Dr. Elisabeth Fondren discusses the ground-breaking Institute for Propaganda Analysis: its mission, impact, and legacy.

Producer: Serena Balani and Michael Gordon
01/22/2023 • 07:25 PM EST

Dr. Elisabeth Fondren, assistant professor of journalism at St. John's University, discusses her research on the ground-breaking organization, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). She details how the rise of propaganda, both domestic and foreign, prompted its inception, the organization's early successes, the political headwinds it faced drawing closer to WWII, and the factors that led to its too-early demise. 

0:00: Serena Balani:

With us today, we have Dr. Elisabeth Fondren, an assistant professor of journalism at St. John's University, and author of various books and papers on propaganda, including one on the groundbreaking organization that helped inspire this project, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis or the IPA, which operated from 1937 to 1942. Dr. Fondren, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:24: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

My pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.

0:27: Serena Balani:

So first, I want to start off by asking what made you write about the IPA?

0:33: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

Yes. So, I think with a lot of what academics do, and scholars is in a way tumble from one idea to the next. And so, my dissertation, which was on German propaganda in World War I, and kind of how, you know, these propagandists failed, but tried to modernize their approaches, how this carried over into the interwar area and then World War II. And that was kind of the foundation for, or that is the foundation for a lot of my work. And because I am based here in New York City, I stumbled upon the archives of the IPA at the New York Public Library. This was really during my first summer here in 2019, and I thought, well, let me look up if anybody had written about it. And nobody had.

And many people, of course, have touched on the IPA. And so I decided to do a paper on the IPA's legacy, and specifically how they tried to expose extremist and fascist thought in America, and in American media leading up to World War II. And so, yeah, I became really interested in this idea of what about counter propaganda? How can we, you know, develop tools to not just counter, but also expose and analyze foreign propaganda, domestic propaganda? And so the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, they had done all that, but I wrote the paper to really shed light on that history.

2:18: Serena Balani:

So what were some of the things that the IPA taught Americans in their newsletters, and could you share some of their examples?

2:25: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

Yeah, absolutely. So as I mentioned, the first newsletter was published in the fall of 1937. I think it was just called Announcement. And in that newsletter they, or Miller, the director, published what is now called the Seven Propaganda Devices. I have to look up all of them. I always forget one of them. But a lot of communication scholars still use those devices to study because in a way, they're very catchy. And so this was kind of the first way of developing a typology. How can we think about all the different ways that, for example Joseph Goebbels is using media strategically? Let me see if I can find them. Yes. So the analytical devices that we still use in political communication are name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, card stacking and bandwagon.

On top of that, that first issue had a long list of board of directors who, as I said you know, included many, many famous names, people who were studying propaganda, public opinion professionally. But then in my analysis of the newsletters, I found that they really tried to combine essays with analytical sections. For example, they would have an article that was called The ABCs of Propaganda. And again, we would have kind of a typology of all the things that make up propaganda. Later they would publish packages that were called Decide For Yourself, which is really interesting because they included real examples of for example, Goebbels and then Stalin's speeches translated into English and tasked readers to yes, take a pen and analyze, you know, all the different devices. So generalities, bandwagon effect, card stacking, etcetera.

And to me that was so interesting because it would almost seem unthinkable now, or maybe not, to have, you know, side by side a speech by you know, Roosevelt, Stalin and then also Goebbels or Hitler. And then really task audiences to define that. Each month of course, they would have a different theme. For example, they would look at newspapers. They would suggest always make suggestions for the readers how to, as I said, become more skeptical, become more critical. For example, they would ask readers to expand their horizon and not just read one paper. They would say, you know, you have to, in order to really know what's going on and have an understanding of public opinion, you need to read a national paper, you need to read a paper that has an opposing point of view, or publishes op-eds from people that you don't agree with.

You have to try to source news that look at international affairs and have commentaries. They had a very big issue, I think this was in 1941, on broadcasting and the effect of radio propaganda on audiences. So I think in terms of content, they really tried, they really tried hard to diversify what they were looking at. But in my research, I find that in terms of style or presentations, a lot of their material had and really could not shake off this very instructional tone. It was as if you're sitting down really with a school book and, you know, take time out of your day to complete these analysis sections. And only later in 1940 and 1941 did they actually introduce color. So up until that point, everything was black and white. We had very dense font, we had very few images. As I said, it looks very academic, very, you know, instructional, and they could never really, IPA could not shake off that tone. I don't think they wanted to.

