There is a diversity of views that exists within multifaceted institutions—"the government" and "the press"—that often are written about as if each were unitary and hence susceptible to broad generalizations and concise theories. The reality is much more complex. In establishing the federal government, the Founders set up an inherent competition between the prerogatives and powers of the executive branch and Congress. On both the proper goals of U.S. foreign policy and the best means to achieve them, moreover, there repeatedly have been strong differences of opinion within the executive branch, within Congress, and between the two branches. Thus, when scholars discover that as many as 70 or even 80 percent of sources used in news stories on some foreign policy issues are "government" sources (either executive branch alone or executive plus congressional), one normally need not be concerned that only one or two viewpoints are being presented. Such statistics do point to a lack of aggressiveness by journalists in gathering information outside official circles, however.
On any major foreign policy issue, the few thousand journalists who work in Washington are almost certain to present varied perspectives based on public statements, interviews, and "leaks" (information whose source or sources cannot be named) from the president and members of Congress and from the many thousands of officials who work for the White House, for the other executive agencies, and for Congress. Especially since the mid-1970s, journalists also have used as sources spokespersons for affected interest groups, academics, diplomats stationed in Washington, and experts from public interest groups and from the capital's numerous liberal and conservative think tanks. As several scholars have shown, foreign policy stories in the 1990s generally were based less heavily on "government sources" (themselves often diverse) than they had been thirty years earlier.
The diversity of views from sources is paralleled by the diversity of views on foreign policy presented in the press. It is true that both the number of daily newspapers (about 1,600 by the 1990s) and the number of cities with more than one daily newspaper declined steadily throughout the twentieth century. But these declines have been at least partly offset by other developments: the widespread availability in recent decades of three national newspapers (the liberal New York Times, the moderate USA Today, and the conservative Wall Street Journal ); the growing use by many dailies of foreign policy coverage and foreign stories from the news services of such papers as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times; and the practice by many local-monopoly dailies of featuring both liberal and conservative columnists. Also, the widespread publication of weekly or biweekly alternative papers, many of which are distributed free of charge and feature liberal or mildly radical perspectives, and the availability of liberal and conservative viewpoints on the growing number of television and radio news programs and talk shows, as well as at numerous Internet sites, have all increasingly complemented the daily newspapers.
For Americans interested in foreign affairs, the greatest diversity of views and depth of analysis during the twentieth century typically were found in magazines. Mass-circulation weekly news magazines— Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report —generally were strong supporters of America's anticommunist policies from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s. Their coverage of foreign affairs generally has become more varied since then, though it sometimes comes across (like some newspaper stories) as simplistic or overblown. It must be remembered, however, that news magazines are intended to appeal to the general public, which normally is less interested in foreign affairs than the much smaller number of Americans who regularly read journals of opinion.
Among journals of opinion, such long-established liberal periodicals as the New Republic and Nation have flourished, as have conservative periodicals, including National Review and Commentary. In the center, with much in-depth analysis of foreign affairs, are journals like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Many religious and environmental periodicals also discuss foreign affairs regularly. Therefore, diversity thrives in foreign policy coverage in magazines.
As in most other nations, ethnocentrism—the belief that one's own nation and its values are superior to all others—has long been a standard feature of the American press's reporting and commentary on U.S. foreign policy and on other nations. Throughout modern American history, most liberal, moderate, and conservative journalists have praised other nations that practiced political democracy and freedom for individuals (for example, Great Britain, Norway, and Costa Rica), and have criticized governments that quashed democracy and freedom (such as Adolf Hitler's Germany, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, and Fidel Castro's Cuba). As the sociologist Herbert Gans has noted, the press's "ethnocentrism comes through most clearly in foreign news, which judges other countries by the extent to which they live up to or imitate American practices and values."
During the Cold War, many newspapers and magazines—often including the prestigious New York Times —applied the nation's core values unevenly by being much more critical of the communist dictatorships that gave at least verbal support to the overthrow of noncommunist governments in other countries than they were of pro-Western dictatorships. Yet even during the long struggle against communism, many newspapers and magazines sharply criticized right-wing dictatorships in such allied nations as South Korea, South Vietnam, Chile, and the Philippines.
The largest policy failure to which ethnocentrism in the press (and among officials) contributed was the common assumption in news stories and editorials from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s that most of the people living in South Vietnam deeply desired to continue to have a pro-Western, noncommunist government—even if that meant having a dictatorial and corrupt one. This dubious assumption, based on wishful thinking much more than on facts, contributed greatly to America's ill-fated war in Vietnam. Although the particular double standards and blind spots of the Cold War era are history, the sharp criticisms of mainland China's and Iraq's repressive dictatorships by contemporary journalists of all political persuasions suggest that ethnocentrism continues to influence America's news and commentary.