Debating War and Peace

Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era

Jonathan Mermin
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Debating War and Peace
    Book Description:

    The First Amendment ideal of an independent press allows American journalists to present critical perspectives on government policies and actions; but are the media independent of government in practice? Here Jonathan Mermin demonstrates that when it comes to military intervention, journalists over the past two decades have let the government itself set the terms and boundaries of foreign policy debate in the news. Analyzing newspaper and television reporting of U.S. intervention in Grenada and Panama, the bombing of Libya, the Gulf War, and U.S. actions in Somalia and Haiti, he shows that if there is no debate over U.S. policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news. Journalists often criticize the execution of U.S. policy, but fail to offer critical analysis of the policy itself if actors inside the government have not challenged it. Mermin ultimately offers concrete evidence of outside-Washington perspectives that could have been reported in specific cases, and explains how the press could increase its independence of Washington in reporting foreign policy news.

    The author constructs a new framework for thinking about press-government relations, based on the observation that bipartisan support for U.S. intervention is often best interpreted as a political phenomenon, not as evidence of the wisdom of U.S. policy. Journalists should remember that domestic political factors often influence foreign policy debate. The media, Mermin argues, should not see a Washington consensus as justification for downplaying critical perspectives.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2332-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. One Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    When the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, the Reagan administration conducted a campaign to convince the public of the wisdom of its action. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews, administration officials declared that American medical students in Grenada had been in danger, that international Communism had been on the verge of expanding into Grenada and toward the United States, and that democratic rule on the island had to be restored. The situation in Grenada, the White House asserted, justified military intervention.

    The Bush administration orchestrated a similar campaign to win support for U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989. The...

  6. Two The Spectrum of Debate in the News
    (pp. 17-35)

    Why might one expect American journalists to index the spectrum of debate in the news to the spectrum of debate in Washington? The indexing hypothesis builds on the work of Herbert J. Gans, Gaye Tuchman, Mark Fishman, Leon V. Sigal, and others who observed the operation of news organizations and the construction of news stories.¹ The interpretation of American journalism that emerges in these studies focuses on the powerful set of incentives—pertaining to the need to conserve time, money, and credibility—that encourage reporters to base their stories on the statements of official sources.

    It is no mystery why...

  7. Three Grenada and Panama
    (pp. 36-65)

    The United States invaded Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 on the grounds that forces in those countries had endangered American lives, threatened the United States with Communism (in Grenada) or drug trafficking (in Panama), and refused to practice democracy. Foreign-policy experts and engaged citizens in the United States debated these premises. Had American lives been in real danger? Could other means have been found to protect them? Had the objective of stopping Communism or drug trafficking required a full-scale military intervention? Could unilateral military action, even in the name of democracy, be justified under international law?

    Discussion of...

  8. Four The Buildup to the Gulf War
    (pp. 66-99)

    There were two major milestones for the United States on the road to the GulfWar in the fall of 1990. The decision to send U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in August won bipartisan support in Congress. The decision to double the size of the deployment in November generated opposition from leading Democrats. The juxtaposition of the two stages in the buildup to the GulfWar, like the Grenada/Panama comparison in chapter 3, offers much insight into the impact of the spectrum of opinion expressed in Washington on the spectrum of debate in the news.

    In August, theWashington Postreported that...

  9. Five The Rule and Some Exceptions
    (pp. 100-119)

    The indexing of the spectrum of debate in the news to the spectrum of debate in Washington is a general pattern in American journalism; it is not a universal rule. When the figures for the eight cases examined in the content analysis are assembled in one table, the evidence in support of the indexing hypothesis is impressive (see table 5.1).

    In the news section of theNew York Times, on average 10.1 percent of the paragraphs in the Washington conflict cases were coded as critical; for the Washington consensus cases the figure is just 2.0 percent. One paragraph in 10...

  10. Six Television News and the Foreign-Policy Agenda
    (pp. 120-142)

    It is often argued that television news caused the United States to intervene in Somalia in 1992. Bernard C. Cohen writes that in the 1990s television

    has demonstrated its power to move governments. By focusing daily on the starving children in Somalia, a pictorial story tailor-made for television, TV mobilized the conscience of the nation’s public institutions, compelling the government into a policy of intervention for humanitarian reasons.¹

    In the view of Michael Mandelbaum, “televised pictures of starving people” in Somalia “created a political clamor to feed them, which propelled the U.S. military” into action.² Adam Roberts characterizes U.S. intervention...

  11. Seven Conclusion
    (pp. 143-153)

    In their coverage of U.S. intervention in the post-Vietnam era, theNew York Times,World News Tonight, and theMacNeil/Lehrer Newshourhave made no independent contribution (except at the margins) to foreign-policy debate in the United States. The spectrum of debate in Washington, instead, has determined the spectrum of debate in the news. The evidence supports not just the correlation version of the indexing hypothesis, but the marginalization version. Coverage of critical viewpoints on U.S. interventions does not increase from a reasonable baseline in the news when U.S. policy generates conflict in Washington, but is marginalized in the news when...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 154-156)
  13. Index
    (pp. 157-162)