Edward S. Corwin wrote at midcentury, "Taken by and large, the history of the presidency has been a history of aggrandizement" (1957, 307). At least with respect to war powers, recent years only have bolstered Corwin's observation. The Constitution vests the power to declare war with Congress, yet Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton each initiated armed conflict with other nations while leaving Congress almost completely out of the decision process. Claiming the inherent authority to use military force unilaterally, these presidents consistently resisted the efforts of Congress to reassert itself in the war powers arena, most notably by ignoring all but the notification provisions of the War Powers Resolution. Attempting to explain presidential dominance in this policy area, scholars have focused on the relative institutional capabilities and incentives of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary (Moe and Howell 1998; Koh 1988). As a general rule, presidents are institutionally well equipped to stretch their constitutional powers to the limit, and perhaps exceed them, while Congress and the courts are poorly suited to resist the expansion of executive power.
Yet there is more to the story than institutional powers and incentives. Media coverage may also enhance or curtail the executive's advantage in the war powers domain. (1) Although war reporting has been the subject of great scholarly interest, there exists no systematic study of how the media covers the constitutional politics of war making. (2) We use Lance Bennett's (1994, 1990) "indexing hypothesis" to explain patterns of media attention to war powers during a five-month period prior to the Persian Gulf War. Bennett and others (Mermin 1999; Hallin 1986) have argued that the spectrum of foreign policy debate reported in the media is a function of the spectrum of foreign policy debate in Washington, DC. Journalists tend to report on a greater range of opinion when influential government actors are in open disagreement with one another. Conversely, when consensus prevails, the scope of opinion and policy debate will constrict. Another possible outcome is that without elite conflict, the story will dry up and fall off the media's agenda altogether.
Journalists operate under a number of constraints that help explain why indexing is so prevalent in the coverage of foreign policy. One of the most well-established findings in media research is that reporters turn to public officials first and foremost as sources for political stories (Mermin 1999; Sigal 1986; Hallin 1986; Gans 1979). Journalists rely on government officials to obtain quick and inexpensive access to information, particularly in foreign policy, where reporters tend to have less experience and familiarity (Berry 1990). Journalists are also constrained by the norms of "newsworthiness" (involving criteria such as timeliness and conflict) and "balanced" and "neutral" reporting. Additionally, in the context of war reporting, journalists open themselves up to charges of biased and un-American coverage if they present criticism of U.S. military action, especially without the cover of the opposition party making the case against the president.
Thus, in the absence of institutional conflict, indexing would predict a dearth of war powers reporting during the months leading up to the Gulf War. Alternatively, it is not implausible that journalists would devote some degree of coverage to war powers even if the issue were not subject to a high-profile debate among political actors in Washington. Media inattention to an issue in the absence of elite conflict would not be surprising if the issue at hand were obscure or unimportant. Yet this is certainly not the case here. In the wake of Vietnam and the War Powers Resolution, the question of which institution holds the leash on the dog of war has remained a source of controversy and debate among scholars, journalists, and politicians. War powers was a prominent issue in the 1983 deployment of troops to Lebanon, the 1987 Kuwaiti tanker re-flagging, and most recently in the 1999 bombing of Serbia (Mitchell 1999; Crabb and Holt 1992, 147-50; Katzman 1990). Furthermore, the momentous nature of the decision to go to war--particularly acute in the months before Operation Desert Storm, when the prospect of military conflict with Iraq was very real--is naturally a subject of intense concern among citizens and political elites. And as we discuss below, during this period journalists had ample opportunity to explore a wide range of issues relating to the Gulf crisis. Thus, although we would not expect the media to transform itself into an advocate for Congress's foreign policy prerogatives, neither would we expect the media to disregard the war powers question altogether.
As Jonathan Mermin (1999) points out, given that conflict among government officials is newsworthy and that the words and actions of these officials often constitute important diplomatic events, we would naturally expect some correlation between debate in Washington and the range of viewpoints expressed in media coverage. What is of great interest, writes Mermin, is whether "critical perspectives" are "ignored or marginalized in the news if not first expressed in Washington" (pp. 5-6). Reporting on war powers may be considered a critical perspective insofar as such coverage reflects the constitutional role of Congress in authorizing war, thus presenting an alternative to the position advanced by recent presidents. (3)
The question of whether media will independently cover war powers warrants attention from those who believe that war making should be a shared constitutional power and oppose leaving this decision to the discretion of the president. The media potentially can serve as something of a political check on the executive by raising and reporting on the war powers question and thereby helping place it on the political agenda. Independent reporting on war powers may encourage members of Congress to challenge the president. Robert Entman and Benjamin Page (1994) make the point nicely:
Given the president's constitutional and traditional power over the foreign policy apparatus, reporting that circulates information and opinion at odds with the administration is vital to the possibility of democracy in foreign policy.... Reporting independent of the administration can catalyze and embolden …