MEDIA IMPACT ON FOREIGN POLICY: THE “INDEXING HYPOTHESIS” DURING THE RUN UP TO “ 9-11” GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR
The greatest test of a press system is how it empowers citizens to monitor the government’s war-making powers. War is the most serious use of state power, organized sanctioned violence; how well it is under citizen review and control is not only a litmus test for the media but for society as a whole. Those in power, those who benefit from war and empire, see the press as arguably the most important front for war, because it is there that consent is manufactured, dissent is marginalized. For a press system, a war is its moment of truth. Some research studies have even maintained that the media is involved in all the stages of foreign policy formulation and that political leaders take the media into consideration in its national and international aspects. However, I argue in this paper , that even if the media can set the actual policy agenda in some circumstances, this does not necessarily mean that they influence policy. Political rhetoric may appear to signal media impact, but to what extent can it be said that the media maintained this important role to provide wide perspectives and understandings of the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks? It is the key question that this paper sets out to answer by summarizing the principal arguments and evidentiary claims on the “Indexing hypothesis” made within the political communications literature. To test and extend these claims the study probes a single case study, albeit one of monumental importance during the nation’s recent history; namely the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the declaration of the global war on terrorism. By content-analyzing a census of news coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post from September 12 to December 18, 2001, the study presents evidence that without dissident Congressional voices or much if any debate journalists scrambled to meet their news norm of objectivity, and that there were lesser elites and even foreign voices filling this objectivity hole in the resultant news void and hence the media’s inability to make a difference in U.S. foreign policy that was determined to pursue a bellicose pattern.
A number of journalists and popular commentators have suggested that the terrorist attackd on 9-11, 2001, were defining moments in the United States history (e.g Gibbs, 2001a; Morrow 2001; Zakaria 2001 ). The terrorist attacks upon the United States began an unprecedented level of United States foreign policy news coverage.
This point is highlighted by public opinion data that indicated the “news interest” of U.S. adults was markedly high in the days, weeks, and moths after the terrorist attacks. For example well into December 2001 roughly half of randomly sampled U.S adults indicated they were “very closely” following news about 9-11 attacks and subsequent U.S. campaign against terrorism, the highest level of sustained public interest in news in more than a decade ( Pew 2001).
President Bush laid out his foreign policy strategy only nine days after the attacks in his address before the U.S Congress and a national television audience on September 20, 2001. During his speech, he articulated his administration’s plans for a “war on terrorism.” Included in his address were claims that the conflict would be lengthy in duration and would not specifically target Muslims ( Bush 2001).
Over the next four weeks the President and his top aides routinely and aggressively emphasized specific and worst-case exceptions for a pending global military campaign. Among the administration’s popularly communicated themes, including those mentioned in his national speech, included the possibility of unfortunate-but-perhaps-unavoidable civilian deaths, probably U.S. military casualties, the challenges of defining an exit strategy and the challenge of rebuilding a post war Afghanistan. Indeed, administration-led discussion on these six topics, referred to as “war themes” appeared 58 times in Washington Post and New York Times news content between September 12 and October 7, 2001. These numbers, calculated in the days before the actual Afghan military campaign, seem to give validity to what Maltese (1992) and Cook (1998) have termed the administration “line of the day”, or the ability to control a message, keep it simple and consistently repeat it (p 135).
These elite communications, manifesting themselves with six distinct themes, are notable in that they seemed to be a part of a larger executive level strategy to engender post 9-11 confidence in the administration’s wartime leadership and to assuage potential concerns that the United States and its military was headed toward an historically unwinnable “quagmire” ( e.g. France/U.S. in Vietnam, U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan ). This trend could be called an example of what Manheim (1991, 1994) termed “strategic political communication;” a practice in which leaders craft their public language and communications with the goal to create, control, distribute, and use mediated messages as a political resource. In particular, political elites have become adept at the management of political and news environments ( see Domke, Watts, Shah, and Fan, 1999; Herman, 1993; Pfetsch 1998; Protess et al.1991; Zaller 1992), a process which seems likely during a national crisis such the events and aftermath of 9-11, when political leaders expect citizens to look to them for guidance and vision. This military campaign in November, 2001 was reported in the New York Times article:
“It is not just information that the pentagon leadership is keeping under tight control. It is also expectations…The desire to keep information and expectations at a minimum stems from the experiences of the Vietnam War, longtime military reporters and military historians say. The Johnson administration “oversold greatly the degree the degree of success” of the war before the Tet offensive in 1968, said Don Oberdorfer, a former diplomatic and military correspondent for the Washington Post. The unrealistic expectations turned the Tet battles –arguably a United States military victory—into a massive public relations defeat.”
