Skip to Main Content

Modern Understandings of Propaganda 1920–2020: Propaganda Writings after the Turn of the Millennium

By Burton St. John III

Propaganda Writings after the Turn of the Millennium

From 2000 onward, another resurgence of book-length treatments of propaganda appeared in three categories. First are books constructed as readers/textbooks for classroom studies, such as Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s Propaganda and Persuasion (2019, seventh edition), Kevin Moloney’s Rethinking Public Relations: The Spin and the Substance (2011, fifth edition), and Randal Marlin’s Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (2002). As befits textbooks/readers, which are more summative about their subject, the concepts these books offer do not necessarily attempt to break new ground but are designed to update readers on how to be more attuned to the propaganda around them. Second are historical accounts that delve into machinations of propaganda, including Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota’s Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations and the Ethos of Advocacy (2000), Mordecai Lee’s Promoting the War Effort: Robert Horton and Federal Propaganda 1938–1946 (2012), Richard Lentz and Karla K. Gower’s The Opinions of Mankind: Racial Issues, Press, and Propaganda in the Cold War (2010), and Burton St. John’s Press Professionalization and Propaganda: The Rise of Journalistic Double-Mindedness, 1917–1941 (2010). Third, some writers have focused more on how modern technology amplifies the role of propaganda. Books in this category include Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (2018), by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts; and the multi-contributor book The Propaganda Society: Promotional Culture and Politics in Global Context (2011), edited by Gerald Sussman. While all of these books provide updated perspectives on propaganda, they are generally light on new theorizing and mostly descriptive. Therefore, they may soon be taken over by more recent events, especially considering the increasing willingness in democracies to valorize propagandistic assertions over facts and evidence.

Since 2000, three books have staked out approaches to analyzing propaganda that have a better chance of informing future writings on this subject. First is Stanley B. Cunningham’s 2002 book The Idea of Propaganda: A Reconstruction. Cunningham’s work is unusual among propaganda books because it chiefly focuses on conceptual understandings of propaganda and how they have shifted over time. Intriguingly, Cunningham does not see propaganda as a form of communication. He says that communication is based on positive assumptions about the truthfulness of rhetors and, moreover, that rhetors are speaking appropriately to the situation. Cunningham maintains that propaganda only mimics these aspects and is, therefore, pseudo-communication. Second is John Maxwell Hamilton’s 2020 Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda, which received the 2021 Goldsmith Book Prize. Across six-hundred pages, Hamilton provides a first-ever exhaustive account of the CPI’s efforts, clearly delineating all the strategies and tactics the committee used and how they acted as the seedbed for the rise of public relations and domestic propaganda. Last, and at the risk of sounding somewhat self-serving, is the present author’s 2017 book Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization. This work, only the third public relations book to ever be a finalist for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Tankard Book

Award, shows how corporations have used propaganda to divert citizens’ focus from neoliberalism’s impoverishment of the US welfare state and, instead, encourage individuals to rely on the beneficence of corporations. As such, it explores strategic propaganda approaches that, in turn, underlie why Americans are increasingly doubling down on the myth of American individualism and, concurrently, exhibiting a distrust of experts, facts, and reason.

Works Cited