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Essay: Exploring How US Media Affects Public Opinion & Foreign Policy in the Middle East

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Emily Egan PSC 320 Research Paper 12/2/18

The Role of Media Influence on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Introduction

There have been many factors that have influenced United States foreign policy throughout our history. These influencing factors can be dependent on technology, political climate, and international conflict; and their roles are constantly changing over time. Although newspapers and other forms of information sharing have existed for centuries, mass media as we know it is a fairly recent development, only having come about within the past few decades. This includes such media as TV, radio, and the internet. For this reason, research on the topic has only been pursued for a short amount of time, and political scientists are at odds as to the true effect that mass media has on foreign policy outcome in the US. There is some evidence that mass media directly impacts foreign policy, however, there appears to be an indirect link between foreign policy and public opinion, which is more likely to be affected by mass media. This paper investigates this indirect link between mass media and foreign policy with specific regard to US foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the effect public opinion has on foreign policy if it is affected by mass media. Source of reporting, American perspective, type of media, and the difference between US media and foreign media will be examined. Some counter arguments against any correlation between mass media and US foreign policy influence will also be examined, such as government influence on the media and the CNN Effect.

Media and Public Opinion

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The strongest argument in favor of a link between mass media and US foreign policy is that media has only an indirect influence on foreign policy through its direct influence on public opinion. This has an especially large impact on US foreign policy in the Middle East because of the way American/Western media portrays this area. According to Ridout et al., “people who perceived the threat of future terrorism in the United States to be high…were more supportive of…interventionist military policies (575). Although some argue that public opinion is not significantly affected by media, Ridout et al. disagree, saying that “in the area of foreign policy, the media’s influence is likely to be stronger given the public’s low level of knowledge of foreign affairs” (576). Changes in public opinion have the potential to influence foreign policy. Studies have shown that “foreign policies correspond with what a majority of Americans favors in more than 90% of the cases examined, and that changes in collective public opinion are followed by congruent changes in policy about two thirds of the time” (Jordan and Page 227). Public opinion matters most to the president when it comes to foreign policy issues because the president has the most foreign policy power. Wood and Peake discuss how “to maintain good standing, the president must attend in some measure to what the public perceives as important, [so] as the public pays greater attention to an issue, the president in turn must attend more to that issue” (175). They go on to say that “public perceptions of the relevant importance of an issue are largely determined by the news media … [because] Americans generally do not pay attention to foreign policy issues until events covered by the news media cause them to do so” (175). Americans also have what Boaz calls an “Ameri-centric” worldview. According to her, “American media have a much narrower view of the world than their counterparts, and they focus on the United States as the center of the story, rather than on larger geopolitical trends” (355).

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Public opinion, and consequently, foreign policy, can be affected by who is reporting in the media. The president and administration officials of the same party dominate most media reporting, accounting for 47% of all stories (Jordan and Page 231). However, Jordan and Page found that this type of reporting results in very different types of change in public opinion depending on the popularity of the administration. According to their study, “popular presidents in fact have substantial effects on public opinion, whereas unpopular presidents have virtually no effect at all,” and are “far from statistical significance” (235). Interestingly, other forms of reporting were found to have much more of an effect on public opinion than the president and their administration. Jordan and Page found that:

News commentary, from anchorpersons, reporters in the field, or special commentators, had a very large effect on public opinion about foreign policy. A single “probably favorable” story is estimated to produce nearly 6 percentage points of opinion change … it suggests the news media themselves may play an active role in shaping Americans’ opinions about foreign policy. (234)

Reports from experts and opposition leaders were also found to have significant impact, with experts and research studies changing public opinion by an average of over 5 percentage points and opposition leaders having an impact when they are popular compared to the president (234).

The type of media people are consuming can also affect public opinion and foreign policy outcome. Multiple sources used for this paper reported that the majority of Americans get more news from television than from any other source. There were also multiple sources reporting that television produced the most change in public opinion. An example of this is public opinion about American involvement in Iraq, where “regular television users … were significantly more likely to support the war” and “the use of online news (from domestic news organizations) was not a

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statistically significant predictor of public opinion in terms of support for the war” (Tolbert and McNeal 21). This same study also said that use of radio and newspapers did not significantly affect public opinion towards the war (21). According to Tolbert and McNeal, “roughly equal percentages of self-identified rely on television (cable, national network and local) as a primary news source for the war” (21).

Media influence on foreign policy is much different in the US than in other countries because of the way American media presents information. During the Iraq war, most civilians in European and Middle Eastern states were shown to be extremely against military intervention, but Americans were strongly in favor. This occurred because of how US media portrayed the war. According to Boaz, media in the US “produced evidence for both the Realism and Militarism frames on several dimensions, including the actors and sources relevant, characterization for the reason for war, the relevant issues associated with the conflict, and the manner in which the conflict should be resolved” (356). The US framed the war in a way that supported military intervention and made it seem like a necessity, while other countries framed military intervention as unnecessary. For this reason, Americans supported the war while Europeans/Middle Easterners overwhelmingly disapproved of it. Americans have typically supported interventionism since WWII because until the end of the Cold War, the government always had a defined “enemy” of sorts that could be used to justify such action. Vietnam, Korea, and the Soviet Union can be used as examples. However, once the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no immediate opposition powers threatening the US. At this point, interventionism had become the most common thought in the US (cite Boaz!!) This is because there have been “two schemas [that] have tugged at each other within American political culture: one supporting interventionism, the other isolation … the lack of a demon to threaten the US disrupts journalists’ and the public’s

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stored associative links to the benefits of intervention policies” (BOOK 14). European media also puts a greater emphasis on historical context for the events in Iraq than US media, which typical focused on war strategy (Boaz 355).

