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President Says It, Press Reports It, Public Buys It

Political scientist Anthony DiMaggio is one of the most astute analysts of American media. A practitioner of public science, his work provides readers with a deep understanding of how debates around war and foreign policy are shaped by reporting and the “official” line. In his recent book from SUNY Press, Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy since 9/11, readers get a detailed rundown of current events in U.S.-Middle East and US-North African geopolitical relations, such as the U.S. role in Gadhafi’s brutal ouster and the lies and misinformation leading up to the Iraq War and after (click here for first chapter preview).

Utilizing key theories of political economy, social institutions, and the media, DiMaggio argues the media is neither liberal nor conservative. Rather, the “mainstream” media, in general, supports the state-corporate nexus and its narrative. In line with Robert McChesney, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, DiMaggio demonstrates how the exalted “objectivity” claimed by the Fourth Estate institutionalizes reliance on “official” sources (i.e. high-ranking government officials, CEOs, etc.). By doing so, Presidents and other high-ranking government officials shape narratives around key policies.

Presidents do this by adopting what DiMaggio differentiates as types of rhetoric; rhetoric of fear, rhetoric of hope, etc. Presidents socially construct a reality for their claims, framing them to justify the policies they’ve already decided upon. Fear the terrorist and hope for us to bring them democracy to justify wars throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The press then, to varying degrees, reports official rhetoric and expands its power through editorials. As they do, this effects the opinions and views of citizens who pay attention to the media.51LwfcVwbHL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

DiMaggio utilizes experimental data to demonstrate this effect. He has students, on different occasions and different topics, answer questions before and after reading a set of news articles. Students are sorted out reading different rhetorics and narratives, such as a rhetoric of hope based on a human rights narrative as opposed to a rhetoric of fear based on a terrorist threat. In the case of Obama’s Libya intervention, students exposed to narratives critical of Presidential rhetoric lead to less support for intervention, while the inverse was also true.

This follows other social psychological work, such as Stanley Milgram’s famous study of obedience to authority. People defer to those who they perceive as having more authority than them, especially those people society has deemed legitimate possessors of information. That remains the case, even when the media, politicians, and the dominant institutions in society face high levels of disapproval. Because of this social effect, presidential rhetoric has a lot of power, leading to elite opinion shaping debates.

In the larger society, this means that objectivity and reporting official sources increases support for policies arrived at without democratic deliberation. Worse, this leads to omissions, misinformation, and at times even lies, such as the marginalization of the Downing Street Memo because “it suggested that Bush misrepresented critical prewar intelligence and misinformed the public about his intentions.” Also, what is considered objective often leads to Orientalist constructions of the Middle East in reporting and official statements. For instance, DiMaggio demonstrates how stereotypes about Middle Eastern cultures being anti-thetical to democracy were used to justify supporting dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak, and opposing democratic uprisings, as did Presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the Arab Spring.

DiMaggio is arguing that the media and the Presidency play off already existing ethnocentric ideas and false beliefs in American humanitarianism. They do this while downplaying wrongs and crimes committed by American officials. However, when citizens are confronted with critical information that humanizes people in the Middle East and North Africa, their opinions shift away from war and aggressive foreign policy. In the case of Iraq, the majority of Americans now think not only was it a mistake, but that it wasn’t morally justified. And that narrative itself is the result of public pressure, organizing, and counternarrative.

It is here where DiMaggio is making a crucial point. While yes, elites are able to dictate many parameters of the debate, these officials in power aren’t omnipotent. At times, they lose, and we see shifts in narrative when that happens. For instance, in the case of Syria, public opposition played a considerable role in stopping Obama’s push to intervene, emboldening a more non-interventionist critical response in the media. Also, a President, and the Executive more generally, are one part of the larger structure of government. When Bush wanted to go to war against Iran, the intelligence community released a report skewering the idea that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons. By doing so, they derailed the Bush regime framing, and averted war.

Although, DiMaggio points out that we should be wary about how we interpret intra-elite conflict in framing. For instance, while President Obama was challenged on his rhetoric by Republicans, this was not to bring about peaceful resolution. Rather, the Republican challenge was always based on their not being enough aggression. The media would report that debate, but only minimally report anti-war narratives. Thus, this effectively reduced the debate to a tactical question of how to conduct an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, leaving aside the more fundamental question of should we.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is meticulously researched, utilizing multiple methods and providing loads of pertinent data. On every topic I came away a more informed citizen, able to discuss the relevant evidence around US foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran and the Arab Spring. Even more, I gained a nuanced understanding of how the media and the State interact in developing narratives to shape public opinion. Reading this book is an act of intellectual self-defense, because as Zinn said, “anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything”. Without the tools provided by scholars like DiMaggio, “you have no way of checking up on it.” So, get a copy, get some knowledge dropped on yourself, and join the political fray.

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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