Matthew A. Baum

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Curriculum Vitae



Tabloid Wars: The Mass Media, Public Opinion, and the Decision to Use Force Abroad

Chapter 1: Introduction and Overview

In recent years, the predominant views concerning the mass media and public opinion have undergone substantial revision. Where citizens were once viewed as "empty headed" or "muddle headed" or both, recent scholarship has found evidence that citizens are capable of making reasoned judgments about public policy, based on informational shortcuts, or heuristic cues. At the same time, media and public opinion scholars have demonstrated that the mass media influences public opinion in important ways, through priming, framing and agenda setting, and that public opinion, at least sometimes, influences policy outcomes.

Yet, one assumption underlying these arguments appears not to have faced comparable scrutiny. While our understanding of the media and public opinion has evolved, with few exceptions, the scholarly literature generally assumes that the underlying relationship between the two has remained static; this in spite of a well-documented "information revolution" in the mass media. In fact, recent empirical studies have concluded that the typical American's level of factual knowledge about politics has remained largely unchanged over the past half century. This implies that the information revolution has largely failed to affect either the nature or extent of the media's influence on typical individuals.

Indeed, no theory adequately explains how changes in the media might alter public perceptions of foreign policy, or how public opinion influences policy decision-making. Have modern media technologies and practices affected Americans' fascination with and tolerance for war? And will their reactions reduce the willingness of America's leaders to employ military force as a policy tool in the future? These are the primary questions this dissertation ultimately seeks to answer.

I develop a theory suggesting that the mass media and the mass public have in fact evolved over the past half-century. I argue that modern communications technologies and niche-oriented television programming strategies have produced a substantial increase in public attentiveness to foreign policy crises. I define attentiveness as the extent to which typical individuals, and by extension the mass public, are cognizant of, and willing to accept information about, a given political issue. I test the theory through a series of statistical analyses, both time-series and cross-sectional, as well as through content analyses of media coverage of a series of U.S. foreign crises. I find that the American public is indeed growing increasingly attentive to foreign policy crises.

I further argue that an attentive public can constrain presidents from escalating foreign crises, particularly when the strategic stakes involved are relatively modest. To extend the theory and derive testable hypotheses, I develop a formal model of crisis escalation. The crisis escalation game also facilitates a more rigorous anlysis of the conditions under which public opinion will impact presidential decisionmaking in foreign crisis situations, as well as the nature and extent of such influence. I test the hypotheses derived from the model against two data sets, each of which contains information on all U.S. foreign crisis since World War II, as well as through a detailed case study of the 1992-94 U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia. I find that, when the strategic stakes are low, an attentive public can indeed inhibit presidents from escalating foreign crises.

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