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An Echoing Press and Political Fundamentalism

Excerpted from God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror” and the Echoing Press by DAVID DOMKE.

U.S. news media substantially echoed the public communications of the Bush administration in the period between September 11 and the Iraq war in spring 2003. Across the wide range of administration communications examined, the news media consistently gave voice to the words and ideas of the president and other administration leaders. To be clear, news media sometimes disagreed with the administration and occasionally were strongly critical, as we saw [in Chapter 5] in the response to the administration’s dissent squelching. Some press criticism was willingly tolerated by the administration, because the consistent echoing of the president’s and administration’s language disseminated and encouraged a certain conception of the world–a conception grounded in a conservative religious worldview that enacted a particular political agenda. Following the terrorist attacks, news coverage–and, in turn, public opinion–about U.S. politics was constructed, described, delimited and circumscribed by the Bush administration, particularly the president. The administration’s strategic language choices and communication approaches were the key factors in prompting this outcome. However, certain normative and structural characteristics of the U.S. news media system also were of importance in facilitating the press’ echoing of administration communications. In particular, two central features of the American news media, one regarding the routines and practices of journalism and one regarding ownership, were crucially important.

A consistent finding in studies of news content is that mainstream journalists rely overwhelmingly on governmental officials as authoritative sources. In the words of Lance Bennett:

“Mass media news 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.”

In a representative form of government, journalists’ reliance on elite sources, particularly government authorities, is predicated upon the view that citizens elected a significant number of these individuals, so the press should emphasize their perspectives. This reliance nonetheless carries an important implication: while most U.S. media outlets are economically free from government control, they nonetheless are journalistically dependent upon political leadership for information and opinion statements. This reliance on government officials is further heightened in times of crisis, when news media look to the presidential administration for perspective and leadership. In so doing, journalists depend heavily upon perspectives emanating from Congress and other sectors of Washington D.C. to provide a sense of balance. When these other actors support the administration, or at least are unwilling to publicly voice criticisms, news coverage will inevitably favor the president and his policies. As a result, the support of other political actors for the administration in autumn 2001 and a subsequent unwillingness or inability to substantially challenge the administration’s discourse about political unity significantly encouraged the press to give emphasis to the administration’s communications. This outcome was made all the more likely by the reality that most journalists at U.S. news media are U.S. citizens, who inevitably cover events and ideas through the lens of their cultural values, and therefore also likely looked to the president for perspective and leadership. Their unconscious ethnocentrism limited their ability to see past the White House’s rhetoric.

The presence of these news routines means that presidential administrations always will have opportunity for political profit when crises arise. However, the mainstream press’ reliance on the voices of government leaders is particularly ripe for exploitation by an ideology of political fundamentalism, for several reasons. First, fundamentalism has much to gain from the development or extension of crisis contexts. The larger the crisis and the more widely it is experienced in U.S. culture, the greater the likelihood that a conservative religious worldview will have appeal to citizens. The salve of “getting the faith” can easily spread over the masses during a national trauma and tragedy, offering comfort and simple, ready-made answers for the unfathomable. Of course, this is not to say that conservatives wish harm on their fellow citizens. However, the sudden onset of a soul-searching anxiety and reflection about one’s priorities does work to the advantage of fundamentalism. In turn, the press thrives on coverage of crisis due to its perceived importance, the magnitude of the actors involved and the large audiences who pay attention. As a result, journalists are more than happy to echo political leaders’ claims that something is a crisis. With September 11 and the “war on terrorism” now established as the looming presence in U.S. politics, news media have an administration-manufactured crisis narrative, dominated by the president, in which to frame coverage. This narrative well fits what Kovach and Rosenstiel term the “blockbuster mentality” of news organizations–that is, the desire for mega-stories, ala O.J. Simpson, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the 2000 presidential cliffhanger. News media, then, can be counted on to emphasize and extend crises, a proclivity that political fundamentalism leverages.

The ultimate loser in this relationship is democracy. When political leadership and the press both stand to benefit from the framing of an event or set of ideas as a crisis, any dissonant voices among the public are easily ignored by political leaders. Indeed, this is what happened during the buildup to the war in Iraq, when hundreds of thousands of Americans protested publicly in February 2003, the largest public demonstrations since the Vietnam War era. The press covered these protests, to be sure. But when the president dismissed these demonstrations (claiming that he welcomed their right to protest, but that their views were wrong) and made clear that the administration would not veer from its impending conflict with Iraq, the press returned to echoing the administration’s messages–and not the dissonant public outcry. The implication is substantial: opinions of the public, inevitably lacking the authority inherent in the voices of government officials, have little realistic chance to challenge a governmental narrative in news discourse. In particular, news coverage in crisis contexts will almost always be supportive of the government; only after the crisis diminishes will the press exert independent authority to examine governmental claims and actions, as indeed occurred in summer and autumn 2003 when the U.S. mainstream press began to inspect the administration’s claims regarding Iraq and alleged weapons of mass destruction. While such press scrutiny is still useful even at the later date, it comes far too late for military members committed to the field and for individuals or nations who are on the receiving end of an administration’s actions. An echoing press, therefore, is not a neutral press.

DAVID DOMKE is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington. God Willing? is published by Pluto Press (August 2004), and is available in the United States through the University of Michigan Press. He can be reached at: domke@u.washington.edu

 

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