Tag: public sphere theory

Government’s Little Helper

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.

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Patriot games

In preparation for a conference paper (warning: large pdf) due in a couple of months, I’ve been carefully reading a number of academic articles about the failure of the public sphere (or if you prefer, the “marketplace of ideas“) to function effectively during periods of foreign policy crisis. The post-9/11 period featured limited debate about many foreign policy choices — leading to the Iraq war, for example.

Keep in mind that I’m a proponent of deliberative democracy and would like to see “the” public sphere function effectively in all political contexts. If national or global public spheres break down during periods of foreign policy crises, then there’s almost no hope of achieving a communicatively rational outcome. The discussion would simply be too distorted by power and barren of truly open and inclusive debate.

Political scientists Ron Krebs and Jennifer Lobasz have argued that political opponents could not effectively challenge the proposed Iraq war during 2002 and 2003 because the Bush administration had effectively fixed the meaning of 9/11 in the public debate. In other words, the “war on terrorframe was overwhelming and political opponents had been rhetorically coerced into acquiescence with it.

My ongoing research into counterpublic spheres potentially offers a means for public sphere theory to survive this challenge. Based on some recent research, even scholarly critique could offer a means to resist the hegemony of war and security frames.

However, much of the literature on foreign policy debate is quite pessimistic — the public sphere all-too-often seems threatened even during periods of normal (non-crisis) policy.

For example, interesting research published by sociologist Steven Clayman and colleagues, which examined presidential press conference questioning from 1953-2000, found that the press, which is an important institution in a functional public sphere, is generally much more deferential about foreign policy than about other issues. The scholars studied more than 4600 press conference questions through that time (Clayman and colleagues are only now updating their data to account for the post-2000 era).

The Columbia Journalism Review had a note about the study’s conclusion in May/June 2007:

White House journalists were twice as likely to be ”cautious and deferential”on foreign and military affairs as on domestic matters, a finding that held through periods of war and peace, recession and prosperity.

Another blurb about the Clayman et al study appeared in Utne in the November-December 2007 issue. This note speculates on possible explanations for the failure to question presidents on foreign policy:

while economic developments, such as spikes in unemployment, have historically spurred journalists to ask adversarial questions, administrations’ edicts on foreign policy tend to go unchallenged. The researchers speculate that journalists’ timidity might stem from their limited access to independent information on foreign affairs, or it could be that their patriotism has a tempering effect.

While my own work on transparency speaks to the secrecy issue, I’ve linked also to an academic article by Jane Kellett Cramer, which finds that “norms of militarized patriotism” served to limit debate in the leadup to the Iraq war.

Cramer suggests that a “militarized political culture” was established in the US during the cold war era (receding somewhat during the Vietnam era), which means that virtually all foreign policy debate in the US was artificially limited for decades — whether during crisis or not.

And now this form of militarization is arguably back.

Hmmm.

Discussion?

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The debate climate of the climate debate

The press has periodically made note of various allegations, but the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee just released (December 12) its full report on Political Interference with Climate Change Science Under the Bush Administration. The Committee has been gathering evidence for 16 months and examined 27,000 pages of documents from the Bush administration. It also conducted multiple hearings and interviewed key figures.

What did the Committee find? The Report’s homepage provides this summary:

The evidence before the Committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.

In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed an internal “Communications Action Plan” that stated: “Victory will be achieved when … average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science … [and] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” The Bush Administration has acted as if the oil industry’s communications plan were its mission statement. White House officials and political appointees in the agencies censored congressional testimony on the causes and impacts of global warming, controlled media access to government climate scientists, and edited federal scientific reports to inject unwarranted uncertainty into discussions of climate change and to minimize the threat to the environment and the economy.

Long-time readers may recall that I’ve blogged previously about the administration’s secrecy and exclusionary practices in regard to the climate change debate.

I’m particularly concerned about the context for deliberation since it is vitally important for public truth-seeking. Debates distorted (and dominated) by powerful actors are not likely to result in legitimate outcomes.

IR scholars interested in deliberation and the public sphere might want to check out the scholarly work of James N. Druckman. For example, this is a useful article: “Political Preference Formation: Competition, Deliberation, and the (Ir)relevance of Framing Effects,” American Political Science Review (2004), 98: 671-686.

Druckman finds that distortions can be checked by elite competition and heterogeneous discussion. Thus, congressional oversight of this type potentially has tremendous political value — both procedurally and substantively.

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