About George Creel
George Creel (December 1, 1876 – October 2, 1953) was an investigative journalist, a politician, and, most famously, the head of the United States Committee on Public Information, a propaganda organization created by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He said of himself that "an open mind is not part of my inheritance. I took in prejudices with mother's milk and was weaned on partisanship."
Creel was born on December 1, 1876 near Waverly, Lafayette County, Missouri, to Henry Creel and Virginia Fackler. He viewed his alcoholic father as a burden upon his mother, which inspired his passion for women's suffrage. The family moved freqently around west-central Missouri in Creel's early years, living for a time in Wheatland, Hickory County, Missouri then Kansas City before finally settling in Odessa, Missouri in 1888. As the sole supporter of the family, his mother earned money through sewing, gardening, and taking in boarders. He often said that “I knew my mother had more character, brains, and competence than any man that ever lived.” His mother also encouraged his love for literature. Although Creel resisted formal education, he credited his mother for his fair knowledge of history and the classics, such as the Iliad. In 1891 the then-fifteen year old Creel ran away from home for a year, supporting himself by working at a succession of county fairs across Missouri and odd jobs when available. Despite his resistance and rebellion Creel did manage to receive some formal schooling, attending Kansas City Central High School, Odessa High School and Odessa College for one year.
In 1896, he began his first formal job at the Kansas City World. He was hired for $4 a week. He started as a “journalist” but eventually moved up to write feature articles, start a book review column, and cover social happenings. He was eventually fired because he felt it was wrong to discuss a wealthy man’s daughter eloping with her coachman in the paper.
After he was fired, he hopped a cattle train to New York to find work. He found an opportunity to work as a free-lance joke writer for William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s comic supplements. As a 1913 “Collier’s” profile put it he was “Shutting himself in his cheap room in a mechanics’ hotel, he ground out jokes by the dozens, by the hundreds, jokes in bales and jokes in bundles.” But he didn’t sell any his first month and survived by shoveling snow. Soon, he sold four jokes to Hearst’s “Evening Journal” and became a regular with many periodicals.
On March 11, 1899, he went back to Kansas City with his millionaire friend, Arthur Grissom and started a newspaper,the Kansas City Independent. After only ten months, however, Grissom withdrew from the partnership. At age 23, Creel became the sole owner, editor, and publisher of The Independent. In the paper he dealt with many social issues including women's suffrage, one tax system, and public ownership of utilities. He was also a strong supporter of the Democratic Party and aggressively fought the policies and practices of Thomas Pendergast. Creel was not afraid to put politics or party affiliation aside for the greater public good however. He backed Democrat Joseph W. Folk in a successful run for Missouri Governor in 1904. Then in 1908 Creel came out in support of Republican Herbert S. Hadley and his gubernatorial campaign. Hadley, an ardent reformer like Folk before him, was the first Republican elected Governor of Missouri in nearly forty years. Said Creel in one of his newspaper editorials regarding party affiliations, "When a man becomes so besotted with partisan prejudice as to exalt party above the interest of the community, state or county, that moment he ceases to be a good citizen."
In late 1909 Creel left Kansas City and the Independent behind for a new political battlfield in Colorado. Reformer John F. Shafroth, a native of Fayette, Missouri and an aquiantance of Creel's, had been elected Colorado's governor in 1908. Despite the Independent being profitable, he chose to give the newspaper away to a pair of young women who aspired to be newspaper publishers. Leaving Kansas City with just fifty dollars to his name, Creel soon found employment as an editorial writer for the Denver Post. He gained national publicity by calling for the lynching of 11 senators who opposed the public ownership of Denver’s water company. He resigned promptly after and had a brief stint working at William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. He moved on to write editorials for The Rocky Mountain News (1911-1912) where he was a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson.
