Politics of the Fourth Estate

By Seib, Philip | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Politics of the Fourth Estate


Seib, Philip, Harvard International Review


The Interplay of Media and Politics in Foreign Policy

Debate about how news coverage affects foreign policy swings between those who claim that the media have little impact on the policy-making process and others who argue that press influence is significant--sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. Each side has its partisans, but neither view is absolutely correct. Reality incorporates both. The press, as Walter Lippmann noted, has power partly because it can act as "the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision." Foreign-policy makers have to live with this fact, regardless of their belief that many elements of their craft are not suited to the searchlight's glare. At times, due to negligence, lack of skill or interest, or news-business priorities of the moment, the press will keep its searchlight away from foreign affairs--trained instead on a White House sex scandal, for example. But policymakers should still work under the assumption that their efforts may attract and be profoundly af fected by journalists' attention. When the news media take notice, policy priorities can quickly change.

The political response to the situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq at the end of the Gulf War underscored the power of the media's influence on policy. Longtime victims of Saddam Hussein's persecution, the Kurds were unsuccessftil in their attempts at insurrection and became refugees, pursued by the Iraqi army and pressed against the mountainous border with Turkey. Unwilling to be drawn into further military action, President Bush said the US-led coalition was not prepared "to settle all the internal affairs of Iraq." Administration policy was to let the Kurds fend for themselves.

But refugees make for good TV. Suddenly the Kurds no one had heard of were in America's living rooms. Secretary of State James Baker made a quick trip to the refugee encampments and witnessed their misery and vulnerability; administration policy shifted as a result. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr noted that opinion polls showed public support for helping the Kurds and wrote, "Within a two-week period, the President had been forced, under the impact of what Americans and Europeans were seeing on television, to reconsider his hasty withdrawal of troops from Iraq." Bush himself said at a news conference, "No one can see the pictures or hear the accounts of this human suffering and not be deeply moved." Schorr observed that television had spurred "an official plebiscite that force[d] a change in policy." The United States proceeded to provide humanitarian assistance to the Kurds and to create a safe haven to keep Saddam's forces away from the refugees.

Media Hubris

This incident appears to have been a media triumph with good results: news coverage induced a change in policy and innocent people were saved. But New York Times television critic Walter Goodman has asked an important question: "Should American policy be driven by scenes that happen to be accessible to cameras and make the most impact on the screen?" This question has arisen repeatedly during the past decade, from Somalia to Kosovo. News coverage strikes at the somnolent American conscience, polls reflect the change in attitude, politicians take note, and ultimately policy shifts--incrementally or drastically. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Lee Hamilton remarked: "Televised images quickly become a central part of the foreign policy debate. They affect which crises we decide to pay attention to and which we ignore. They affect how we think about these crises, and I have little doubt these televised pictures ultimately affect what we do about these problems." Hamilton's words came to life in the coverage of Kosovo in 1999. Opinion polls showed national support for intervention rising when television networks displayed heart-wrenching pictures of fleeing Kosovar civilians.

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