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Aug. 9, 2013, 11 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations” by Larry Tye (1998)

“He also tapped his time-tested technique of coming up with stories that appealed to the special interests of certain groups of Americans. He wrote about Lithuanian music for American music lovers and about Lithuanian theater for American theater buffs.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye

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The Father of Spin is the first of six books by former Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye. He began writing it during his year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. The book is a biography of Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations.” (He is also, coincidentally, the father of the novelist Anne Bernays, who teaches fiction writing at the Nieman Foundation.)

Below, an excerpt that reflects how long ago the line between editorial content and advertising began to blur — a distinction that grows ever more important in a media environment edging into the world of sponsored content and “brand journalism.”

Guatemala was not Bernays’ first experience with foreign affairs.

That came just after the First World War when he was winding up his work with the Committee on Public Information, where he’d landed after being turned down for active duty. Carl Byoir, a colleague at the CPI, made his search easier by offering him $150 a week to help the Lithuanian National Council of the United States win American recognition of Lithuania, which had detached itself from Russia and formed a republic.

“I said, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to do it. What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, we’d like you to write stories justifying the validity of this little Baltic nation,” Bernays recalled more than fifty years later. “I thought of a new idea at the time, getting out what we called fillers for the newspapers — stories about four inches long. They were the same width of column as a newspaper. They were sent to papers throughout the country, and if the newspaper editor, the make up man, had to fill the gap, he could use them”…

He also tapped his time-tested technique of coming up with stories that appealed to the special interests of certain groups of Americans. He wrote about Lithuanian music for American music lovers and about Lithuanian theater for American theater buffs. He sought similar links for fans of sports and business, food, clothes and transportation. “Each story,” he explained, ” contained the message that Lithuania, the little republic on the Baltic, the bulwark against Bolshevism, was carrying on a fight for recognition in accord with the principle of self-determination laid down by President WIlson. This theme would appeal to Americans’ identification with liberty and freedom.

POSTED     Aug. 9, 2013, 11 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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