Role of the U.S. Media in Modern Foreign Policy

This is FREE sample
This text is free, available online and used for guidance and inspiration. Need a 100% unique paper? Order a custom essay.
  • Any subject
  • Within the deadline
  • Without paying in advance
Get custom essay


The media is often referred to as the “Fourth Estate,” meaning the fourth branch of government in terms of visibility and influence – for better or for worse. Realists find hasty media influence to be detrimental to the meticulous, costly, and measured process of determining intervention in foreign conflicts. They believe that such a task should be left to the elites, whereas humanitarians and internationalists/interventionists applaud the Fourth Estate’s ability to broaden these debates to the pluralist sphere and expand it from beyond the closed doors of bureaucracy (Robinson, 1999).

However, the current administration’s elitism and the mediascape’s fragmented and polarized nature has created the perfect storm in which to pose the question: Can the US media remain independent while truly performing its intended critical and moderative function with regard to US foreign policy? Much to the dismay of many scholars, I argue that the Pluralism model is far too optimistic for the current state of politics. In this essay, which examines the new Elite role of the U.S. media in modern foreign policy, I will provide a basis to which the standards of pluralism are held thereafter.

I will then begin with the foundation of historical examples of the critical function of the media, and then compare to the role of media in today’s contexts, and public opinion and issue salience. I will then conclude with possible explanations and solutions as to why the role of the U.S. media in modern foreign policy is deviating from historical norms.

Problems with Pluralism in America

In his chapter in US Foreign Policy, Robinson states the three simplified assumptions of the pluralist model. The first two assumptions hold true, albeit subjectively, in that the US public is capable of rationally processing information and forming their own opinion, and that that the American political system is sensitive to and influenced by public opinion and media; according to the SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, this modern model can be more specifically coined as elite neopluralism (Fathali, 2017.)

However, the third of Robinson’s assumptions is where we see a discrepancy between this model and current politics: the assumption that mainstream media are “sufficiently” independent of governmental influence (Robinson, 2012, p. 162). Pluralist assumptions treat the media as an entity that is entirely separate from governmental influence and pressure, but this expectation does not hold true in modern times. The fact that media has become omnipresent in the political sphere negates the assumed role of the media as political watchdog and undermines its close relationship with public opinion (Bessette).

Political elites, elected or unelected, and particularly the current president, have the power to give preferential treatment to media outlets that favor their individual or collective interests. In reality, the basic fact remains that hegemons like the United States have the power to set discourse and establish constructions that essentially act as a global moral compass, dictated by the notion of a national identity – and elites are at the core of the national identity (Rowley & Weldes, 2012).

Historical Comparisons

The US news media has somewhat successfully performed a critical function in the past, however. Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post, calls investigative journalism “the lifeblood of a free, democratic society” (Dews and Young, 2014). Watchdog journalism is the most literal critical function the media can perform, and the most direct pushback against political elites by the media, in which investigative journalists and media outlets use their separation from the state to perform independent investigations and “act as a public ‘watchdog’ that barks when it finds misbehavior in the halls of government” (Fathali, 2017).

From Upton Sinclair’s exposure of the meatpacking industry’s dangerous labor standards, to Murrey Marder’s coverage of the 1953 McCarthy hearings in the Washington Post, to Woodward and Bernstein singlehandedly exposing Nixon’s Watergate Scandal, there has been no shortage of administrations in which the relationship between the White House and the press has been adversary at best (Dews and Young, 2014).

Perhaps the clearest example of the direct relationship between media, public opinion, and foreign policy is the Vietnam Syndrome, in which excessive media exposure of gruesome and discouraging American casualties during the Vietnam War slowly, but significantly discouraged public support, contributing to the largest anti-war movement in American history (Robinson 163). This Vietnam Syndrome has been long analyzed by academics as evidence of pluralism in the media, but these examples are few and far between in history.

