The Impact of the Media on America's Policy Makers

Categories: Media And Politics

In recent years, the media have turned out to be one of the most substantial cores of control in contemporary states. News media and primarily television seem to be taking on an even greater role in states’ affairs. Newsweek’s editor, Jonathan Alter has stated that ‘TV has once again become the water in which world events swim’ (Alter, 1990: 18-19). Representatives for the media frequently depict them as the country’s guardians, who “root about in our national life, exposing what they deem right for exposure” (Lewis, 1987).

There is consent among academics reviewing the relationship between media and U.S. foreign policy that the media have played a noteworthy role in setting the political agenda of most U.S. administrations in the past decades. Additionally, the matter of public opinion and its influence on foreign policy making has been an issue of argument between diverse schools of both throughout and since the Cold War and it has become another significant factor that usually, US policy makers take into serious consideration.

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Public opinions can have an impact on foreign policy both in a positive or negative way, depending on the overall public assessment on the policy. Studying in international relations has acknowledged a diversity of elements that seem to influence U.S. foreign policy, counting specialists and systematized interests and regular citizens or else “public opinion” (Lawrence and Page, 2005). However this essay will be focused on the media and the public opinion. The subject of the influence that both the media and public opinion have is fairly complicated and broad.

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There are many factors that should be taken into account when examining this topic. This essay offers an analysis of the ways and the extent that modern media and public opinion influence the formation and exercise of US foreign policy. To do this, it would be highly beneficial to examine the ways they influence the policies. Many factors – discussed below – contribute to the process of foreign policy making.

Both structural analysis and empirical evidence will be used in order to inspect the issue. We will examine how those two factors contributed to the foreign policies that were adopted in 3 different international affairs: the Gulf War, the Vietnam War and finally the Bosnian Crisis. To begin with, the media are playing fundamental role in broadcasting and publishing the country’s foreign policy. American mass media, regardless of the actual mean, play an enormous role in formulation of public opinion. Media in U.S.A. are an important factor when influencing strategies and decisions of Washington or states departments for that matter, as well as to assist in deciding about foreign policy matters. In general, it is believed that mass media in USA are not as effusive at domestic issues as they have potential influence upon other countries.

The media contribute to this procedure by distributing information on the foundation of which people make decision by publishing specified articles on recent international events, which allow the public to understand the importance of progress in their country associated to the previous progress and by examining the policy of the government regarding to foreign affairs (Jermey, 1977:6). Graber Doris highlighting the pervasiveness of American mass media says that “the mass media are not only the chief source of every American’s view of the world but are also the fastest way to disseminate information throughout the entire society” (Doris, 1993:30) It is substantial to know that the media do not bare abuses at liberty and without judgment. Instead, they operate as a supportive arm of dominant elites, concentrating on topics functional to them, and discussing and exposing within established borders of reference. The leading media are themselves members of the corporate-elite establishment. The media are supported in a questioning and indirect way by neo-conservative and business attacks, which have often alleged that the media are controlled by a liberal elite, aggressive to business and government (Lichter and Stanley, 1985:42-44).

There is a solid elitist habit in the United States regarding the appropriate parts of the government and citizens in the demeanor of foreign policy. In this habit, the most distinguished paradigm of which was the journalist Walter Lippmann, the community is seen as unwise, unstable and best kept in the dark, with the policies left in the hands of a greater elite who can judge in a more suitable way the general interest (Lippmann, 1932:31-32). Stephen Hess verifies that understanding of foreign affairs is a commonness of the elite. He mentions that there are two media societies in the United States. The first one is oversupplied in specific information, accessible to those who have the time, attentiveness, means, and education to take gain of it. The other society includes the majority of American citizens, who dedicate limited time to subjects that have nothing to do with their essential distresses (Hess, 1996:4-5).