I think they were actually appealing to an audience that was investing time and money, of course. This was a subscription-based newsletter that people had to pay for. I think it was $2 for one year subscription. And then also later they would contract work out to successful authors to publish books and really try to generate not just revenue for their work, but also interest. Right? How can we popularize not just what we're doing, but how can we get schools on board? They had an educational director who actually worked with schools here in New York and Massachusetts to trying to implement these analytical workbooks in public schools. But the newsletters more or less look the same throughout five years. And just if, you know, now in hindsight we look at it, just really can't compare with the visual appeal of let's say, you know, a poster or a radio show.

I read in the archives that the IPA tried to create a radio show. Miller sometimes did go on and discussed his work. He in a way really, yeah, he worked really hard to popularize what they were doing. He would be speaker at events. I know he spoke at the World's Fair in Queens in 1939, and he said, you know, actually we don't need less propaganda, we need more. And this is something that I can touch on a little bit later, because the IPA had a very interesting understanding of what they were doing. And they call themselves, we are propagandists for democracy. So they would say, yes, we are propagandists, but we are doing good propaganda. And this, of course, is what led on critics and people in government to say, no, what you are doing is something that is deeply un-American. You're making people become skeptical and cynical, and you're making them less patriotic at a time when we don't need people analyzing Goebbels speech, right? We need them to become emotionally invested in the prospect of having to fight a war.

9:51: Serena Balani:

Could you detail the expansion and some of the successes that the IPA had during the first few years?

9:59: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

Yeah. So I would say one of the successes definitely was the the seven propaganda devices. You know, the fact that we still use it today speaks volumes. The other very successful legacy or lesson that we can we can draw from the IPA's experience was that they were able to get journalists and experts endorse what they were doing. So in 1937, when they launched, and then throughout 1938, I found a number of very positive reviews and news articles that appeared in major publications, The New York Times, Washington Post as well, but they were a little bit more critical. And so having this sort of endorsement or using, not using, but pitching your ideas in a way that amplifies, you know, what journalists are already doing, because journalists too are exposing propaganda, right? And helping people understand it. But they, the IPA was successful in really trying to make their point about why is this important and why in the United States we don't censor the news, right? We don't try to counter it. We don't have one-sided points of view as was the case in Nazi Germany, but we actually try to analyze opinions or facts that we don't agree with in the way that is more scientific is more objective.

And that definitely was something that was not original, but it was new in the way that it reached a mainstream or a larger audience, right? So to me, really this idea that they, the IPA staff and then contributors called themselves propagandists for democracy was a way in which they appealed to really, you know, we can say that all that we're trying to do is facts, but this is a very emotional appeal, right? They say, we are propaganda for democracy, and we can do this in the United States because we have the First Amendment. And this is another aspect that really was just fascinating because they kept referring to the First Amendment in their articles and they said you know, in the United States, we have the right to propagandize.

So in other words, they were saying, you know, yes, you know, we understand why Nazi propagandists are here. We're not saying it's a good thing, but let us kind of come up to speed and share this intelligence and this understanding of what are they doing, why are they doing it? And so I think that was really great. At the same time in the late 1930s in New York, we have mass rallies of the German American Bund, which was a Nazi, a homegrown U.S. Nazi organization. They were marching. And so those were kind of the groups that the IPA worked against. And let me just look at the figures. When they started out, they had mailed the newsletter to 3,000 people, schools, you know, journals and programs, educators, journalists, and so on. In 1939, the newsletter had 7,000 subscribers. Which was up from 5,000 subscribers the previous year.

But even though those numbers kept kind of climbing, we see that in 1941 there's kind of a turning point because the HUAC committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was led by Representative Dies, threatened that it would investigate the IPA. And they made this announcement, but then didn't really follow through right away. And what we see is that, you know, at that time that people are starting to say, well, you know, is the IPA, is this really constructive in trying to advance American policy or don't we have or is skepticism and criticism of information, is this really the right way? Or should we not start really training ourselves in becoming kind of anti-Nazi propagandas? And this HUAC committee, they threatened to investigate the IPA following a study that the IPA released that I think they said 3,000 schools were using their materials. And that kind of led the HUAC committee to kind of throw their hands up and say, okay, and now we're trying to get after you because what you're doing is actually not supporting our democratic ideas. It actually has an adverse effect.

16:06: Michael Gordon:

This was around what year? This is around 1940 when this started?

