Does the press often serve as “government’s little helper”?

As you might guess, I am still thinking about the apparent failure of the public sphere (or “marketplace of ideas” if you prefer) to work properly during foreign policy crises. Many readers graciously provided interesting and helpful comments on my post from last week. Thank you! For now, however, I continue to explore the academic literature about the alleged timidity of journalists during such crises.

In 1990, University of Washington scholar Lance Bennett theorized that journalists “index” the slant of their news coverage to the range of opinion within the government.

One implication is clear — when internal dissent is lacking, press reports will reflect fairly one-sided coverage. Bennett’s latest book, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (Chicago, 2007), coauthored with Regina G. Lawrence and Steven Livingston makes this argument in the context of the current administration:

During the gravest moments of George W. Bush’s tenure—the response to 9/11, the buildup to war with Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal—the media largely reported reality as his administration scripted it. Why, in these times when we most need a critical, independent press, does this essential pillar of democracy fail us? …When the Press Fails argues that reporters’ dependence on official sources disastrously thwarts coverage of dissenting voices from outside the beltway.

The result is both an indictment of official spin and an urgent call to action that begins by questioning why the mainstream press neglected to cover considerable evidence against the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Drawing on hard-hitting interviews with journalists and analysis of content from major news outlets, the authors show that such catastrophic blind spots, particularly during the Abu Ghraib controversy, have stemmed from a lack of high-level sources within government willing to question the administration publicly.

Much evidence suggests that “indexing” was a problem throughout the cold war.

Michael Schudson, a professor of communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and at the University of California, San Diego, wrote the following in The Nation, December 31, 2007:

A study of media coverage of forty-two foreign policy crises between 1945 and 1999 (written by political scientists John Zaller and Dennis Chiu) found the media to be consistently, as the article’s title puts it, “government’s little helper.” The study suggests that docile news coverage was a result of “source indexing,” in which news represents or “indexes” the range of opinions of leading government officials in the executive and the Congress, and “power indexing,” in which news emphasizes most of all the views of those with the greatest capacity to “foretell future events.” Coverage is normally docile, in other words, because it concentrates on the views of government officials whose hands are on or close to the levers of power.

Is the public sphere doomed to fail because of a subservient press — particularly during crises?

Perhaps not.

To begin, Schudson’s characterization of Zaller and Chiu is somewhat misleading. Zaller and Chiu actually find (p. 61 of the edited volume, Decisionmaking in a Glass House) that

“the dynamics of media politics, despite a strong indexing effect over the entire post-World War II period, have changed since the end of the Cold War. In particular, the media tend to be more independent of Congress and the president, though not necessarily more independent of government officials generally.”

In the seven post-cold war cases they study, Zaller and Chiu (p. 77) find that “the news is more balanced, politicians are more fractious, and the slant of the news is more independent.” In the 1990s cases of Somalia and Haiti, for instance, they found the media heavily reliant upon expert sources — many of which were non-American.

As I addressed last week, it seems likely that the post-9/11 context is more like the cold war than the 1990s. The war on terror has re-militarized the public sphere. The deleterious implications, as noted above, are examined by Bennett and colleagues in their new book.

However, even in the most recent context, Bennett and colleagues find dissent. Hurricane Katrina — which was, after all, a homeland security disaster — featured “refreshingly critical reporting.” This “rare event…caught officials off guard, enabling journalists to enter a no-spin zone.”

Bennett et al conclude hopefully:

“if ordinary Americans start to hear alternative perspectives aired in the legitimizing arena of the mainstream press, they just might begin to act as a public.”

That’s interesting — and seemingly consistent with my previous arguments about an open and inclusive public sphere.