Furthermore, a large number of scholars have presented considerable evidence that American media do indeed set the agenda for U.S. policymakers. The agenda-setting proposition is ascribed to Bernard Cohen, who claimed that the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about“(Cohen, 1963: 13) Most social experts carry on pledging to this concept of the media’s role in policy making, but it has come under censure from two revisionist schools of thought. Since its first year in office the Reagan administration was bombarded by anti-nuclear activists for its determination to use intermediate-Range nuclear weapons in Western Europe to respond to similar Soviet weapons. Simultaneously, the American news gave extensive and compassionate treatment to the anti-nuclear movement’s zero tolerance for nuclear weapons. In a bright public relations attempt, the Reagan administration designated this attitude by suggesting the “zero option,” which called for the removal of all intermediate-Range missiles from both Warsaw Pact and NATO countries.

The zero option on INF therefore was intended precisely for the appeal it was estimated to have for the media and the public (McNamara, 1996:668). On the contrary, there are a few analysts who claim that not only don not the media influence the U.S. foreign policy but also the government’s interests somehow play a vital role on what is going to be broadcasted. Media knowledge has frequently emphasized the drive of the media to depend extremely on the government as a news source and to submit to its positions. A typical and often-cited analysis by Leon Sigal presented that almost three quarters of the front page stories in the Washington Post and New York Times were determined by official sources (Sigal, 1973:48). Bennett, Chomsky, Cooper and others have also measured the media’s astonishing regard to official views during the Central American wars of the 1980s.

Media experts have long observed that the economics of the media drive journalists into the hands of “primary definers,” who present a day-to-day source of allegedly reliable stories. State Department and White House handouts are supplied every day and do not need accuracy check as they are news by virtue of their source. An interdependent relationship leans towards a development between primary definers and their regular journalists, who are rewarded for being obliging and penalized for unfavorable reporting (Herman, 1993:26). Moreover, as long as the public opinion and its role in the U.S. foreign policy are concerned, it has been a matter of dispute as it has been previously argued. On the one hand realists think public opinion is unstable, emotional, lacking rationality and structure, and with little if any influence at all on foreign affairs. Walter Lippmann has critiqued policymakers who were too focused on the opinion of the public. On the other hand, liberalists indicate that public opinion on international matters is steady, rationally organized, coherent, and influences foreign policy making in a mutual relationship (Soroka, 2003:27).

Therefore, some leaders take into consideration the public opinion when making significant decisions while others ignore it. It has been said that the foreign policy is been made by the people, for the people. Besides, the study carried out since the 1970s sustains the assumption that public opinion on foreign affairs is rational and it has consistency. Woodrow Wilson thought that only public opinion could offer the way to a sensible foreign policy since ‘only a free people could hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own’ (Foyle, 1999:5) Wilsonian Liberals assume that public opinion should influence foreign policy making because of the public’s restraining effect on potential daring and assertive elites.

Wilsonian liberals also argue that public opinion has an impact on foreign policy making by discouraging the policy makers from taking uncertain decisions from dread that the government might lose the support of the people and consequently encourage them to set policies favored by the public. The effect of public opinion on foreign policy results is completed by the communication between a decision maker’s principles about the precise part of public opinion in foreign policy construction and the assessment context in which a foreign policy decision must be made (Foyle, 1999:6) Liberals have confronted the realists’ view that the public is indifferent in and ill-informed about foreign policy. The results, however, suggest that in 1979 only 23 percent of the citizens in the United States knew the two countries involved in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiations (Wittkopf, 1990:219). However, it is understandable that in the contemporary world with progressive information technology the mass is better educated on matters regarding both domestic and foreign affairs.

The public’s capability to collect and maintain information, and to practice it to express articulated opinions, is vital to the operation of democracy. Madison, Hamilton, and other like-minded federalists were doubtful of the mass’s capability to give usefully to political decision making, particularly when foreign policy is concerned. Modern democratic theorists believe responsiveness to the community to be the foundation of democratic governance. However, in spite of the theoretic significance of the public’s position with foreign policy, social scientists have writhed to reliably portray the public’s definite role in the foreign policy process. The scholarly agreement in this area has gradually changed. Early work put forward the concept that public opinion was unpredictable and required structure or that it naively follows elite leadership.