Exploring the relationship between the administration and the press during the early stages of the war on terrorism ( Sept 12 thru Dec 18 ) is important in that the mass media, through their professional norms of objectivity and neutrality ( Bennett 1984; Cook 1998 ), not only had the potential, but an “institutional” responsibility, to offer counter opinion and criticism within the realm of a quickly unfolding and aggressive foreign policy.
Timothy Cook in Governing with the News, offers support for the theory that newsbeat journalism can, and often do control elite instigated news by “weaving” in collected comments and quotes. He argues that this “weaving” process happens even when or if elite sources restrict journalistic access or attempt to focus on more favorable topic. He reasons that “the news media still has final say over the ultimate product—by raising other issues, interjecting doubts, questioning motives and seeking out critical sources for balance.” ( Cook 1998).
The level of press responsibility becomes heightened when one considers the relatively lack of critical discourse being offered by Congress who, in support of the Bush administration’s outlook for the war on terrorism, politically lined up with the President. For example, votes by Congress authorizing military action against those responsible for the 9-11 attacks ( a joint resolution approved September 14 ) and the ant-terrorism U.S.A.Patriotic Act signed into law October 26 after a month of debate in Congress ) were overwhelmingly in administration’s favor.
This Congressional support is greatly contrasted by that given to President George Bush in the 1990 Gulf war. Congressional criticism of President George Bush Sr.’s Gulf policy became an important theme in reporting, only seven weeks into the crisis. New York Times reporter R.W.Apple, Jr. wrote:
“Congressional criticism of the Bush Administration’s policies in the Persian Gulf, nonexistent in the first days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, then muted, is growing louder on both sides of the aisle as lawmakers openly attack the President on several major points” ( NY Times 1990)
Likewise, news media criticism of the Vietnam War emerged only when congressional sources began to raise doubts about presidential strategies ( Cook 1998).
From the early days following the terrorist attacks through the height of the U.S. military campaign, the president and his administration enjoyed a unique position with their substantial level of Congressional and public support that continued on into the military campaign in Afghanistan ( Gallup 2001a ). During this same period, the administration was able to concentrate their message and war themes in selling the idea of a war on terrorism to the American people. With the unprecedented speed of moving to an overseas military campaign, near nonexistent criticism and the majority of the country rallying around the flag as a backdrop, my paper analyzes a census of news and editorial coverage of the New York Times and the Washington Post between 9-11 and the December 18th fall of Kabul, with the goal of examining the journalistic adherence of Tuchman’s (1972) and Bennett’s ( 1990, 1996 ) “newsgathering norms.” Specifically, I attempt to discover if they would be discernable patterns in news coverage relevant to not only Bennett’s (1990) Indexing theory, but a host of other academic findings that have since constructed new rules and aspects to Bennett’s original 1990 indexing theory.
The genesis of most studies of media—government interactions stem from a concern about the media’s function within the democratic process; assuming the duty of reporting as independently as possible from government sources ( Entman et al. 1996). One of the primary findings in political communication research is that official sources consistently dominate the views of political stories ( Blumler & Gurevitvtch 1981; Brown et al.1987; Sigal, 1973; Bennett 1996 ). Other findings suggest that dominance of executive branch sources is more pronounced in national security stories than in the news as a whole ( Hallin, Manoff, Weddle, 1990 ) and that official sources are able to dictate what is newsworthy (Cohen 1963). Leon Sigal (1973) summarized this idea succinctly:
“Even when the journalist is in a position to observe an event directly, he remains reluctant to offer interpretations of his own, preferring instead to rely on his news sources. For the reporter, in short, most news is not what has happened, but what someone said has happened.”
Bennett (1990, 1996 ) and Cook (1998) argue that media reliance on officials is firmly rotted in three types of journalism norms: the professional virtues of objectivity and balance; the obligation to provide some degree of democratic accountability; and the economic realities of news business. Tuchman’s (1972) “Objectivity Norm” requires that journalists present “both sides” of a story. Cook (1998) builds on this argument such that, through the routine use of these norms, the press has become a political institution. Bennett (1995) supports Cooks notion in that the result of the press’s push to “get an official reaction” is formally institutionalized among news organizations that operate within a news beat system. It is this institutionalized system Bennett says “that links reporters with officials who are presumed to occupy powerful or authoritative positions in decision-making or policy-implementation processes.”
Through a consideration of these and other media/press relationships, Bennett (1990) formulated the theory of indexing:
“Mass media professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to “index” the range of
voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of
views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic” (p.106).
