The President, the Press, and the War-Making Power: An Analysis of Media Coverage Prior to the Persian Gulf War

Article excerpt

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. …