In June 1912, Creel was appointed Police Commissioner of Denver by the recently elected reform mayor, Henry J. Arnold. Creel immediately used the office to launch several ambitious reform campaigns—such as ordering police officers to give up their clubs and nightsticks, as well as a campaign to destroy the red-light district in downtown Denver, while providing a tax-funded "rehabilitation farm" for women leaving prostitution. His time as police commissioner ended after he began pushing the Mayor Henry Arnold to live up to campaign promises. Although he was dismissed by the mayor for the “creation of dissention,” he was lauded nationally for his watchdog efforts.
Then in 1916, he became heavily involved in President Wilson’s re-election campaign. Working under Bob Wooley, the Publicity Head for the Democratic National Committee, Creel wrote newspaper features and interviewed various peoples. In March 1917, Creel discovered that many of the military leaders wanted strong censorship on the war. Creel sent President Wilson a brief in which he argued for “expression, not suppression” of the press. Wilson approved Creel’s proposal and appointed him as chairman of the Committee of Public Information.
Committee on Public Information
Seven days after the United States entered World War I, Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency acting to release government news, to sustain morale in the US, to administer voluntary press censorship, and to develop propaganda abroad. George Creel was named the head of the committee, and he created 37 distinct divisions, most notably the Division of Pictorial Publicity, the Four Minute Men Division, the News Division, and the Censorship Board.
The Division of Pictorial Publicity was staffed by hundreds of the nation’s most talented artists, and they created over 1000 designs for paintings, posters, cartoons, and sculptures that instilled patriotism, fear, and interest in the war efforts. Creel himself said that the images were “something that caught even the most indifferent eye.” Through the Four Minute Men division, roughly 75,000 civilian volunteers spoke to 314 million people over the span of 18 months on topics assigned by the CPI, like the draft, rationing, bond drives, and victory gardens. These civilian volunteers spoke at social events in places like movie theaters and fellowship halls for four minutes, which was the time it took to change a movie reel and the time believed to be a human’s attention span. The guidelines set forth by Creel directed the volunteers to fill their speeches with facts and appeals to emotions to bolster public support for the war efforts. Between the News Division and Censorship Committee, Creel and the CPI were able to control the flow of official war information. Creel sought to portray facts without bias, though most pieces of news were “colored by nationalistic assumptions.” Creel’s committee may have produced biased news, but it was his hope that the US could avoid rigid censorship during the war, as Creel’s views on censorship were “expression, not repression.” Under Creel’s direction, the CPI sought only to repress material that contained “dangerous” or “unfavorable” ideas to avoid demoralizing the population.
All activities of the CPI ceased on November 11, upon the signing of the Armistice with Germany. The efforts of the CPI were regarded as the greatest public relations effort in history, up to its time. Such a massive, offensive, and multifaceted campaign had never been undertaken before, and the CPI brought to light the power of mass persuasion and social influence at a national level – realizations that had a profound effect on the field of public relations. Many of the 20th century’s most influential public relations practitioners were trained under Creel on the committee, including Edward Bernays and Carl R. Byoir.
After his prolific career as the chairman of the CPI, Creel joined “Collier’s” (1920) as a feature writer. Then in 1926, he moved to San Francisco and eventually chaired the Regional Labor Board (1933) for California, Utah, and Nevada.
He was an active member of the Democratic Party and ran against the novelist Upton Sinclair for the post of Governor of California in the 1934 primary. Creel lost.
Writing & books
Creel was the author of an extensive collection of writings. Some of his writing and books include Quatrains of Christ (1907), Children in Bondage (with Edwin Markham and B. B. Lindsey) (1913), Wilson and the Issues 1916, Ireland’s Fight for Freedom (1919), How We Advertised America (1920), The War, the World and Wilson (1920), Uncle Henry (1923); The People Next Door (1926), Sons of the Eagle (1927), “Sam Houston (1928), Tom Paine Liberty Bell (1931), War Criminals (1944), Rebel at Large (1947), and Russia’s Race for Asia (1949).
Creel was married to Blanche Bates from 1912 until her death in 1941. The couple had two children, a son named George Jr. and a daughter named Frances. After the death of his wife, Creel resided at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Creel died in San Francisco on October 2, 1953.