Bennett summarized that “other non-official voices fill out the potential population of news sources included in mews coverage and editorials when these voices express opinions already emerging in official circles’ (p 106); essentially that government elites not the press, set the range of argument with lesser actors offering viewpoints within this accepted range. Bennet’s indexing hypothesis appears in a wide body of political communication scholarship. From the original (1990) indexing theory a number of key foreign policy studies has emerged that offered further nuances , conditions and limits for indexing.
In Zaller and Chiu’s (1996) examination of U.S. news coverage of foreign policy crisis, they refined indexing theory by providing “narrower” and more “situational rules” for news trend coverage during the foreign policy crisis, or emergency situations. These situations defined and predicted how journalists would slant foreign policy coverage as either “hawkish” in favor of aggressive foreign policy action or “dovish” representing a more cautious approach for foreign policy conflicts leading Zaller and Chiu to hypothesize that the press indexes its coverage to the views of different actors at different points in a crisis: to the president at the first emergence of a crisis, to the Congress as events begin to settle down and to the opinion of non-politicians ( such as experts or the public at large ), in cases in which the crisis persists over a long period of time.
Livingstone and Eachus(1996) support the notion of indexing theory in news and editorials particular .to news concerning U.S. foreign policy goals and practices.
They further the notion , with comparative case studies, that the press, in a post-cold war environment without a clearly galvanizing or conceptual policy consensus, has greater latitude in including once “marginalized” dissident vices or ideas. Further, studies have shown that dissident voices, when recognized in the news, are contextualized with symbolic cues that can diminish or bolster their silence or credibility for news audiences ( Entman & Rojecki 1993: Gitlin 1980 ). Bennett (1996) suggests that “off beat” viewpoints and the introduction of cues about their credibility or importance suggest the existence of underlying rules or guidelines for making these symbolic decisions. Marginalization of dissent voices was operationalized in Altaus et al’s (1996) study involving the 1985-86 Libya crisis. They advanced the notion that some voices were marginalized and others overemphasized via their amount of front-page coverage. Althaus et al (1996) and Bennett (1996) argued that, under certain conditions, journalists appear to seek out foreign sources to provide counter opinions to the dominant U.S. policy position. The authors called this coverage by the press power indexing, essentially, following the voices of those who are able to control the outcome of a situation despite the nationality. These results demonstrated much higher levels of foreign voices than previous indexing studies. Bennett (1996) and Zaller et al (1996) supported these findings with Bennett offering a follow up journalistic “rule” pursuing a complex developing story: “follow the trail of power.”
It is my view that in the six weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, President and members of his administration publicly engaged in strategic political communication to build support both domestically and abroad for the “war on terrorism.” In doing so, his administration maintained a consistent and aggressive perspective and public discourse on at least the six “war themes,” themes that are the basis for this study. The administration for a variety of reasons, maintained healthy public and Congressional support through a military buildup and an eventual campaign in Afghanistan. In this unique communication environment, and with a lack of elite dissident voices in Congress available to “index’ I propose the following questions:
RQ1: Were non-administration (e.g. lesser government official or foreign ) voices
carried in the news able to introduce this paper’s “war themes” into news
coverage before the administration was able to establish their position
My first research question revolves around the original indexing hypothesis ( Bennett 1990 ) that non-official voices are covered only when they express opinions already emerging in official circles. Wit the high level of bi-partisanship for the war on terrorism fostering “one-sided” discourse among U.S. government elites, the news media would have few alternative viewpoints to choose from within official U.S. circles. U.S government debate was markedly similar to the early stages of the Gulf War buildup when official sources were largely in agreement about deployment of U.S. troops to Kuwait ( see Zaller 1994a ). As a result, journalists who follow the established routine of “indexing” their coverage and language to the U.S. elites, under classic indexing, would have little choice but to adopt the range of voices offered.
Several scholars ( e.g. Bloom 1990; Cottam & Cottam 2001; Hutchinson 1994; Niebur 1967 ) highlight the ability of motivation or U.S. government leaders to manipulate national discourse and symbols in order to engender and mobilize support among the mass public for specific political goals. Further, some scholars ( Bloom, 1990; Calabrese & Burke, 1992; Deutch & Merritt 1965 and Zaller 1994 ) theorize that elites exert their greatest influence over news coverage and , ultimately, public opinion during moments of crisis when greater-than-usual numbers of citizens pay attention to politics and news coverage. It would seem reasonable then, at the early stages of mobilizing support for the “war on terror” Americans would look to the President and his administration for leadership early in the crisis with lesser elites gaining voices as the crisis becomes routine. With unprecedented support of Congress through Afghan military campaign, it becomes an important point of theoretical departure to investigate which news group would follow the President in Zaller’s hybrid (1996) indexing hypothesis.
