There is a divergence of opinion as to whether the public mind is malleable or stubborn—whether it is a passive or an active element. On the one hand is the profound belief that “you can’t change human nature.” On the other hand is the equally firm assurance that certain well-defined institutions modify and alter public opinion.
There is a uniformity of opinion in this country upon many issues. When this uniformity accords with our own beliefs we call it an expression of the public conscience. When, however, it runs contrary to our beliefs we call it the regimentation of the public mind and are inclined to ascribe it to insidious propaganda.
Uniformity is, in fact, largely natural and only partly artificial. Public opinion may be as much the producer of “insidious propaganda” as its product. Naturally enough, where broad ideas are involved, criticisms of the state of the public’s mind and of its origin come most frequently from groups that are out of sympathy with the accepted point of view. They find the public unreceptive to their point of view, and justly or unjustly they attribute this to the influence of antagonistic interests upon the public mind.
These groups see the press, the lecture platform, the schools, the advertisements, the churches, the radio, the motion picture screen, the magazines daily reaching millions. They see that the preponderant point of view in most, if not all, these institutions conforms to the preponderant state of mind of the public.
They argue from the one to the other and reach their conclusions without much difficulty. They do not stop to think that agreement in point of view between the public and these institutions may often be the result of the control exercised by the public mind over these institutions.
Many outside forces, however, do go to influence public opinion. The most obvious of these forces are parental influence, the school room, the press, motion pictures, advertising, magazines, lectures, the church, the radio.
To answer the question as to the stubbornness or malleability of the public, let us analyze the press in its relation to public opinion, since the press stands preeminent among the various institutions which are commonly designated leaders or moulders of the public mind. By the press, in this instance, I mean the daily press. Americans are a newspaper-reading public. In my recent UK holiday, I saw the difference between the two nations. They have become accustomed to look to their morning and evening papers for the news of the world and for the opinions of their leaders. And while the individual newspaper reader does not give a very considerable portion of his day to this occupation, many persons find time to read more than one newspaper every day.
It is not surprising that the man who is outside the current of prevailing public opinion should regard the daily press as a coercive force.
Discussions of the public’s reaction to the press are two-sided, just as are discussions of the influence of the pulpit or other forces. Some authorities hold that the public mind is stubborn in regard to the press and that the press has little influence upon it. There are graphic instances of the stubbornness of the public point of view.