Consider the word “propaganda.” This charged word has been bandied about quite a bit lately, from the Pentagon’s public relations efforts in Iraq to the local journalists working for Radio and TV Marti. The Fox News Network and Rush Limbaugh are often criticized as propagandists for the Republicans. They, in turn, insist most journalists shill for the Democrats.
The baggage that comes with this word is one reason journalists, including those writing for this newspaper, strive to remain independent of all organized causes-be they political parties, interest groups, the wealthy, the poor, the reactionary, the progressive, or the powerful.
What do we mean by propaganda?
In contemporary usage, propaganda is a pejorative. Journalists shudder at the accusation. Government spin-masters prefer to see themselves as public relations consultants or press secretaries.
The act of propagandizing has roots in antiquity and human nature, but the word itself appears to have its origins in the Roman Catholic Church of the early 17th Century. The pope and College of Cardinals created the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. They charged this group with upholding the purity of church doctrine and spreading the faith-at that time propaganda was synonymous with all that was thought to be holy and good.
Early 20th Century corporate public relations experts in this country often proudly called themselves propagandists; they helped jumpstart the economy. American propaganda even helped sell a war and war bonds as we marched to war in Europe.
After two destructive world wars, however, and governments’ use of modern communications tools-posters, radio, television broadcasts, movies and even air-dropped leaflets (think the totalitarian dictatorships of Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Communists)-propaganda became an epithet. Its roots were lost in the horror of its practice.
Journalists today reject the propagandist label and role because a reputation for independence is essential to credibility. This does not mean, however, that the government or any organization need remain silent.
To propagate an idea is not necessarily a bad thing. Some propaganda consists of good information and ideas. When governments operate media outlets or disseminate information, they should not be shy. The government should attach its name, if the information is helpful and accurate. If it is not, then the government should not disseminate it.
Governments, interest groups, the powerful and others should communicate, just not surreptitiously. When the government pays or otherwise uses private journalists, it compromises its own credibility and their credibility, too.
Similarly, when interest groups attempt to co-opt and control the news media, even the well-meaning among those groups resort to the wrong methods and the media, if they acquiesce, fail the public.
Instead, reporters should report and opinion writers opine without the compromised credibility that flows from an association with those about whom they write. Anything else is public relations, not journalism.
The checkered history of this charged word, propaganda, has shown that the cause, be it government or private, and the journalist must be kept independent of one another in the interests of both and of a free society.
Samuel Terilli is an assistant professor in the School of Communication, former general counsel of the Miami Herald, and sits on the Board of Publications. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org