RQ2: How closely will news coverage of the war on terrorism follow Zaller’s ( (1996) indexing-influenced hypothesis that the president will be featured
Primarily at the emergence of a crisis followed by
Congress and finally to the opinion of non-politicians?
Bennett (1994) found that even though the news media covered dissenting congressional opinions of George Bush Sr’s Gulf War buildup, White House positions received the most prominent news displays even at the height of the debate. As the president is the central newsmaker in American politics today ( Cook 1994 ) it would make sense to find the majority of front-page news featuring him and his administration. But without Congress offering critical voices, the press is forced to find other voices to index. And, in an environment of nationalistic reporting following the terrorist attack ( Hutcheson, Domke, Billeaudeaux and Garland 2002 ), the relative placement of dissident voices with news coverage becomes increasingly worthy of study. Thus my third research question:
RQ3: What level of prominence was given to foreign /dissident voices
In front page war on terrorism news coverage?
Althaus et al (1996) and Bennett (1996) further refined indexing by arguing that when a political situation arises that is not easily solved by domestic elites, journalists will seek out players in other contexts that appear to be shaping the outcomes; thus perceptions of power a key factor in a journalist’s decision to seek out alternative sources. With the international scope of the war on terror context, understanding the relationship between journalists and foreign voices becomes key, thus, my final research question:
RQ4: Will there be evidence of “Power” indexing, through the use of foreign
Sources, in coverage of the war on terror?
The purpose of this study is two-fold. First is to identify emergent and consistent war themes discussed and attributed to the president and his top advisers in the weeks following the 9-11 terrorists attacks. Second, I explore whether this communication was followed by discernible patterns along the same themes in news coverage by a variety of lesser government officials, journalists and a variety of foreign sources.
To study these strategies proved a mammoth task because I had to entirely depend, for the most part, on desktop research method and some copies kept in my personal archive, in content analyzing a census of news coverage in the New York Times from September 12 to December 18, 2001. These dates incorporates three specific and important periods within the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” From the terrorist strikes through October 7th, 2001 I call this the “selling of the war” phase. The period encompassing October 8th thru November 9th represents the start of the military campaign through defeat of the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif, a key battle that represented the first significant U.S. military led victory in the campaign. I call this the fighting phase. An my final phase, from November 10th thru December 18th I call the “victory” phase as the Taliban presented little military resistance during this period.
For this analysis I tried to read all news coverage in front section and dedicated “war on terrorism” sections that ran daily beginning in late September, as well as editorials and op-ed pieces.
In undertaking this analysis, and given the constraints of time, I adopted the approach of using the source as the unity of analysis, rather than the story. I did this because I was interested in (a) identifying the specific sources within and outside the Bush administration that might have been engaged in my “themed” discourse (b) systematically distinguishing the valence—i.e., directionality—of language used by the sources measured against that used by the Bush administration sources. This approach allows for examination of whether sources appears to support, criticize or simply reflect upon the administration’s public “wartime” stance. To be specific, as explained below, I was interested in what potential challenges to the war on terrorism were discussed in news content, who was talking about them, when the challenges were discussed, and how they were discussed. Only sources that discussed at least one of the pre-identified challenges to the military campaign were coded for analysis. Each source quoted or paraphrased was coded separately, and the entirety of each source’s statements in an article was taken into account when several source categories were identified in the broader project of which this research is part, including a range of U.S. sources, foreign sources, and journalists themselves. In this study I focus on four source categories:
· Bush administration leaders: This category consisted of comments in news content by President Bush, the then Secretary of State Collin Powell, outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the then Attorney General John Ashcroft;
· Other U.S. government or military sources: this category consisted of comments in news content by any other federal government or military spokesperson such as a Congress member or U.S. Army spokesperson;
· Other U.S. quoted sources: This category consisted of comments in news content by non-government American leaders and regular civilians.
Foreign Sources: This category consisted of comments in news content foreign voices. The category was broken down among Allies ( Great Britain, Saudi Arabia ), enemy ( Taliban ), neutral ( Afghan/Iraq civilian ) or the United Nations spokespersons.
The content analysis focused on source discussion of six distinct “challenges or concerns” about the U.S military campaign. These six were selected because they emerged in the Bush administration’s public discourse between September 11 and October 7. Specifically, sources were code for the presence and accompanying valence of comments and language measured against the administration’s position of the six ( U.S. casualties, Afghan Civilian Deaths, War on Islam, Duration of War, Exit Strategy and Rebuilding of Afghanistan ) themed topics related to the U.S. military campaign.
