Matthew A. Baum

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Tabloid Wars: The Mass Media, Public Opinion, and the Decision to Use Force Abroad

Abstract

Live televised images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, wounded American prisoners of war paraded in front of video cameras in Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo, while their families were interviewed simultaneously on live television at home and scud missile attacks in Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War have brought foreign policy directly into America's living rooms.  By transforming complex, distant events into entertaining and compelling human dramas, these images have captured the American public's attention to a far greater extent than printed reports, photographs and tape-delayed videos ever could.   The immediate, vivid and sometimes bloody images that can now be transmitted in real time to the American people as a war unfolds make it far more difficult for the public to ignore the very real costs of war.   Scholars and journalists have documented the urgency placed by the Bush Administration during the Gulf War on achieving a quick, decisive victory, lest images of bloody American soldiers, broadcast live into America’s living rooms, erode domestic support for the war.   Simply stated, massive, real-time media coverage of U.S. military actions has become ubiquitous in the 1990s and will likely be factored into all future presidential decisions concerning the use of force.

My project addresses the evolving relationship between the mass media, public opinion and presidential decisionmaking regarding the use of force abroad.   I focus upon a key domestic political variable -- public opinion -- and the media’s role as an intervening variable between public opinion and policy decisionmaking in foreign crises.

Much of the contemporary literature holds that the media does significantly influence public opinion, and public opinion does, at least sometimes, influence policy outcomes.   Yet no theory adequately explains how changes in the media might alter public perceptions of foreign policy, nor how public opinion influences policy decisionmaking.   Have modern media technologies and practices affected Americans' fascination with and tolerance for war?   And will their reactions reduce the willingness of America's leaders to employ military force as a policy tool in the future?   These are the primary questions this dissertation ultimately seeks to answer.

The dissertation is divided into two sections.   In the first section, I challenge the conventional wisdom of an unchanging public.   I argue that past empirical findings that the political awareness of the mass public has been unaffected by the media revolution have failed to capture meaningful changes which have, in fact, occurred and which, by adjusting one’s analytical focus, can be measured.   I attempt to demonstrate that the relationship between the media and the mass public has evolved in the post-World War II era, resulting in an evolution in mass opinion concerning certain high profile political issues — most notably foreign military crises.   Simply stated, I argue that, even as the American public declares itself, in countless opinion polls, to be less concerned with foreign affairs in the Post-Cold War era, the public is nonetheless becoming more attentive to foreign policy crises.  To test my theory, I employ content analyses of media coverage of various military conflicts and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys, using nine distinct data sets, including both cross-sectional and time-series data, to demonstrate trends in public opinion and to relate increases in public attentiveness to foreign crises to the growth and diversification of the mass media.

In the second section, I turn to the implications of this trend for the future management of foreign crises by U.S. Presidents.  I argue that presidents are becoming increasingly constrained by a crisis-galvanized public.   I employ a formal model to develop hypotheses concerning how, and under what circumstances, public attentiveness will influence presidential decisionmaking during foreign crises.   I then, in subsequent chapters, conduct various tests of the model’s predictions, including statistical analyses of all U.S. foreign crises since World War II and a case study of the 1992-94 U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

Chapter-by-chapter overview >