Soft News Goes to War

Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Soft News Goes to War
    Book Description:

    The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the "soft news" media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.

    Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4128-8
    Subjects: Political Science, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE War and Entertainment
    (pp. 1-17)

    On August 20, 1998, just three days after President Clinton testified before a federal grand jury regarding his alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, the United States launched a series of cruise missile strikes against six suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. The Clinton administration justified the strikes as retaliation for terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier, for which it blamed suspected terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Ladin.

    Due both to its extraordinary timing and to widespread public concern over terrorism, the cruise missile attack captivated the nation. The strikes began at 1:30 p.m....

  5. CHAPTER TWO Soft News and the Accidentally Attentive Public
    (pp. 18-56)

    Scholars have long recognized that people who are not interested in politics often get their news from sources quite different from those of their politically engaged counterparts (Chaffee and Kanihan 1997; Key 1961). While alternative news sources for the politically uninvolved have long been available, the last two decades have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the number and diversity of entertainment-oriented, quasi-news media outlets, which I have referred to collectively as the soft news media.

    Political analysts and scholars have mostly ignored the soft news media. And, indeed, most of the time these media eschew discussion of politics and public...

  6. CHAPTER THREE “I Heard It on Orpah”
    (pp. 57-96)

    Several months before the United States launched air strikes (on October 7,2001) against Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, I received an anonymous e-mail petition—which, to that point, had amassed more than two hundred signatures—asking recipients to express their outrage over the mistreatment of women by the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The author of the petition indicated that he or she had been moved to take action by a series of horrific anecdotes presented in the media. By itself, this is unsurprising. What caught my attention, however, was the source of the anecdotal stories, which, according...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Bringing War to the Masses
    (pp. 97-155)

    The purpose of this chapter is to substantiate my core theoretical prediction: that soft news is an important source of information concerning foreign policy crises, as well as select high-profile domestic political issues, for politically inattentive Americans. To do so, I conduct seven distinct statistical investigations, drawing from a variety of public opinion surveys, aimed at drawing as direct a link as possible between soft news coverage of foreign crises and attentiveness to such crises by consumers of soft news programming.

    My goal in conducting multiple investigations is to build as convincing a case as possible for the theory by...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Tuning Out the World Isn’t as Easy as It Used to Be
    (pp. 156-211)

    Demonstrating a causal relationship with respect to long-term trends is exceedingly difficult. There are almost always numerous possible explanations for virtually any aggregate trend, including the change in public attentiveness from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War described in chapter 2. Moreover, establishing a causal link between individual-level behavior and aggregate trends frequently proves elusive.¹ Yet the findings presented in chapter 4 nonetheless raise the possibility that those individual-level relationships may help account, at least in part, for any aggregate trend toward increased attentiveness to foreign crises.

    Data limitations preclude a direct test of the influence of variations in exposure...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Rallying Round the Water Cooler
    (pp. 212-228)

    In December 1998, as he had done repeatedly since the end of the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein ceased cooperating with United Nations weapons inspectors. At the time, the U.S. House of Representatives was poised to impeach President Clinton for his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Despite his domestic political problems, the president responded to Hussein’s defiance by threatening to use military force if Iraq did not reverse course. Unlike the many prior postwar crises with Iraq, however, this time Saddam did not blink, and, on December 16, the United States and Great Britain launched a four-day aerial bombing...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Soft News and World Views: Foreign Policy Attitudes of the Inattentive Public
    (pp. 229-268)

    Does coverage of foreign policy crises in the soft news media matter? Or is it just a curious novelty, devoid of any real political significance? I began chapter 3 with the story of an anonymous e-mail petition condemning the plight of women in Afghanistan. The petition was circulated by a concerned individual who claimed to have learned about the oppressive policies of the Taliban regime toward women fromThe Oprah Winfrey Show. While politicians are not always responsive to e-mail petitions, the attention Oprah Winfrey focused on the plight of women in Afghanistan appears not to have gone unnoticed by...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Soft News, Public Opinion, and American Foreign Policy: The Good, the Bad, and the Merely Entertaining
    (pp. 269-294)

    A great many individuals are not particularly interested in politics. And, since the end of the Cold War, notwithstanding an apparently relatively brief post–9/11 spike, many Americans claim to have largely lost interest in foreign affairs. Yet, in the post–Cold War era, when the United States employs military force abroad, Americans appear to be paying closer attention than ever before. To resolve this apparent paradox, I developed an incidental by-product model of information consumption. My theoretical model identified a prime suspect: the rise of the soft news media.

    My argument centered on the interaction between individual human cognitive...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 295-329)
    (pp. 330-344)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 345-353)