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Publicity, Propaganda, and Public Opinion: From the Titanic Disaster to the Hungarian Uprising

John, Richard R.; Tworek, Heidi J. S.

This essay traces the shifting understanding of the Enlightenment truism that improving popular access to information is a public good. It spans the "age of radio"--an epoch that can be said to have begun in 1912, the year of the Titanic disaster, and to have ended in 1956, the year in which US-backed radio broadcasts failed to catalyze a political revolution in communist Hungary. Technical advances in information technology, of course, continued after 1956; they included, in particular, the widespread commercialization of the digital computer, the technical advance most central to today's information age. In some quarters, the Enlightenment faith in the emancipatory promise of information never died.

Yet the age of radio remains a watershed in the history of information. For it challenged, without entirely undermining, the Enlightenment faith that technical advance in information technology could bring moral progress. This challenge can be traced by examining the evolution of three media genres--publicity, propaganda, and public opinion--and three media organizations--the metropolitan newspaper, the government messaging agency, and the radio broadcasting station. In particular, we examine how media insiders--political leaders, government officials, business elites, journalists, and social scientists--understood the relationship between publicity, propaganda, and public opinion.


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Information: A Historical Companion
Princeton University Press

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September 8, 2021