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Foreign AffairsIn this landmark study, Baum and Groeling reveal how foreign policy messages are conveyed and undermined.
— Lawrence D. Freedman
How does the American public formulate its opinions about U.S. foreign policy and military engagement abroad? War Stories argues that the media systematically distort the information the public vitally needs to determine whether to support such initiatives, for reasons having more to do with journalists' professional interests than the merits of the policies, and that this has significant consequences for national security. Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling develop a "strategic bias" theory that explains the foreign-policy communication process as a three-way interaction among the press, political elites, and the public, each of which has distinct interests, biases, and incentives.
Do media representations affect public support for the president and faithfully reflect events in times of diplomatic crisis and war? How do new media--especially Internet news and more partisan outlets--shape public opinion, and how will they alter future conflicts? In answering such questions, Baum and Groeling take an in-depth look at media coverage, elite rhetoric, and public opinion during the Iraq war and other U.S. conflicts abroad. They trace how traditional and new media select stories, how elites frame and sometimes even distort events, and how these dynamics shape public opinion over the course of a conflict.
Most of us learn virtually everything we know about foreign policy from media reporting of elite opinions. In War Stories, Baum and Groeling reveal precisely what this means for the future of American foreign policy.
"War Stories . . . makes an invaluable contribution to several literatures--politician-journalist interactions, news production, public reactions to news, foreign policymaking, and the new media. That War Stories has so much to say about so many important topics is a remarkable achievement. I learned much from this thoughtful study. It changed my thinking about a number of topics, and I recommend it to those interested in news production, communications research, public opinion, and policymaking."--Jeffrey E. Cohen, Public Opinion Quarterly
"If you're studying American foreign policy, or American media, this is an essential book that will only provide detailed arguments and information backed up by a wealth of evidence. I have no doubt that researchers will also find inspiration for further studies from some of these sections."--Stefan Fergus, Civilian Reader
"[S]cientific, meticulous, and nuanced."--David L. Paletz, Perspectives on Politics
On August 21, 2005, Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and George Allen (R-VA) appeared together on the ABC Sunday morning political roundtable program This Week to discuss American involvement in Iraq. The senators were of comparable stature; both were considered credible aspirants for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, both were forceful and articulate for their respective positions, and both spoke for similar lengths of time. Yet they differed in one key respect: Hagel criticized U.S. policy in Iraq, while Allen defended it. Commenting on the Bush administration's just released proposal to "possibly" keep over 100,000 troops in Iraq "for at least four more years," Hagel scoffed: "I think that it's just complete folly.... The fact is I don't know where he's going to get these troops ... there won't be any National Guard left.... No Army Reserve left.... There's no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years. It would bog us down, it would further destabilize the Middle East ... we need to be out." Allen responded by defending the proposal: "This was a worst case scenario. And I think that ... if they can constitute a free and just society with this constitution that they're working on right now, I think that that will be something, a real measurement, a real benchmark that Chuck [Hagel] talks about."
We have recounted this anecdote on numerous occasions to audiences of students, scholars, and journalists. In each instance, we asked the audience to guess which senator's comments were broadcast on the network news that evening. Without exception, most of our audience members-and frequently all of them-anticipated that post-interview media coverage would heavily emphasize Hagel and largely ignore Allen. In this respect, our audiences were prescient: in the two weeks following the interview, journalists broadcast over 30 times more television stories about Hagel's criticism of the war than about Allen's defense of it. What accounts for the vast difference in media attention devoted to these prominent Republicans' comments? Clearly, many people-indeed, nearly everyone to whom we have ever posed the question-intuitively assume that the news media prefer to cover criticism of the president's Iraq War policy over support for it, at least when the critique is offered by a senator from the president's own party. However, as intuitive as this assumption may be, the prevailing views of the causes and consequences of public support for foreign policy, both in Washington and in the academy, have failed to consider this common assumption and its implications. In this respect, the coverage of Hagel and Allen illustrates an important limitation to our understanding of the dynamics of public support for American foreign policy. That is, the information on which the public depends in determining whether or not to support a foreign policy initiative may be systematically distorted for reasons having more to do with the professional incentives of journalists than with the merits of the policy. This limitation has important consequences both for understanding whether and when the public is likely to support the president in times of foreign conflicts and for assessing the likely implications of public opinion for the political viability and sustainability of military actions under different circumstances.
The goals of this book are first, to identify the conditions under which the American public will or will not support their president when he or she leads the nation to war; second, to determine precisely when those conditions will tend to prevail (and for how long); and third, to assess their implications for the future of American foreign policy.
To accomplish these goals, we focus on the primary source of public information about politics and foreign policy, the mass media. The mass media are the key intermediaries between citizens and their leaders, particularly with respect to policies and events being implemented far from American shores. Citizens learn virtually everything they know about foreign policy from the mass media, whether through direct personal exposure or indirectly, via conversations with friends or family members who gained their information from the media. This makes understanding how the media select stories concerning foreign policy (the supply of information) central to any effort to account for public attitudes toward those policies (the demand for policy).
