Stephen M. Walt

Politicians, the press, and foreign policy: What to read

Over the past few years, media critics like Glenn Greenwald, Mark Danner, and Michael Massing have exposed some of the sloppiness, incestuousness, and group-think that routinely afflicts mainstream media coverage of world events, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Even "faux news" outlets like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show have contributed to ...

Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central
Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

Over the past few years, media critics like Glenn Greenwald, Mark Danner, and Michael Massing have exposed some of the sloppiness, incestuousness, and group-think that routinely afflicts mainstream media coverage of world events, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Even "faux news" outlets like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show have contributed to greater awareness of media failings, mostly by pointing out biases and inconsistencies in a ruthlessly funny fashion.  

Yet no matter how useful such critiques are, they need to be complemented by more systematic scholarly studies of the complex relationship between media coverage, public opinion, and actual foreign policy decisions. On that topic, my colleague Matthew Baum and his co-author, Tim Groeling of UCLA, have recently published an excellent book entitled War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views on War (Princeton University Press). Drawing on a wide array of empirical evidence (including opinion surveys, media content, and foreign policy decisions), they argue that the interaction between elites, media, and public opinion is a three-way process in which each group’s behavior is essentially strategic. Politicians try to use media to advance their aims; the media picks stories in order to maximize audience (or in some cases, to advance an ideological agenda), and therefore tend to favor stories that are novel or surprising (like when a prominent senator criticizes a president from his own party). Similarly, the public does not just consume the news passively; readers and viewers use various cues to gauge the credibility of different sources.

The book examines a dizzying array of hypotheses, and I can’t do justice to all of their findings in a short blog post. Among their more interesting findings are 1) the tendency for media coverage to over-represent negative evaluations of presidential performance, more so when they come from figures in the president’s party, and especially when the president’s party also controls the Congress 2) the so-called "rally ’round the flag" effect is not very powerful, and there is “little evidence that president can consistently anticipate substantial rallies when they use force abroad, especially during unified government," 3) coverage of conflicts and wars “tends to track elite rhetoric more closely in the relatively early stages of a conflict, while tracking reality more closely if a conflict persists," but "consumers become relatively less susceptible to the influence of elite rhetoric regarding a conflict … as they gather more information … [and] grow less responsive to new information, particularly when it conflicts with their prior beliefs.”

They also present evidence suggesting that the rise of new media (including the blogosphere) is increasing audience fragmentation  and self-selection (i.e., citizens tend to consume news and opinions that are consistent with their prior beliefs), and they speculate that this tendency may give elites “a greater capacity to manipulate public opinion regarding foreign policy over time, especially among their fellow partisans, and to sustain such manipulations for longer periods of time.”  

Among other things, this tendency poses a real challenge to anyone who hopes to advance a genuinely “bipartisan” approach to foreign policy. If we’re all consuming different sources of “information,” we will all be living in a different subjective reality and we’ll naturally tend to favor different policies. The reasoned deliberation extolled by John Stuart Mill and other democratic theorists, implicit in the idea of a democratic “marketplace of ideas” becomes impossible, and what you get instead is a Tower of Babel conducted at increasingly high volume.  As Baum and Groeling note, it also implies that if a president wants to win over support for a particular policy — such as escalation in Afghanistan — trying to win over the “opposition media” (e.g., in Obama’s case, Fox News) is the smarter strategy.  Getting a favorable endorsement from The Nation won’t help him much, but even grudging support from Hannity or O’Reilly will be seen a as credible by GOP sympathizers and independents and might sway more than a few of them.

Hmmm, I guess it’s time for me to go read The Corner. As for those of you who want to know more about how leaders, the media, and the people interact, go read Baum and Groeling.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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