Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Media's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Media's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


Spokespersons for the media regularly portray them as the country's watchdogs, who "root about in our national life, exposing what they deem right for exposure," without fear or favor.(1) Such self-congratulatory statements are traditionally supported by reference to the Watergate exposures, which "helped force a President from office,"(2) and the media's news coverage of the Vietnam War -- allegedly so open and critical that it helped firm up popular opposition and forced the war's negotiated settlement.

Nonetheless, many factors -- discussed below -- contribute to make the mainstream media supportive of government policy and vulnerable to "news management" by the government. This is most evident in foreign affairs reporting, in which strong domestic constituencies contesting government propaganda campaigns are rare, and in which the government can employ ideological weapons like anti-communism, a demonized enemy or alleged national security threats to keep the media compliant. Thus in the 1980s the Reagan administration was able to demonize the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi as premier terrorist, Grenada and Nicaragua as U.S. national security threats and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega as a villainous drug dealer, with a high degree of mainstream media cooperation.(3)

The media's generous self-appraisal is supported in a curious and indirect way by neo-conservative and business attacks, which have frequently charged that the media are dominated by a liberal elite, hostile to business and government.(4) The same Watergate-Nixon evidence and Vietnam War coverage, cited by defenders of the media as demonstrating their constructive role, is used by conservative critics to demonstrate media excess. Big Story, for example, purported to show that the media's coverage of the 1968 Tet offensive was inaccurate, adversarial and unpatriotic.(5) Cited often and without criticism, Big Story contributed to the now-conventional belief not only that the media was hostile to the war, but also that "the outcome of the war was determined not in the battlefield, but on the printed page, and above all, on the television screen."(6) John Corry of the New York Times conceded that the media bias argued by Braestrup existed, but contended that it was thoughtlessness, not deliberate subversive intent, that brought about this result.(7)

These attacks, and half-hearted and compromised defenses have served the media well. They suggest that those in power feel pressed by the media and are not insulated from their "rooting about." The media's liberal defenders have also helped legitimize the media by the uncritical nature of their rebuttals to neo-conservative criticism. Thus, Herbert Gans, attacking neo-conservative charges that the media are dominated by a liberal elite, answered these critics in part by lauding the media's professionalism and objectivity:

The beliefs that actually make it into the news are professional values

that are intrinsic to national journalism and that journalists learn

on the job....The rules of news judgment call for ignoring story

implications....with some notable exceptions, including libel and

national security.(8)

A similarly constrained scope of debate is evident in Reporters Under Fire, a book on media bias in foreign affairs. In it, the media are accused by neo-conservative and right-wing critics -- Morton Kondracke, Ben Wattenberg, Daniel James, Shirley Christian and Allen Weinstein -- of an adversarial position to the U.S. government in their coverage of Central America in the 1980s, and to Israel at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. On the defensive, the liberals argued either that the media were evenhanded -- reporters Alan Riding and Karen De Young and academics William Leo Grande and Roger Morris -- or that their bias against Israel was a result of a double standard, according to which better things were expected of Israel -- Milton Viorst. …

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