Back Goldfinch looking backwards

Sophistry in America

Ivy Lee, one of the two men, the other being Edward Bernays, widely credited with founding the public relations business in the US. As in the following paragraph from the Colorado Bar Association’s Casemaker (Home > For the Public > Public Legal Education > Colorado High School Mock Trials > 2003 High School Mock Trial Program > Historical Foreward and Bibliography — source 20120615, my emphasis):

One of the more unappreciated consequences of the Ludlow Massacre is its role in making public relations a priority for Big Business.  Shortly after the Massacre, John D. Rockefeller hired Ivy L. Lee, publicist for the Pennsylvania Railroad, to mount a nation pro-management publicity campaign intended to rehabilitate his image.  Weekly bulletins entitled “Facts Concerning the Struggle in Colorado for Industrial Freedom” were circulated to a carefully prepared mailing list of congressmen, governors, editors, journalists, college presidents, professional leaders and ministers.  Lee toured the Colorado coal fields to better understand the audience he needed to win over.  Rockefeller himself toured the coal fields in September, 1915.  Lee’s spin-doctoring, Rockefeller’s coal field visits and expanded post-Massacre philanthropic efforts transformed Rockefeller from the “most hated man in American” in 1915 to one of the most respected in 1920.  Not only did Ludlow become a significant event in labor history, but it spurred the birth of professional corporate public relations.

In the paragraphs reprinted below (source 20120615), I have highlighted the most damning and enlightening material, which comes straight from Ivy Lee’s mouth.

Hunter College Prof. Stuart Ewen was especially tough on Lee in his 1996 book "PR! A Social History of Spin."

Lee’s “deluge” of pamphlets, circulars and letters for the Rockefellers during the 1914 Colorado coal miners’ strike, during which 14 miners, miners’ wives and children were murdered were called only fit for the “waste basket” by the Toledo Blade.

Testifying before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915, Lee answered “none whatever” when asked whether he checked the facts given to him by the mine owners. He said he had “no responsibility for the facts and no duty beyond compiling them and getting them into the best form for publicity work.”

Poet Carl Sandburg called Lee “ a hired slanderer” and “paid liar” while journalist George Creel said Lee was “a poisoner of public opinion.” The nickname “Poison Ivy” followed Lee to his grave.

At the head of the article from which those paragraphs are extracted, we read that Ivy Lee really didn’t know how to name or describe his new (as he supposed) form of work:

Ivy Lee, one of the alleged “Fathers of PR,” twice confessed that he had no idea what PR was.

“I have never been able to find a satisfactory phrase to describe what I try to do,” he told an IRT New York subway rate hearing in 1927.

Seven years later he told a congressional committee investigating his work for the I.G. Farben trust, a close ally of the Hitler government, that his firm was “not an advertising agency. My business—I do not know how to describe it.”

I do. He was a Sophist. The trade is an old one. He turned tricks for Rockefeller. If you read up on him a bit, you will discover he did the same for Hitler. He was not the first, nor the last of his breed. The great error I made for most of my now 76 years was supposing this sort of thing to be the exception rather than the rule.

Several sources indicate the “facts” included many lies tending to slant public opinion strongly against the miners. One is the NYT story of December 6, 1914.

The testimony of Ivy Lee before the CIR begins at page 7897, Volume 8 of the Final Report of the Committee. Wonderfully available 20120615 on Google Books here. I recommend reading some pages of the Q&A to get a good appreciation of Lee’s highly developed casuistry.

Compare today’s Encyclopedia Britannica treatment of Ivy: link.

Looks to me like a bland whitewash of an interestingly malign influence in US history. The Princeton University Library (there linked) compounds the sin of entirely ig­noring his notorious en­gagement in rewriting the facts of the Ludlow Massacre by quoting his “Dec­laration of Principles” on pr.

“Lee saw his role as interpreting the public to the industrialists and the industrialist to the people. To achieve this end Lee believed in supplying the newspapers with as much information as possible. His “Declaration of Principles,” drafted during the anthracite coal strike in the spring of 1906, explained his guiding precepts of public relations theory. The main points of the Declaration were, to guarantee the accuracy of his facts and leave to the discretion of the newspaper editor whether an item was worth printing as news. The aim was to provide news not advertising.” (My emphasis. Source 20120616.)