Wednesday, 8 December 2010

“Soft News Goes to War”, by Matthew Baum (Princeton)

Baum-SoftNewsGoesToWar Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

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.

Matthew Baum’s Soft News Goes to War is about the considerable changes that have taken place over several decades in how the mass media covers and reports on major political stories. In particular, Baum is interested, as the title suggests, in the impact that “soft news media” have on the public’s attentiveness to, and appreciation and understanding of foreign policy and in particular, crises. For Baum, soft news media are those sources that are not primarily news programs, but because of their nature – variety, comedy, entertainment, and so forth – content can often venture into politics and foreign policy. Examples of such programs would be The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show and the late night shows.

“Prior to the 1980s, the public learned about politics, particularly foreign policy, primarily from newspapers or the nightly newscasts of the big three broadcast networks.”

Today, the public increasingly draw information from other sources:

“today... political information is available across a far broader array of media outlets and formats, many of which bear only a superficial resemblance to traditional news venues.”

“given the mass media’s – particularly television’s – status as the primary, if not sole, source of political information for the vast majority of the American people, changes in mass media coverage of foreign policy are almost certain to affect how at least some segments of the public understand and evaluate the political world.”

Soft news programs, Baum argues, have democratised the dissemination of political information and knowledge. As some people only notice foreign policy issues when they appear on soft news programs, this is both good (because they notice the issue in the first place) and bad (because there’s no way of controlling the quality of the information they receive). When foreign policy issues cross over into soft news programs, Baum dubs them “water-cooler events”, which will likely be discussed afterwards at length by people who might not always do so. The rise of this

“new class of entertainment-oriented, quasi-news and information programs... has had the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that... a given foreign policy crisis will become a water-cooler event.”

On why crises are more commonly covered by soft news programs, Baum explains that,

“like celebrity murder trials and sex scandals, foreign crises are easily framed as compelling human dramas.”

Therefore, given the US media’s corporate nature, there have been increased

“market-driven efforts by television broadcasters (and, to a lesser extent, other media outlets) to make certain types of news appealing to viewers who are uninterested in politics.”

Baum argues that, by making political and foreign policy news stories more entertaining, and by including such content in soft news settings, these programs are actually increasing a larger portion of the general public’s understanding of foreign policy. It’s an interesting difference from the plethora of material published bemoaning the rise of soft and opinion journalism.

“By transforming mundane political coverage into entertainment, the soft news media have successfully employed piggybacking and cheap framing strategies in order to capture a substantial segment, or niche, of the television audience. This has the perhaps unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that politically uninterested individuals will be exposed to information about these political issues that cross over from hard to soft news outlets.”

While it is difficult to deny that the depth of discussion is usually lacking and not as useful as that on “hard” news programs, that the soft media is able to make more Americans aware of the issues (whether skewed by bias, submerged in humour, or otherwise delivered) is a useful acceptance of the strengths of the soft news media.

“By altering the cost-benefit calculus for typical individuals, the rise of the soft news media has, without necessarily increasing the public’s overall appetite for political news, nonetheless increased the likelihood that typical individuals will attend to select high-profile issues, primarily those possessing characteristics – such as violence, heroism, scandal, a readily-identified villain, and the like – amenable to framing as dramatic human interest stories.”

Prior to 2000, presidential politics was not much covered in the soft news media. However, because the candidates recognised the wider audience they could connect with through such media outlets, and their willingness to be interviewed on these programs (or even appear in ‘skits’ on Saturday Night Live), presidential politics has become a frequent topic of discussion. Indeed, shows like The Daily Show will devote entire weeks to presidential, congressional and senatorial campaigns, and before the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama came on The Daily Show for an interview. It is becoming increasingly apparent that soft media are influential actors in the media-politics arena – and this has only become more apparent since Baum’s book was published.

“In general, issues that can be readily framed in stark and dramatic terms, thereby priming widely accessible frames, without generating significant cognitive conflict between simultaneously accessible yet contradictory causal narratives, are most likely to be covered by the soft news media. Such issues are thereby most likely to attract the attention of even politically uninterested individuals.”

The proliferation of soft news media outlets has only increased the likelihood that a broader segment of the American population will discover (more) information about any given foreign policy crisis. Taking Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Israel-Lebanon crisis as examples, Baum shows how soft news coverage of events has increased, and also how the coverage may have affected policy and presentation of information.

Using the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Afghanistan-Sudan missile strikes as examples, Baum also discusses the “wag-the-dog” effect – that is, using foreign policy events and/or crises to deflect from domestic political issues or as means to increase domestic support (in the case of a foreign policy success). Baum calls this the “rally-round-the-flag” principle.

“the rally effect is central to the debate in the scholarly literature and the popular press regarding whether political leaders ever use military force for domestic political reasons – the so-called wag-the-dog scenario, or diversionary use of force.”

Baum does not offer an answer as to how effective this strategy can be, as it appears that rally effects are ephemeral and short-lived. He suggests it requires greater study, and this would certainly help students and scholars of media-political influencing. Certainly, a study of this with regards to the George W Bush administration could potentially be illuminating, as the never-ending War on Terror allowed the administration to continuously utilise rally-round-the-flag tactics to boost the president’s approval ratings and also acceptance of any controversial policy proposal (although, the Bush White House also relied on public fear and jingoism to achieve their political goals).

Baum’s research and the presentation of his results is impeccable, not to mention highly detailed and exhaustive. This is a real boon for scholars and researchers, as there is so much data included in the book. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the book less accessible as something to read, rather than study. Baum’s writing is clear and his structuring is logical and well-presented, but Soft News Goes to War could not exactly be considered a ‘good read’. This is not what it was intended to be, however, so one should not take this into account when considering whether or not to read, buy, or consult this book.

Soft News Goes to War is an excellent, highly-detailed academic study of the impact of certain news outlets on the public’s attentiveness and knowledge of foreign policy issues. It focuses on crises, of course, because these events are best suited to the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ news. Baum acknowledges that such news outlets do not, in all likelihood, impact the positions and consumption of news of politically-minded and -interested individuals. The greatest impact of these programs can, instead, be seen in the larger portion of the population who is less interested in following or learning about politics and especially foreign policy. The study certainly offers plenty to start and further any debate on the role of the media with regards to foreign policy, and is therefore highly recommended to all students and scholars of foreign policy, American politics, and journalism/media.

[Baum has since written another book on the media and foreign policy, in collaboration with Tim J. Groeling – War Stories: The Causes & Consequences of Public Views of War – which I shall review next for this site.]

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