Role of the Media Today

In a democratic society, the press is expected to provide and moderate a forum for policy discourse, provide a voice to public opinion on relevant policy issues, serve as the avenue through which public opinion is informed, and to act as “watchdog,” as previously stated (Fathali, 2017). Additionally, Robinson claims that the mainstream media “maintain a commitment to telling US citizens the truth about international events” (Robinson, 2012, p. 161). Even so, one study finds statistically significant evidence that, in the White House press room, questions about foreign affairs are significantly less aggressive and hard-hitting than those of domestic affairs (Clayman, Heritage, Elliott, & MacDonald, 2007). An appropriate distance between the administration and the media is crucial to pluralism in democracy, and the lack thereof has significantly affected American foreign policy as subject to public opinion – after all, state-sponsored media is a hallmark of fascism.

The problem lies both within the Trump administration as well as the U.S. media system. Since the 2016 election, there has been a massive pushback against blatantly biased, or even outright ‘fake’ news. The fear that breadth and variety of media outlets diminishes the critical power of the media is nothing new: Alcott and Gentzkow (2017) cite similar fears with the advent of penny press tabloids in the 19th century.

However, their work analyzes the modern context and conditions that allowed fake news to flourish in the 2016 election, particularly social media and its ineffective filtering mechanisms, and they argue that Donald Trump may owe his election to fake news – an overwhelming majority of fake news stories shared online were in support of Donald Trump and right-wing policies. Alcott and Gentzkow, along with many other scholars who have studied fake news since 2016, attribute this to a growing public distrust of the mass media, as well as increasing party polarization, unsurprisingly – this makes consumers more apt to believe fake news at long as it reinforces their own echo chambers.

However, the pushback seems to remain exclusively in the sphere of public opinion, and has had very little effect in the actual goings-on of the White House press room. In July of 2018, Donald Trump unsurprisingly, but famously stated “CNN is fake news, I don’t take questions from CNN,” during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May (Wemple, 2018). Of course, there is a difference between news that is outright fake and news that is heavily biased; however, the desired effect of these mediums is uniform. The silencing of certain independent news media outlets, like CNN and NBC, juxtaposed with the privilege and praise given to others, like Fox, creates a vicious cycle of bias and unreliable journalism.

A divide has been drawn between right wing-complacent media and mainstream media that feels the normative responsibility to critique the current administration’s political blunders, and it is all but inconspicuous – currently, online New York Times’ subscriptions are advertised with the tagline “Fighting fake stories with real ones,” as well as urging subscribers to “support independent journalism.” We have come a long way from what Robert Kaiser would call “the golden age of journalism,” before budget cuts lead to a decline in hard-hitting investigation (Dew & Young, 2014). The assumption that so-called ‘independent’ media is a foe and adversary to political elites no longer stands, ushering in the slippery descent into elites controlling the policies, the media messaging, and then, in turn, public opinion.

Public Opinion and Issue Salience

If the primary function of the media is to objectively inform public opinion, then close behind is the role the media has in agenda setting and mobilizing support for elites and special interest groups. However, fulfilling the ‘responsibilities’ of the press is difficult in capitalist media systems, such as in the U.S., where news outlets are privately owned and the need to generate profit often outweighs the commitment to the truth (Fathali, 2017). With the increasingly close relationship between the press and bureaucratic elites, agenda setting has never been easier.

One case study of the intersection between foreign policy, the media, and political elites that was a focus of activist and academic Noam Chomsky was the East Timorese genocide at the hands of Indonesia in 1979. Just mere years after the highly-publicized Cambodian genocide, atrocities in East Timor were conveniently swept under the rug in a joint effort between elites and the media, given the diplomatic ties between Indonesia and the United States in the 1970s (Symansky, Achbar, & Wintonick 1992). This contrasted with the Vietnam Syndrome and other high-exposure humanitarian crises such as conflict in Somalia and the Cambodian genocide demonstrates a conscious effort by elites to emphasize some issues of foreign policy while silencing others.

