacre,” which never happened, is but the latest example of the “fake news” and “alternative facts” that threaten our very democracy?

Walter Lippmann might respectfully disagree. Almost a century ago, the late, legendary father of American journalism all but saw this coming.

It’s been just over a week since my neighbor Andy Packard stopped by to drop off an old, musty copy of Lippmann’s book “Liberty and the News.”

He inherited the small, hardbound volume from his father, a learned man who fought in World War I and left behind many of the literary gems that now fill Andy’s personal library.

Andy thought this one – a collection of three essays first penned by Lippmann in 1919 for the Atlantic Monthly – might lend a little perspective to the train wreck now occurring at the intersection of politics, the news media and a citizenry struggling to separate what’s real from what isn’t.

Smart guy, that Andy Packard.

Lippmann, who would go on to coin monumental terms such as “Cold War” and “stereotype” before his death in 1974, was but 30 years old when he wrote “Liberty and the News.”

In 104 short pages, he laid out what he saw as both the mission of journalism – to help an increasingly overwhelmed public make sense of an increasingly confusing world – and the press’ most pressing needs in the decades ahead.

He called for more journalism schools – there were precious few at the time – to train reporters and editors in the process of collecting, digesting and disseminating truthful information.

“What are the qualifications for being a surgeon? A certain minimum of special training,” Lippmann wrote. “What are the qualifications for operating daily on the heart and soul of a nation? None.”

He called for “expert organized reporters” – think the Pew Research Center – who have “no horror of dullness, no interest in being dramatic.” Instead, they would mine the minutiae of government and other institutions to provide deeper context and even suggest paths forward for a public lost in the daily babble.

He championed the pooling of talent and resources to create “an authentic news service” – think the modern-day Associated Press – that provides a mass audience with fact-based reporting and thus “supplies what the community is begging for and cannot get.”

But mostly what Lippmann warned against was allowing propaganda to infect the truth. And, for those dark times when the truth succumbs to outright lies, he invoked the responsible journalist’s duty to doggedly set the record straight.

Consider the following passage on what Lippmann called “our most abysmal ignorance” in dealing with immigrants. But where he mentions “Bolshevism,” substitute “radical Islamic terrorism”:

“If we read (the immigrant’s) press at all, it is to discover ‘Bolshevism’ in it and to blacken all immigrants with suspicion. For his culture and his aspirations, for his high gifts of hope and variety, we have neither eyes nor ears. The immigrant colonies are like holes in the road which we never notice until we trip over them. Then, because we have no current information and no background of fact, we are, of course, the undiscriminating objects of any agitator who chooses to rant against ‘foreigners.’”

(Or “rapists,” as then-candidate Donald Trump once called Mexicans coming into this country.)

Tired already of “alternative facts” spewing from the White House? Lippmann called them by their real name:

“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies. Trite as the conclusion may at first seem, it has, I believe, immense practical consequences and may perhaps offer an escape from the logomachy (read: White House daily press briefing) into which the contests of liberty do easily degenerate.”

Still reeling from Donald Trump’s mind-numbing claim that his inauguration crowd was the largest in U.S. history? Hardly news to Lippmann:

“Demagoguery is a parasite that flourishes where discrimination fails, and only those who are at grips with things themselves are impervious to it. For, in the last analysis, the demagogue, whether of the Right or the Left, is consciously or unconsciously an undetected liar.”

Not even Lippmann, of course, could have foreseen the internet as a spawning ground for “fake news” sites. Yet he clearly understood their antidote:

“In going behind opinion to the information which it exploits, and in making the validity of the news our ideal, we shall be fighting the battle where it is really being fought. We shall be protecting for the public interest that which all the special interests in the world are most anxious to corrupt.”

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist, who recently called the media the “opposition party” and suggested that news organizations “shut up and just listen for a while.”

Embedded in Bannon’s quote are faint echoes of the Sedition Act of 1918, passed the year before Lippmann wrote his essays and repealed in 1921.

The short-lived law, enacted in the waning days of World War I, made it a federal crime to”willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the federal government.

Cue Lippmann: “It may be bad to suppress a particular opinion, but the really deadly thing is to suppress the news.”

Finally, for those who fear, less than a month into the Trump administration, that the country is on a fast track to disaster, Lippmann offers this alternative road map:

“We shall advance when we have learned humility; when we have learned to seek the truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in the fog of uncertainty.”

The fog of uncertainty. Is there any more apt description of the United States of America in the winter of 2017?

Friday morning, upon finishing “Liberty and the News,” I called Andy Packard to thank him for hanging onto it all these years and for loaning it to me at this troubled time.

“I’d like you to keep it,” Andy said magnanimously.

Keep it? I’ll treasure it.

Lippmann’s sage words, after all, provide us a timeless touchstone, a ray of hope, a much-needed window to our rough-and-tumble past.

Today’s chill winds notwithstanding, it’s a window best left open.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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