How 'propaganda' lost its good name

It's spring, and I find, much to my surprise, that my thoughts have turned to ... propaganda? It may be because the spring gardening season is here. The word is related to "propagating," which is, of course, a very horticultural kind of activity.

It may be, too, that the background of the new pope, Benedict XVI, has brought "propaganda" out into the public square again. He was head of the Vatican organization long known as the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide.

Perhaps the word is on my mind the way one notices a dog that doesn't bark: The concept is out there, but the word isn't used all that often - or often enough, I would suggest. The references to the pope's former post may be the exception that proves the rule.

"Propaganda" first entered English around 300 years ago to refer to the aforementioned Vatican entity, known in English as the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith.

The word was misconstrued by some as the plural of an imagined singular "propagandum," by analogy with memorandum and memoranda. Such a word might have had its uses as a term to mean "a single line of political (or whatever kind of) message": "He did very well at the news conference; he stayed right on his propagandum and didn't answer a single question."

Later on, "propaganda" (the actual word, that is, not its phantom singular) evolved into something closer to its contemporary meaning.

But as the Online Etymology Diction-ary notes, in telegraphic, "Modern political sense dates from World War I, not originally pejorative."

Once this sense was established, however, it evidently was used pretty freely. The Oxford English Dictionary contains numerous examples of leaflets, posters, and the like, produced by all parties in the World Wars, being referred to frankly as "propaganda."

During the cold war, people were warned against "communist propaganda," which in some of the kookier corners of the country was understood to include such phenomena as Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

In theory, whether "propaganda" is good or bad should depend on whether the information or ideas being promoted are good or bad. But as the term became distinctly pejorative, the persuasion game continued under other names: advertising (a term that early on had to do with "warning") or public relations. In the international sphere, we have public diplomacy, practiced by first lady Laura Bush on her recent trip to the Middle East, and "hearts and minds" campaigns, as efforts to court public opinion in foreign countries are known.

Less benign is the Washington scandal of "video news releases": government agencies using taxpayer money to produce ostensibly "informational" videos - the TV equivalent of written press releases - that are, in many cases, simply aired by local stations as if they were journalistically credible news reports.

Just last week, a member of the Federal Communications Commission called for an investigation into experts touting products on television without revealing that they've been paid to do so. That's payola, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says, and it's illegal.

"Propaganda" can be a useful descriptor for episodes like this. We need to keep it in our vocabulary of public discourse.

Meanwhile, however, I see on a Vatican website that under Pope John Paul II, the original "propaganda" department has changed its name. It's now called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It may be that even in Rome, "propaganda" has lost its good name.

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