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The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of ...
The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the "soft news" media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.
Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.
War and Entertainment
It started with the Gulf War-the packaging of news, the graphics, the music, the classification of stories... Everybody benefited by saturation coverage. The more channels, the more a sedated public will respond to this... If you can get an audience hooked, breathlessly awaiting every fresh disclosure with a recognizable cast of characters they can either love or hate, with a dramatic arc and a certain coming down to a deadline, you have a winner in terms of building audience.1
- Danny Schechter, former producer, CNN and ABC's 20/20
ON AUGUST 20, 1998, just three days after President Clinton testified before a federal grand jury regarding his alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, the United States launched a series of cruise missile strikes against six suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. The Clinton administration justified the strikes as retaliation for terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier, for which it blamed suspected terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Ladin.
Due both to its extraordinary timing and to widespread public concern over terrorism, the cruise missile attack captivated the nation. The strikes began at 1:30 P.M. EST; by that evening-long before the next morning's newspapers hit the stands-almost three-quarters of the public had heard about them.2 In a survey conducted the next day, fully 79 percent of respondents claimed to have followed the story "very" or "fairly" closely.3 Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, public interest in this event ranks among the top 10 percent of all major news stories (through August 2001) since Pew began compiling its News Interest Index in 1986.
A great many people undoubtedly learned about the missile strikes from traditional television news programs. After all, on a typical evening, between 6 and 8 million households watch each of the major network news broadcasts. And over the next week, the three major networks' evening newscasts combined presented fully sixty-nine stories on the subject. Still others learned about the strikes from local TV news or cable news networks. Yet, unlike coverage of foreign policy events of decades past, traditional TV news programs and newspapers were not alone in reporting the story. In addition to these and other hard news outlets, a variety of entertainment-oriented, soft news programs also covered the missile strike story.4
On the evening of the missile strikes, such decidedly apolitical programs as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and Extra! The Entertainment Magazine (henceforth Extra), to name only a few, featured the attack as their lead story. The missile strike story also dominated the late-night talk shows, including The Tonight Show, Politically Incorrect, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the Comedy Central Network's Daily Show. The next day's daytime talk shows (e.g., The View) also featured discussions about the events, as did that evening's entertainment newsmagazine shows. And far more viewers, in turn, regularly watch soft news programs than all of the all-news cable networks combined.5 Indeed, depending on which programs one counts as soft news outlets, nearly as many watch soft news shows as watch the network evening news. For instance, about 6 million, and sometimes even more, households typically tune in to Entertainment Tonight, while over 5 million watch a typical broadcast of The Tonight Show.6 This suggests that television viewers were nearly as likely to encounter the missile strike story on Entertainment Tonight, The Tonight Show, or a variety of other soft news shows, as on a network newscast.
Does it matter where people learned about the missile strikes? In fact, coverage by the major networks differed in potentially important ways from that of the soft news media. While the networks focused heavily on the tactics and strategy of the attacks, as well as on their likely ramifications for the fight against global terrorism, soft news coverage focused primarily on a single theme: the uncanny parallels between real-world events and a relatively obscure (until then) movie called Wag the Dog.
In the film, an incumbent president in the midst of a reelection campaign is accused of molesting a young girl in the White House. As media interest in the story begins to spike, and his poll numbers consequently begin to plummet, the president responds by hiring a mysterious political operative (played by Robert DeNiro) to devise a means of distracting the public's attention from the emerging sex scandal until after the election. DeNiro enlists the aid of a top Hollywood movie producer (played by Dustin Hoffman). Together, they devise a plan to "produce," in a studio, a phony war in Albania.7 Despite protestations by the Albanian government that there is no war, the media and public unquestioningly accept the manufactured war scenario, and the public dutifully rallies round the flag. The sex scandal is forgotten, and the president easily wins reelection.
Using Lexis-Nexis, I reviewed transcripts from twelve soft news programs.8 I found that in the week following the attacks, thirty-five out of forty-six soft news stories on the subject (or 76 percent) addressed the Wag-the-Dog theme, repeatedly raising the question of whether the president might have launched the missile strikes in order to distract the nation from the Lewinsky scandal. While stories about Wag the Dog were ubiquitous in the soft news media, traditional news programs were far less enamored with this conspiratorial aspect of the story. During that same period, the three network evening news programs, combined, mentioned Wag the Dog or Monica Lewinsky in only eleven of sixty-nine stories (or 16 percent) on the missile strikes.
In numerous opinion polls, upwards of 75 percent of the public expressed support for the attack. In the same polls, the vast majority of Americans indicated they did not believe the strikes were merely a ploy to distract the nation's attention from the Lewinsky scandal. Yet, as many as 40 percent, including 25 percent of self-described Democrats, also indicated they did believe distracting the nation was at least one of the considerations motivating the president.9 And these suspicions appear to have been most widespread among the less-educated segments of the population, perhaps not coincidentally the primary consumers of soft news (Davis and Owen 1998; Pew Research Center 1996, 1998b, and 2000).10
One survey (Star Tribune 1998), conducted in the immediate aftermath of the attack, found that respondents with less than a twelfth-grade education were nearly twice as likely as their counterparts possessing a college or postgraduate degree (60 vs. 31 percent) to believe that the president's decision to order the missile strikes was influenced "a great deal" by his political problems stemming from the Lewinsky scandal.11 Many of these people doubtless required no external prompting to recognize the parallels between real world events and the fictional events portrayed in Wag the Dog, nor to judge the president's motivations accordingly. Yet, in this instance, for at least some of those who did not draw such connections on their own, the soft news media may have done it for them.