This focus in turn leads us to three central questions that guide this book. First, to what extent do the media's representations of foreign policy rhetoric and events account for variations in public support for presidential foreign policy initiatives, and do these effects vary over the course of such initiatives? Second, does media coverage of foreign policy rhetoric and events faithfully reflect their intensity, substance, or variance? Finally, do the incentives and interactions of citizens and media differ substantially in the so-called new media, and if so, how? To address these questions and their implications for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, we develop a "strategic-bias" theory of elite-press-public interaction. Our theory, which we present in detail in the next chapter, explains the foreign policy communication process as the outcome of a three-way strategic interaction between and among the press, the public, and the political elite, each of which has distinct preferences, interests, and capabilities.
Media Coverage of Elite Rhetoric, and Public Attitudes about Foreign Policy
For reasons we describe below, in foreign policy matters, citizens are highly responsive to what they see and hear from political elites-more so than in most aspects of domestic policy. Hence, the degree of public support for a presidential foreign policy initiative depends on the mix of elite rhetoric about the president's policy to which citizens are exposed. (This statement is consistent with the prevailing view in the literature [e.g., Brody and Shapiro 1989; Brody 1991], and hence is relatively uncontroversial.) When citizens observe elites expressing bipartisan support for a policy, they typically respond favorably (Larson 1996, 2000). This tendency accounts for much of the so-called rally-'round-the-flag phenomenon, in which citizens reward the president with an upward spike, if often short-lasting, in his approval ratings when the president engages the national honor abroad, typically by using military force (Mueller 1973; Russet 1990; Brody 1991; Baum 2002).
In contrast, when citizens observe elites engaging in partisan bickering about the merits of a policy, they tend to choose sides, largely though not perfectly along partisan lines. In this respect, citizens employ the opinions of trusted elites as an information shortcut or heuristic cue, allowing them to reach a judgment that most of the time reflects their perceived self-interest, without expending a lot of time and energy to become perfectly informed (Popkin 1994; Lau and Redlawsk 1997; Lupia and McCubbins 1998). We refer to this pattern as the Opinion Indexing hypothesis, reflecting the tendency of the public to index their opinions to the tenor of elite debate to which they are exposed. This hypothesis is most closely associated with the work of Richard Brody (1991).
Our theory highlights the central role of credibility in mediating the persuasiveness of information to consumers (Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Druckman 2001, "Using Credible Advice"). The credibility of media messages, their sources, and the messengers communicating those messages, as well as the context within which the messages are delivered, all mediate the influence of news on consumers. The reason is that citizens depend on credibility assessments in determining which information shortcuts to rely on in rendering political judgments.
The Accuracy of Media Representations of Foreign Policy Rhetoric and Events
Our second key question addresses the accuracy of media coverage of foreign policy rhetoric and events. An additional scholarly prevailing view, closely related to the Opinion Indexing hypothesis, holds that owing to journalists' dependence on official government sources, media coverage is itself indexed to elite rhetoric in Washington (e.g., Hallin 1986; Bennett 1990; Page and Entman 1994; Zaller and Chiu 2000). We refer to this argument as the Media Indexing hypothesis. The implication is that the media are, at least most of the time, largely passive and nonstrategic, like a conveyor belt faithfully transmitting what elites, especially the most powerful elites (Zaller and Chiu 2000; Bennett, Lawrence, and Livingston 2006), are saying. However, contrary to this sometimes implicit and at other times explicit prevailing wisdom, we argue that news coverage typically does not faithfully reflect the mix of elite rhetoric in Washington. Consequently, to the extent the Opinion Indexing hypothesis is valid, citizens frequently base their decisions regarding whether or not to support a president's foreign policy initiatives on an inaccurate representation of what elites are actually saying about the policies. Prior research into the Media Indexing hypothesis tended to focus on the reporting function of journalists. In particular, this view holds that journalists tend to overrepresent authoritative political elites, or those in the strongest positions to influence policy outcomes. A fair amount of evidence supports this assertion (see, e.g., Zaller and Chiu 2000; Cook 1994). Yet this emphasis tends to overlook the fact that journalists are not solely reporters; they are also interpreters. Their interpretations regarding the newsworthiness of different pieces of information in turn color the representation of politics to which citizens are ultimately exposed. To the extent this representation is distorted, so too most likely will be the conclusions citizens draw from it by indexing their opinions to media coverage of elite debate. The implications of such inconsistency between elite rhetoric and media representations of that rhetoric are potentially quite troubling for democratic representation.
Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously opined that when it comes to foreign policy, "politics stops at the water's edge." Our research reveals little evidence supporting this view. Rather, we find strong evidence that partisan politics has long crossed the water's edge, even during the cold war, and has extended even to the "high politics" of foreign policy. Moreover, as the Hagel-Allen anecdote illustrates, the qualities that journalists prefer in news stories result in a strong tendency to overrepresent negative, critical coverage of the president, particularly when it originates within his own party. We argue that this overrepresentation stems not from any partisan preferences of the news media but rather from pervasive institutional and professional incentives that shape journalists' standards of newsworthiness.