As shown, of all the areas of foreign policy, public opinion is typically speaks the loudest when it comes to issues of morality and human rights: images of famine and genocide sell the most newspapers, and incite a sense of urgency by the American people to intervene and act. The American identity, along with most liberal democracies, has defined itself by a responsibility to act in pursuit of human rights and democratization around the world (Donnelly, 2013). However, beyond that, public opinion on foreign policy misses the mark, and with it goes many pluralist assumptions.

Only 5% of voters polled by Gallup in September 2018 said that issues relating to foreign policy, war, terror, and national security were ranked at a high importance for them when it came time to vote (“Most Important Problem”, 2018). This proves a realist perspective that issues of foreign policy are of low salience to the public because they require a certain level of expertise in order to have an informed opinion. Following this realist perspective, the specialized, highly educated, and usually wealthy class gatekeeps critical, yet low-salience issues like foreign policy, “manufacturing consent” and maintaining the illusion of free thought and influence on these policy issues. In this administration, I choose to subscribe more to Robinson’s “elite version of manufacturing consent,” in which the news media conforms not to the official executive agenda, but rather the implied interests of official or unofficial political elites (Robinson, 1999, p. 303.)

This is because, now more than ever, there is a deafening excess of unelected voices giving their input to the commander in chief. For example, Dombrowski and Reich (2018) find that, where the media fails to predict Trump’s military action and foreign policy, his reckless tweets and revolving door of top-ranking security officials are more indicative of the organized chaos the administration exhibits in issues of foreign policy. This may be more overt than ever since 2016, but the political and structural flaw in which most of American foreign policy is decided by appointed bureaucrats without a constituency to hold them accountable is nothing new.

So how can it be fixed?

A common critique that arises similarly between Democrats and Republicans as well as Pluralists and Elitists is the accessibility of foreign policy and other issues that are considered too technical for voters to make their own opinions about. In referencing a critique of Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates in which the author finds the claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” inherently elitist in its assertion that intellectual pursuits are reserved only for the wealthy and educated, Crystal Bartolovich finds that “Ayn Rand novels and Fox News produce strikingly similar accusations to Baggini’s when they denounce the supposed university and media elite” (2012, p. 34).

An integral element in the appeal of fake news is the assertion to susceptible right-wing audiences that the mainstream media is liberally-biased, and therefore, untrustworthy – after all, less than 20% of Republicans polled in 2016 said they trusted the mainstream media (Alcott & Gentzkow, 2017 p. 216). This “Platonic division between those who work with their hands and those who think continues to haunt all debates about education – even in ostensibly democratic nations,” and even in all political debates (p. 35).

This is a vicious cycle, however – if the media is what informs public opinion, and the media is unwittingly at the hands of the elites, but the public finds the media elitist, then who is left to reliably inform the public? We must reach a point in the sphere of public opinion at which a balance is achieved between making foreign policy an intellectual pursuit and making it accessible to all. The solution to this is stronger protections for independent investigative journalism that actively works to critique the sitting administration, no matter the party.

If the media is unreliable as the only avenue for information, then another possible solution would be stronger investments in increasing the publicity and salience of, and education on, issues of foreign policy at all levels. Bartolovich argues that, instead of intellectual elites being seen as the enemy of equality, the more educated class is actually better positioned to restructure the oppressive power dynamics in which education isn’t accessible to all (Bartolovich, 2012). Considering this, it remains an easy conclusion to draw that both Democrats and Republicans could afford to lean a little more heavily on the optimism of the Pluralist model when it comes to the disseminating of information from which the public forms their opinions.

Cite this paper

Role of the U.S. Media in Modern Foreign Policy. (2021, Dec 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/role-of-the-u-s-media-in-modern-foreign-policy/

We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Peter is on the line!

Don't settle for a cookie-cutter essay. Receive a tailored piece that meets your specific needs and requirements.

Check it out