Public Media and US Foreign
Guiding Questions
 How do we define media and public opinion as it
relates to foreign policy?
 Should US political leaders listen to the public?
 What frameworks exist to examine media effects on
foreign policy?
 What are their strengths? Weaknesses?
Foreign Policy and Public Opinion
 Robinson 2008
 Media: refers to the mainstream media (network TV, cable news,
newspapers, etc.)
Typically claim to be objective
Supposed to perform a “watchdog” role and provide information necessary for intelligent
Free market model: US media not controlled by government
 Public opinion: aggregation of individual beliefs within the body politic
Isolationists vs. internationalists
 American foreign policy decisions in the post 9/11 era conducted in the
spotlight of US and global media.
Raises questions about the extent to which public opinion (both domestic and international)
shapes US foreign policy
 Debates over the role of public opinion in foreign policy are shaped by two
theoretical models
Pluralist vs. elite models
 Both have different views of the ability of public opinion to bolster or
constrain foreign policy
Should The Government Listen to the Public?
 Ray 2008
 No:
The public neither knows about
nor understands foreign policy
The public bases opinions on
incorrect assumptions.
The opinion of the public is
shaped by a number of biased
individuals through the media.
Surveys show that the public
generally believe things that are
simply not true
 Robinson 2008
Typically associated with realism
 Ray 2008
 Yes:
While it is true that individuals
often hold incorrect views, in
aggregate, the public tends to act
Individuals take cues from
several, not just one, source and
form opinions from those cues.
In general, the public, while
uninformed about specific facts,
generally holds a correct collective
 Robinson 2008
Typically associated with liberal
institutional or critical theories
The Pluralist Model
 Robinson 2008
 Assumes that:
 1) Power is dispersed throughout society
2) US public is capable of rationally assessing information
No single interest can dominate
Can form their own opinion
3) Mainstream media sufficiently independent from
4) US political system is sensitive to changes in public opinion
Types of Effects
Robinson 2008
 Direct (policymakers directly affected by the media) vs. indirect effects (media affects
citizens which in turn influences policymakers) exist
 Four categories
 1) CNN Effect: 24 hour news cycle shapes decision to adopt a specific policy
 May be exaggerated
 2) Accelerant effect: media attention speeds up policymaking process
 Same decision reached, just reached more quickly
 3) Enabling effect: media attention builds support for a policy
 Public reporting of 9/11 and Bush policy on terror
 4) Impediment effect: fear of negative coverage “kills” some policy options
 Vietnam Syndrome
 Many factors shape policy making (including public opinion and media attention)
 Influence of media is subtle and focuses primarily on procedural rather than
substantive grounds
Influence not as obvious as typically claimed
Criticisms of the Pluralist Model
 Robinson 2008
 Four main criticisms are levied against the pluralist model:
 1) Overestimates individual agency while underestimating institutional
2) Overestimates citizen intellect and underestimates US responsiveness
Focus on procedural vs. substantive issues
3) Advocates focus on rare events which prove the model rather than the
Journalists have free speech (thought to influence debate) but are embedded
within an institutional context which may limit this freedom (e.g., media as
business, etc.)
Watergate, etc.
4) Ignores the fact that journalists receive information from the
government and the government “spins” information
The Elite Model
 Robinson 2008
 Posits that relatively small groups within the US hold an
inordinate amount of power
Power is not dispersed as pluralist models indicate
Foreign policy debates are framed in ways which benefit elite interests
Foreign policy experts, business, think tanks, etc. dominate the foreign policy
Media is a tool for elite interests
Agenda setting, priming, framing
The media is tied into these elite interests through political and
economic incentives
Policymaking process is “immune” from “non-elite” influence
Size of the “attentive public” is limited; those outside cannot hold a valid
opinion (Almond 1950)
 Example: Hussein and Bin Laden ties to 9/11
Framing and Foreign Policy
 Media accounts are framed in ways
which are compatible with elite
But elite interests are not always
Even disagreement is “managed”
 Hallin 1986
 Elite agreement occurs within a sphere
of consensus
 Elite disagreement occurs within a
sphere of legitimate controversy
Views outside this latter category exist
within a sphere of deviance
Media only reports from the first two
 Bennett 1990
 Indexing ensures media portrayals fit
elite framework
 Herman and Chomsky 1988
 Even critical accounts occur within
bounds set by elites
Criticisms of Elite Models
 Robinson 2008
 Five criticisms often levied against elite models
 1) Overemphasize political and economic constraints on
journalists and the public
2) Individuals can resist dominant frames
3) Exaggerates the level of elite consensus
Both are capable of forming opinions outside elite consensus
Government and business do not always see “eye to eye”
4) Exaggerates the “monolithic nature” of the media
5) Ignores opportunities for “non-elites” to take advantage of
media opportunities to criticize foreign policy
Conclusions: Media and Soft Power?
 Robinson 2008
 Focusing solely on domestic effects ignores the fact that the US
government attempts to shape not only American but also
international public opinion
Hard power vs. soft power
Soft power provides opportunities for the US to shape citizens of other countries
who, in turn, shape the beliefs of their leaders
 New technological and international media sources can impact
attempts at international public diplomacy
Examples of technology/social media: Twitter, Facebook, digital cameras, etc.
Examples of new media sources: Al Jazeera
 Imagery can be sent internationally both quickly and inexpensively
 Forces the US government to respond in different ways
 Domestic news sources may be able to shape US opinion about
foreign policy, but international sources may undermine the ability
of American administrations to shape international public opinion
Next Unit
 Theme: US Foreign Policy and 9/11
 Cox and Stokes CH 18 and 20
 Bush: http://bit.ly/qtQD1V
 Obama: http://1.usa.gov/aZrfUd
 Lake (Rational Extremism): http://bit.ly/re9UhU
 Pape (Suicide Terrorism): http://bit.ly/4MsXJ7
Optional Background: Carter CH 1

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