From these first two elements of our argument, we conclude that journalists' preferences shape the representation of elite discourse available to citizens in times of foreign crises. Indeed, they suggest that the media may systematically distort public perceptions of policy debates in Washington by presenting to the public an unrepresentative sample of elite rhetoric. This in turn seems likely to influence the public's propensity to support presidents' foreign policies. Indeed, for presidents to build support for their foreign policy initiatives via the mass media, they must overcome a significant institutional bias toward overrepresenting criticism of their policies.
Nevertheless, as we explain below in our discussion of the "elasticity of reality," policymakers' information advantage vis-à-vis the public in the realm of foreign affairs nearly always affords them at least some leeway in framing foreign policy events to their own advantage. This leeway arises to some extent independent of the true nature of such events. Yet the extent of this elite discretion varies over time and with circumstances, typically contracting as the public and the media gather more information.
Effects of the New Media
The third question guiding our research concerns the new media, by which we mean cable news channels and the Internet. Do the new media affect the relationships predicted in our investigations into the first two research questions, and if so, how? The answer, we argue, is that they increasingly allow citizens to self-select into ideologically friendly environments while discounting information they may encounter in environments perceived as ideologically hostile.
From a strictly economic standpoint, the availability of more news choices is a positive development. After all, individuals are, to a greater extent than in prior decades, able to consume news products suited to their specific tastes. Liberals can consume "liberal" news while conservatives can consume "conservative" news, thereby presumably making everyone happier. From the standpoint of democratic theory, however, this trend may have unfortunate consequences. Most notably, if individuals attend to news sources that present only one side of a story, they may be less willing to believe sources or information at odds with their prior views, and ultimately their willingness to moderate their positions or fashion compromises may diminish.
For much of the past century, the mass media, especially television, have served as an important common civic space, providing citizens with a shared understanding of their culture and of the major issues and events of the day. In the age of new media, this common space is eroding. The end result may be a hardening and polarization of partisan attitudes in general, and with respect to foreign policy in particular. Conversely, partisan media might impart even greater credibility to messages viewed as running counter to their institutional biases. If a prior generation believed "only Nixon can go to China," some in the next may believe "only Fox can legitimize Obama 'going to' Iran."
Theories of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
The causes and consequences of public support for the overseas application of military force are subjects of longstanding scholarly debate (e.g., Lippmann 1934; Almond 1950; Rosenau 1961; Baum 2003; Holsti 2004; Eichenberg 2005; Howell and Pevehouse 2007). Research in this area has focused on the characteristics of the conflicts themselves (hereafter "event-based" explanations), the domestic political circumstances surrounding them ("domestic political" explanations), or the internal characteristics of individual citizens ("individual-level" explanations).
Event-based explanations focus primarily on longer-term public support, or more precisely everything beyond the immediate effect of the initiation of a crisis event. Such explanations hold that a president's ability to sustain public support for a U.S. military engagement depends primarily on its degree of success (Kull and Ramsay 2001; Feaver and Gelpi 2004; Eichenberg 2005; Gelpi, Feaver, and Reifler 2005-2006), or alternatively on the number (Milstein and Mitchell 1968; Milstein 1969, 1973, 1974; Mueller 1973, 1994; Gartner and Segura 2000), rate (Slantchev 2004), trend (Gartner 2008), and framing (Boettcher and Cobb 2006) with respect to U.S. casualties. While such explanations could potentially account for longer-term trends in public responses to a U.S. military engagement (but see Cobb 2008), in many instances they seem less well-suited to account for the presence or absence of a public opinion rally at the outset of a military conflict, before the public observes either the ultimate costs or the outcome (for critiques of these literatures, see Berinsky 2007; Berinsky and Druckman 2007).
Jentleson (1992), however, advances an event-based theory that can potentially account for both initial and longer-term public support for U.S. conflicts. He argues that the American public is more likely to support military actions perceived as defensive (aimed at imposing "foreign policy restraint" on an adversary) than it is to support those perceived as offensive (aimed at imposing "internal political change") in nature (see also Oneal, Lian, and Joyner 1996; Jentleson and Britton 1998; Eichenberg 2005). Yet research into both the rally-'round-the-flag phenomenon (e.g., Brody 1991; Baum 2002) and, more generally, the framing of foreign policy (e.g., Entman 2004; Patrick and Thrall 2007) calls this argument into question. Such scholarship has shown that public perceptions concerning the offensive or defensive nature of U.S. military engagements are often endogenous to the domestic political circumstances surrounding them, including the efforts of elites to frame events to their own advantage (Entman 2004; Baum and Potter 2008).
Excerpted from War Stories by Matthew A. Baum Tim J. Groeling Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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