Over time, a refutation arose from academics who, while knowing that average individuals do not know a lot about politics or foreign policy, claimed that the public’s individual and collective behavior was nevertheless effective and balanced. Still, an extensive insight insisted that, most of the time, the public was basically a secondary factor to the foreign policy process. Academics have long questioned the people’s aptitude to process information or establish reliable views particularly with respect to foreign affairs (Baum and Potter, 2007:43). At this point, it would be highly beneficial to examine 3 examples that will help to understand better and in depth how the media and the public opinion influence the U.S. foreign policy. Firstly, we’ll examine what happened during the Vietnam War. Vietnam was the first war that announced full freedom to the press, permitting media to cover the war as they perceived it. Without censorship, horrendous pictures allowed the mass to see war, as they never had before.

Many people believe that it was the media that resulted in the people’s lack of support for the war. Many media resources were in contradiction of the U.S. role in Vietnam and held a critical approach towards the war. The pictures they captured, affected everyone who watched them. They had the control to leave memorable and long-lasting impacts on an entire nation. Evidence designates the press is accountable for exposing the truth concerning war to the American citizens. As news reports became progressively negative, public opinion influenced the government to down size troop deployment; consequently, forcing a change to America’s policy in Vietnam. The role of the media in the United States’ current “war on terrorism,” is great on the minds of government policymakers (Hallin, 1998)

Next, we have the Bosnian Crisis. The Bosnian Crisis of 1992-1995 was triggered by the declaration of independence by Croatia and Slovenia on June 1991. Due to numerous factors including the press coverage, foreign policy started to play a significant role in the crisis. All through the first phase of the fighting in Bosnia the U.S.A. was isolationist and inattentive to what was occurring. The independence declaration by Bosnia was followed by the eruption of fighting between the Croats and Bosnian Muslims on the one hand and the Yugoslav National Army and Bosnian Serbs on the other. By that time U.S. economy had improved leaving the administration able to address foreign policy matters (Auerbach and Bloch-Elkon, 2005:87-88). Several publications on the media, revealing the scope of violence in Bosnia, began to undermine the USA’s appearance and highlight its weakness. The media was, in president Clinton’s words ‘trying to force me to get into a war”(Morris, 1997:245) Therefore, the press may have played an essential role in converting events in Bosnia and pressed the administration to reply more effectively to the unfolding events in Bosnia.

Last but definitely not least, there is the event of the Gulf War that is considered to be another landmark on the long path of the developing association between government and the media. While in the final phases of the Vietnam War the media adopted an apparently critical stance, during the Gulf War they seemed to return back to a supportive role. Different explanations can be provided for that. However, one silent factor that explains the loyalty of the media’s coverage is that of all the armed battles in which the United Stared was entangled since World War II, this one approached most closely the idea of a just war. Patrick O’Heffernan claims that at least in the minds of policymakers government-media relationship was regarded as a joint exploitation process. Therefore, media were seen as a part of the policy process and the government has become and must go on as a part of the media process. Nonetheless, it engaged a noticeable place in policy considerations and decisions. The Gulf War was acted out on a global scale and it was viewed by spectators around the world, mainly courtesy of CNN. Bush wanted U.S. policy to portray a world against Saddam Hussein.

Consequently, we can accept that the policy must have been sensitive to both global and domestic public opinion (Gurevitch, 1995:445-447). Coming to a conclusion, we can see that both structural analysis and empirical evidence of media performance support the opinion that the media tend to follow a certain way reporting foreign policy, and that their adversarial pose reflects strategic variances among the elite, along with factional demands that the media function as a public relations arm of the government. The real problem, however, is the already high level of subservience to government agendas and the media’s steady failure to provide context, and to inspire or even to allow discussions extending to fundamental criticism.

These shortcomings are unsuited with the media’s recognized obligation to supply the informational needs of a democracy. The evolution of media has a considerable impact on the construction of both the international and the domestic system, thus indirectly affecting foreign policy. From the other hand, public opinion has the tendency as well depending on its views about various international matters to influence the way that the U.S. foreign policy in conducted. U.S. foreign policy makers keep in mind their people’s interests as there would be horrible consequences if they go against people’s wishes. To summarize, goes without doubt that both the media and the public opinion play a major role in setting the agenda of policy makers to a wide extend and in different ways.


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The Impact of the Media on America's Policy Makers. (2021, Sep 28). Retrieved from

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