Sources were coded as “1” on the variable if they were explicitly critical about the theme or administration’s stance on the theme; as “2” if they expressed concern or questions about potential/actual theme or the administration’s discussion of the themes; as “3” if they neutrally presented factual information about potential/actual theme or the administration’s discussion of the theme; and “4” if they were explicitly supportive or positive about potential/actual theme or the administration’s discussion of this subject. Sources who did not mention potential/actual loss of U.S. life or the administration’s discussion of this subject were not coded on this variable.
For instance if a Taliban source was quoted: “It will be an American bloodbath if they attack,” that source recorded as foreign/enemy) would receive a “1” (critical) as it countered the administration’s established stance that the U.S. military campaign would require sacrifice but, it was necessary to rid the world of evil. Three people conducted , (myself, my nephew who holds a Masters in Medicine and practices Internal Medicine and my niece with an MSC in Laboratory Technology), the content analysis. As a check of the inter-coder reliability, my ex- wife, a medical sociologist, (a fourth coder), coded a collection of 15 articles , which included 65 coded sources. For the source coding, this coder agreed on 58 of 65 codings, yielding, roughly, a .92 reliability coefficient. For the six “war challenges” variables, all of which had some coding scheme, this coder agreed on 220 of 273 codings, yielding a .89 reliability coefficient. In the case of disagreement, codings were assigned after a re-reading of the article. There were a total of 653 sources coded between the Washington Post and New York Times.
In order to establish a foundation to examine theoretically driven indexing arguments, I locate common themes with the war on terrorism news discourse. From this point, news sources are compared in relation to these common war themes. I first examine the patterns that George Bush and his administration established in the “selling of the war” phase. This figure is important in that it represents the administration’s redundant themes, what academics Maltese (1992) and Cook (1998) have termed the administration’s “line of the day,” or the ability to control a message, keep it simple and consistently repeat it. The most discussed category by the administration was the potential duration of the military campaign (24 times over 15 separate days ), followed by Afghan civilian deaths ( 9 times over 6 days ), war on I slam ( 9 times over 5 days ), U.S. casualties (7 times over 5 days), U.S. exit strategy ( 5 times over 4 days ), and Rebuilding of Afghanistan ( 4 times over 4 days ). Further, President Bush was the primary administration source, publicly discussing these concerns during these days: he was present 25 times, compared to a total of 11 appearances by his top aides ( Collin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft ) and 21 by other government/military officials.
This study endeavor to investigate how the indexing theory and its follow up findings would work within news coverage gathered from hundreds of news stories featured during the first tumultuous weeks preceding and into the war on terrorism. The patriotic zeal and determination demonstrated by most Americans in the autumn of 2001 hadn’t been experienced in this country since the weeks after Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941—a war most Americans know only from stories or movies. Arguably, these conditions offered a most unique position from which to investigate how, when and where a myriad of mediated voices would ultimately find themselves within the elite media’s foreign policy.
Some of my findings, such as early and dominant presidential coverage, easily meet the expectations offered by indexing theory, while others did not. Without dissident Congressional voices or much if any official debate, journalists scrambled to meet their new norm of objectivity. I find lesser elites and foreign voices filling this objectivity hole in the resultant news void. But these “other” voices, when featured, were unlikely to see front-page coverage and, as their ability to make a difference in U.S. foreign policy was reduced, so too was their opportunity to break into U.S. news coverage at all. Although findings to my research questions remain interesting, I still think and believe it is important to remember the rallying, nationalistic public and government atmosphere that was operating during this period. This atmosphere, I argue, could have muffled potential dissident voices available to journalist (e.g spiral of silence or fear ) as much keeping journalist themselves, concerned for their carriers, far from taboo, controversial or nationalistic issues. Certainly hypothesizing about nationalism in regard to foreign policy and indexing theory was not the goal of this work, but does offer an interesting variable to keep in mind when looking at these results.
The war on terror has eclipsed its fifth anniversary and the administration is already facing huge problems in trying to prevent Taliban-come back in Afghanistan including enormous military and political setbacks in Iraq. But unlike the campaign against the Taliban, Congressional dissent and criticism exists. It is my wish in the future, to conduct a follow up comparative analysis that will include the current, more controversial period of the war on terrorism, conditions well suited to the practice of traditional indexing.
But the problems besetting U.S. journalism, in my view, remain deep-seated and will not go away unless there is structural change in the media system, such that truthful reporting on affairs of the state can be a rational expectation. This requires immediate political organizing to change the policies upon which the media system is based, and it requires making media reform part and parcel of broader movements for peace and social justice. In the end, media reform and social justice will rise or fall together.
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