16:10: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

1941. Yes, yes. I think though, and I would invite all of your listeners to really trying to, and I can share the article, I can also share the actual newsletters. They're publicly available. If you just Google, you know, "IPA Propaganda Analysis" is the name. And just to look at one of those issues, it's really remarkable how much similarity there is to today's anxieties about not just propaganda, but also monopolies of news organizations. You know, what is the role of foreign news, for example, in education.

But my last point on what they did right, was that they continued to gather facts. They would commission not just books and trying to recruit contributors to the newsletter, but they would also gather reports. And one of their findings which I think is really harrowing, was that in the December, 1938 issue, they published a report that there were more than 800 groups in the U.S. that were spreading anti-Semitic messages. So that just gives us this figure, you know, 800 groups in 1938. Miller also in his editorials, repeatedly warned Americans that there would be an increase of Nazi propaganda, which was designed to divide Americans and then also justify the persecution of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. And he wrote this in 1938, right? So, they were really in a way ahead and very much in touch with what was happening politically both domestically but also internationally, and really trying to point out the danger, as I said, the actual consequences that can happen from when language turns into actions.

18:32: Michael Gordon:

Let's just talk about the end of the IPA, the end of its run. Why did it end and what were some of the issues that it ran into? You touched upon them earlier, but that kind of hastened its demise?

18:50: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

Absolutely. So I would say number one was definitely funding, right? After Filene died, his money was, if I'm not incorrect, his money was governed by a trust. It was called the Good Will Fund. And there's communication between the IPA and them, but they say, you know after we'll give you money up until early 1942, but then there is no more money. And at the same time, the IPA really, they had tried and gotten better, but they failed to really, you know, appeal to a mainstream audience. They had never really aligned their newsletter with, let's say, a national newspaper, right? And so I would say funding definitely was one of the main reasons why the institute faltered, and failed, question mark. But of course, we also have to consider kind of the political and cultural context that directed much of what they were doing.

So we can ask, let's put it this way, you know, if had we had an IPA in the 1920s, or did it need kind of the rise of, you know, Nazism, fascism in Europe and then worldwide to generate an interest to, in a way, arm American audiences. So in that regard, the historical context is I think it's really imperative to understand, also the backlash that they received. In the IPA files, I found countless letters and insults against Miller, particularly for example, people would write back, would write on the IPA newsletter, let's say business reply cards that were, you know, actually intended for people to sign up for the newsletter. People would send it back and would say, you know, warmonger or stand with FDR, or, you know, what you're doing is lying. We see that kind of sentiment, but then also more institutionally, we have the HUAC involvement. And trying to pin the IPA as this very, like leftist and anti-American organization. Miller was very, let's say, heated when he found out, or when he saw sensationalized language about what they were trying to do, the work they were trying to do, for example. I think there's one newspaper article that called them "propaganda foes" or "propaganda hunters." And then he would write back and say, no, this is not what we're trying to do. We're trying to build awareness and use education to appeal to wider audience.

That being said, I think that, to my point earlier, we see that some of the things were actually successful and provide us with a nice case study of what happens when, you know, we have this very heightened awareness around national and nationalistic messages. When we have somebody actually pointing to the press's role and saying, you know, you have an obligation to advance knowledge for average people. We have discussion of the First Amendment saying, you know, we, in this country, we have the right to propagandize. We don't really see those frames today. People don't call themselves propagandists, right? People don't say, we are propagandizing for something good. And the IPA certainly did. And then my last point, we see that the National Press served as, especially in the early years, as an amplifier for what the IPA was doing. And we see how important that is to have not just, you know, your own initiative, but to have this wider discourse that the press and the agenda setting that they play a part in. That they can decide on what are you focusing on? And we see that that during this time when so much depended on countering fascist thought, that we actually have institutions and groups that were doing that, even though it was on a small scale. And even though it was criticized, it was there, and we should really look at what were they doing and what are the ideas that have survived.

And this idea of, I think that Alfred McClung Lee wrote in 1952, he said, we can stand on our own feet in our thinking and help others do the same. And to me, that really encapsulates so perfectly what this institute or what these people were trying to do, you know spreading awareness, but then also giving people kind of tools, real hands-on knowledge that they feel they can use in their daily lives.

24:46: Serena Balani:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Elisabeth Fondren, assistant professor of journalism at St. John's University, and author of the paper, "We Are Propagandists for Democracy": The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Pioneering Media Literacy Efforts to Fight Disinformation. Dr. Fondren, thank you so much for joining us today.

25:07: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren:

Thank you. My pleasure.