Counterarguments

There are some arguments that foreign policy is not significantly affected by mass media. One argument against the media is that the CNN Effect is over-exaggerated and does not have as much of an impact as some scholars believe. Although considered by some to play a factor in the amount of influence media has on US foreign policy, there is evidence to suggest that the CNN Effect actually does not play much of a role in shaping foreign policy. The CNN Effect may have minimal effect on public opinion when it is supporting a humanitarian issue. At the beginning of the Iraq War, media coverage was mostly positive, which had a positive impact on public opinion. During the invasion of Iraq(what year?????), there were some setbacks that slowed down the impact of American forces. These events were covered by the American press from the front lines. This coverage showed to have “no discernible effect on the course of US strategy during this period of the Iraq War” (Fitzsimmons 14). The US has had troops overseas in Iraq since 2003, and it has taken an incredibly long time to be able to establish any form of peace. Over time, news attention became more negative, and Americans became more negative towards the war as a result of being impatient and unsatisfied with the amount of time it was taking to US troops to yield any positive results. Although the negative reporting shifted public opinion and led to a push for change in strategy, “the US executive [remained] deeply committed to its existing strategy and [resisted] all external pressure to change course, including those generated by reporting of the news media” (Fitzsimmons 24). The CNN Effect may not have a significant impact because studies like Fitzsimmons’ have found that “a high degree of consensus among American politico-military

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decision makers over the proper course of US military strategy…largely precluded the media from influencing the course of US strategy (25).

The media cover a terrible event; the public sees the pictures, whether starvation in Africa or refugees from Kurdistan, and demands that something done … this implied democratic policymaking model ignores several factors, most importantly perhaps the tendency of Americans and Europeans to pay scant attention to foreign affairs news. It also applies a particular model of democratic responsibility that may apply to liberal Western democracies, but is rather limited in any attempt at broader application (Gilboa 38).

This is saying that the CNN Effect may not work in the way many political scientists have said it does, and may actually have little impact because Americans do not pay as close attention as we would hope or expect.

Another argument against media having influence on foreign policy is that the government influences what is being shown in the media. Traditionally, the media has supported the president/US government’s views on many foreign policy issues (CITE????). This leads to media bias because the media will report issues concerning non-friendly and competitive countries in a negative night, while glossing over or ignoring negative issues or events in friendly, ally countries. Herman discusses an example involving shoot-downs of civilian planes in two foreign states:

Media treatment of civilian-airliner shoot-downs affords another interesting comparison of media performance. The Soviet shoot-down of Korean Airliner flight 007 on 1 September 1983 occurred during a period when the Reagan administration was eagerly attempting to demonize the Soviet Union. The administration seized this opportunity to tar the Soviets as brutal and ruthless, and it organized a worldwide publicity campaign and boycott. The

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mainstream media joined the campaign with enthusiasm and passion, expressing great indignation and employing invidious language such as “barbarian,” “savage,” and “coldblooded murder,” insistently pursuing the question of responsibility of high Soviet officials, and rejecting Soviet claims that the plane was on a spy mission, and that they were unaware that it was a civilian aircraft … when the Israeli air force shot down a Libyan civilian airliner in February 1973, however, the U.S. mass media never used dramatic language. It was termed only a “tragic accident,” and … the government and media together in this case kept publicity and indignation at a minimum (Herman 5).

In these cases, the media framed events to match the government’s opinions of the at-fault states. The media portrayed the Soviet Union in a negative light because of the tense relationship between the Soviets and the US, while the shoot-down in Israel was mostly ignored because of the US’ friendship with that state. If the government is influencing what the media is reporting, then any influence the media has on foreign policy will most likely only change the opinions of the public to match the government’s already-held views. For this reason, the government is influencing public opinion through mass media, not the other way around.

Conclusion

There are multiple factors that influence US foreign policy. Mass media has impacted US foreign policy throughout the past few decades in many ways. Most significantly, media has impacted public opinion, which in turn impacts foreign policy. Although there still seems to be much debate as to whether or not the media has influence over foreign policy, there is more evidence that mass media has influence, albeit indirect through public opinion, to foreign policy. However, it is worth noting that all of the sources used for this paper were published prior to the 2016 election and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump. The media and government

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relationship has shifted dramatically, with liberal and conservative media becoming even more polarized and the president and his administration attacking “fake news” and portraying journalists, foreigners, and liberal media in a negative light. Because there have been so few published studies on this topic since, the Trump administration will still be in the White House for at least two more years, and because this shift has occurred dramatically in such a short amount of time, it is very possible that these results may no longer be completely accurate and that media could have more or less of an influence on both public opinion and US foreign policy.

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