Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era

By Jonathan Mermin | Go to book overview
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Seven
Conclusion

IN THEIR coverage of U.S. intervention in the post-Vietnam era, the New York Times, World News Tonight, and the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour have made no independent contribution (except at the margins) to foreignpolicy debate in the United States. The spectrum of debate in Washington, instead, has determined the spectrum of debate in the news. The evidence supports not just the correlation version of the indexing hypothesis, but the marginalization version. Coverage of critical viewpoints on U.S. interventions does not increase from a reasonable baseline in the news when U.S. policy generates conflict in Washington, but is marginalized in the news when official actors are united (see table 5.1 for an overview of the evidence). The evidence also shows that journalists could have reported critical perspectives in the Washington consensus cases, if foreign-policy experts outside of Washington and interested, engaged citizens had been consulted. Here I offer some concluding observations on the relationship of the journalism described in this book to the First Amendment ideal of a press independent of government, some prescriptions for independent journalism, and some reflections on the impact of the news on U.S. foreign policy.


Neither a Watchdog Nor a Mirror

Under one model of an independent press, the press is independent of government if journalists are free to report criticism of public officials and their policies. American journalists have this freedom. But what has been done with it in practice? In assessing the independence of the American media, this is the fundamental question that must be addressed.

If critical viewpoints on U.S. foreign policy are not reported in the news unless they have been expressed inside the government first, then in practice the press is independent of the president, but not the government. When Potter Stewart writes that the First Amendment establishes “a fourth institution outside the Government as an additional check on the three official branches,”1 and Hugo Black declares that in the First Amend

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1
Quoted in Bollinger, Images of Free Press, p. 177, n. 44.

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