The media and public responses to the Afghanistan-Sudan missile strikes illustrate a number of potentially important changes that have taken place over the past several decades in how the mass media cover major political stories, like foreign policy crises, and as a result, in how and what the public learns about such stories. This book is about such changes, and their consequences for public opinion and foreign policy.12
Prior to the 1980s, the public learned about politics, particularly foreign policy, primarily from newspapers or the nightly newscasts of the big three broadcast networks, or, moving back a bit further in time, from radio newscasts or meetings of civic organizations. Today far fewer Americans participate in socially oriented civic organizations (Putnam 2000), and political information is available across a far broader array of media outlets and formats, many of which bear only a superficial resemblance to traditional news venues. Indeed, the Afghanistan-Sudan case also suggests that given the mass media's-particularly television's-status as the primary, if not sole, source of political information for the vast majority of the American people, changes in mass media coverage of foreign policy are almost certain to affect how at least some segments of the public understand and evaluate the political world. Indeed, many politically inattentive Americans actively avoid politics and foreign policy, except when covered by their favorite soft news programs. And, as the Afghanistan-Sudan case further illustrates, such individuals may receive information in the soft news media that differs substantially, even dramatically, from that presented in more traditional news outlets.
Ultimately, a change in public perceptions of foreign policy may have important implications for public policy. Scholars have long pondered the barriers to information and political participation confronting democratic citizens. The traditional scholarly consensus has held that the mass public is woefully ignorant about politics and foreign affairs (Converse 1964; Almond 1950; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996), and hence, with rare exceptions, only relatively narrow segments of the public-the so-called attentive public or issue publics-pay attention to public policy or wield any meaningful influence on policy makers (Rosenau 1961; Key 1961; Cohen 1973; Graebner 1983). By, in effect, democratizing access to information about at least some political issues, soft news coverage of politics challenges this perspective, at least in part.
If a substantial portion of the public that would otherwise remain aloof from politics is able to learn about high-profile political issues, like foreign crises, from the soft news media, this may both increase the diversity (or heterogeneity) of public opinion (Krause 1997; Baum and Kernell 2001) and expand the size of the attentive public, at least in times of crisis. And research has shown that intense public scrutiny, when it arises, can influence policy makers, both in Congress and the White House (Ostrom and Job 1986; Bosso 1989; Powlick 1995; Baum 2000a; Rosenau 1961; Key 1961).
Moreover, as the Afghanistan-Sudan case implies, the nature of the political information people consume can influence the substance of the opinions they express (Zaller and Feldman 1992; Iyengar and Kinder 1987; Key 1961). Because the information these new, transient members of the attentive public glean from soft news may differ significantly from that consumed by the traditionally attentive public, soft news coverage may potentially influence not only the extent (i.e., breadth) of public opinion regarding a given political issue, like a foreign crisis, but also its form (i.e., valence and diversity). Such changes, in turn, may influence public policy, both by affecting outcomes at the ballot box and by altering a president's calculus concerning the likelihood of sustaining public support for his policy initiatives.
Along these lines, it is important to bear in mind that even if an issue, such as the Afghanistan-Sudan cruise missile attack, is not intrinsically salient to an individual or she does not truly understand it, if the issue penetrates her consciousness to even a limited degree, it may nonetheless influence her opinions or attitudes, or even her political behavior. Such influence may be either direct, as a response to the information received and the issue to which it pertains, or perhaps indirect, through the information's relationship to other issues or values that the individual does consider personally important. In the former case, an individual may develop an opinion regarding an issue about which she had not previously given much thought. Even if this opinion is not deeply held and the issue is not particularly important to the individual, it may still have public policy ramifications if a political entrepreneur, like a journalist or politician, primes the issue (brings it to the forefront of attention) during an election period (Miller and Krosnick 1996; Iyengar 1990, 1993; Iyengar and Kinder 1987). For instance, an individual who knows and cares little about foreign policy, and paid only limited attention to the U.S. intervention and withdrawal from Somalia, may nonetheless at election time factor the president's performance with respect to Somalia into her overall evaluation of the president's competence if a political entrepreneur reminds her of the apparent failure of the president's Somalia policy.
In the latter case, some aspect of an issue with which an individual is largely uninterested may also be linked, by a political entrepreneur, to another issue or value about which she cares more deeply. This process is known as framing (Iyengar 1991; Druckman 2001a, 2001b; Entman 1991, 1993; Khaneman and Tversky 1984; and many others). For instance, an individual may be untroubled by an illicit presidential affair with a White House intern, yet may hold strong feelings about the ethical and legal significance of lying under oath to cover up the affair. Such an individual may be attentive to the affair story because of its salacious nature. Yet, a political entrepreneur may be able to exploit that attentiveness by refocusing the individual's attention from the salacious details of the affair-which may have little political meaning for the individual-and toward the postaffair coverup. Hence, an individual's opinion about an issue may influence her attitudes or behavior, even if she does not consider it intrinsically important.
Indeed, the Afghanistan-Sudan attack and its aftermath highlight a number of intriguing questions. To what extent and under what circumstances do entertainment programs convey news about serious political issues? What types of public affairs topics appeal to such programs? How and why does the content of such coverage differ from that found in traditional news sources? Who is likely to be watching when an entertainment-oriented program covers a political story, and why? Has soft news coverage systematically influenced public opinion regarding select political issues, including foreign policy crises, in meaningful ways? Finally, how might such changes affect public policy outcomes? These are the primary questions I address in this book.
Excerpted from Soft News Goes to War by Matthew A. Baum Excerpted by permission.
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