Matthew Baum on Global Communications and Public Policy

Interviewed by Doug Gavel October 22, 2009

The fast and furious pace of technological advancement has fueled a revolution in global communications. It is a revolution that has changed the way people relate with one another and with the world. And it has certainly affected the way political leaders reach and influence their audiences.

Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and Professor of Public Policy. His research focuses on delineating the effects of domestic politics on international conflict and cooperation in general and American foreign policy in particular, as well as on the role of the mass media and public opinion in contemporary American politics. 

Q: Is the link between “mass media” and public opinion as strong as it once was?

Baum: If you think about the effects of media on public attitudes at the individual level, then there are several factors that come into play – one of which is what a person brings to the table; that is, how knowledgeable they are, how engaged, how informed, etc. Another factor is their assessment of the source of the information; that is, the credibility of the person trying to communicate to them or persuade them. The third factor is the ability of that source to reach them.

There is no particular reason to believe that the first of those three factors has changed over time. People are more or less as sophisticated, interested, knowledgeable as they have been, at least throughout the post-World War II era.

There have been some changes in the second factor in terms of assessments of source credibility. In America, we certainly live in an era without an equivalent to Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted person in America” who could speak on a regular basis to a national audience, including a majority of citizens who accepted what he said as credible. There’s nothing like that anymore. The news media have lost a fair amount of their credibility. The credibility gap is caused in part by the very fragmentation that has taken away the common civic space the media used to be able to represent. So there is some question as to whether the media can be as persuasive to citizens as they used to be.

With respect to the third factor – which is actual exposure – today more and more people are able to reach out and find outlets that cater fairly narrowly to their particular tastes and preferences. So the same factor that has compromised the assessment of credibility in the press has also compromised the ability of the media to reach people.

In the aggregate I think it’s safe to say that as many people, and perhaps more than ever, are exposed to some information or news in the press and many of them are influenced by it. But they are exposed to many different messages with very different content and implications. Are they persuaded? Maybe not as much as we might think. Rather, they are more likely to have their pre-existing opinions reinforced. So on the latter two dimensions I think we have seen a change. The implication of that is that it’s harder than it used to be for the media to influence public opinion.

Q: How are modern day political leaders leveraging new and social media in reaching their audiences, and what are the most likely effects?

Baum: One of the most profound effects of media fragmentation concerns political leadership. Political leaders have two fundamental strategies available to them, in either pursuing election or in building coalitions to support policies. One is “preaching to the choir” – rallying your base, getting your supporters excited, getting them to turn out. The other is “converting the flock” – bringing people who were not already supporters into the fold. The latter is much more difficult than it used to be. It’s harder to reach out beyond your base; it’s harder to find people who are willing to listen to what you have to say.

So given this, what are leaders inclined to do? Preaching to the choir is something that they’ve always done, and it’s now easier than ever, so not surprisingly you see politicians using online media to try and provide red meat to their bases. This is not designed to persuade the un-persuaded, but rather to excite the already-persuaded.

However, there is still a desire to reach out beyond the base and that’s not as easy as it used to be. In fact, one of the primary reasons you see politicians and candidates appearing on late night comedy shows and daytime talk shows is because “soft news” is one of the few remaining avenues where you can actually reach out beyond your base and appeal to a relatively persuadable audience.

Q: How has the formulation of American foreign policy been impacted by the global communications revolution?

Baum: In terms of American foreign policy in particular, one clear effect is that in an environment in which much more information is available through lots of different channels – catering to all different tastes and preferences – it becomes important for leaders to first find their audience and then communicate information in ways that their audience will pay attention to and accept. What does that mean in terms of foreign policy? It probably means less discussion of geopolitics and more discussion of body bags. Stated differently, it means more dramatic, sensationalized representations of what is going on in foreign policy.

That concerns communication, but ultimately communication effects policy as well. Certain kinds of policies are easier to frame in accessible ways that are likely to be persuasive. It becomes difficult to sustain longer term support for a foreign policy initiative like a war. You can count on your adversaries to make their arguments against your policies in these stark, simplistic, dramatic terms that make it very easy for people to turn against it. Ironically, the bully pulpit gave presidents a huge advantage for a very long time in foreign policy. Now, I think you can make the case that the information revolution is limiting that advantage, both in terms of reaching audiences, but also in terms of arming adversaries with the means of challenging a president’s ability to control the framing of foreign policy.

Q: Any other thoughts on the issue?

Baum: Changes in the information environment have real and often profound effects on the substance of public policy. So it’s really not just an issue that is of interest to democratic theorists about how we create participatory citizenry and how do we reach the Greek democratic ideal. Even if you’re not really concerned about those more philosophical questions, if you are concerned about the types of politics and public policy outcomes we’re likely to see going forward, it’s very important to consider the incentives of all of these actors in the process. What are media actors providing, what are citizens interested in consuming, and what is the capacity to marry the product to the demand of the market. And as that becomes increasingly tightly matched so that people are able to get the product that more perfectly matches what they want, what implications does this have for our ability to formulate national policy, things that appeal to everybody. I think that this is a public policy dilemma that we haven’t really begun to tackle in a serious way.

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