UNDER THE First Amendment, the press is free to report criticism of the government, and it is often taken for granted that the United States therefore has a press that is independent of the government. But what has been done with the freedom of the press in practice? Have American journalists used their freedom to offer an independent, critical perspective on government policy decisions? Or has the press let the government itself set the terms and boundaries of policy debate in the news? What is it reasonable to expect of the press in pursuit of the First Amendment ideal? These questions are the focus of this book.
In the age of the World Wide Web and the fragmentation of television audiences, and with dozens of political magazines on the market, it is sometimes said that the quality of foreign-policy debate in the New York Times and on the evening news does not have the impact on the public sphere it once had. I believe this is flat wrong. The elite media continue to be the major source of information on U.S. foreign policy for Americans, especially those near the middle of the political spectrum who are not the most dedicated observers of public affairs, but who often end up deciding elections. It is true that alternative sources of news and commentary are available to citizens who have the motivation and the resources to track them down. But on questions of foreign policy such citizens are few and far between.
It is nice to have new and alternative media “out there,” but before we can conclude that the power of the New York Times and the evening news to set the terms and boundaries of debate in the public sphere has passed into history, it has to be established that citizens are in fact “out there” too, engaged with the new media and reacting to their contents. Outside of the interested and engaged few, however, such a scenario—especially in foreign policy—has yet to be realized. The great majority of Americans still get their foreign-policy news from newspapers and television, not from specialized web sites or magazines. It is therefore essential to understand and critique their performance.
I would like to thank some of the people and institutions who helped me with this project. Erin Wright provided exceptional research assistance. The Block Fund at Yale and the MacArthur Foundation offered generous financial support. The material in chapter 6 on Somalia is reprinted with permission from Political Science Quarterly 112 (1997): 385– 403. Some of the material on critical coverage of the execution of U.S.