The Press - The press and foreign policy crises



Much of the most systematic scholarship on the press and foreign policy has focused on coverage during the many crises that occurred from the early 1960s through the early 1990s. Two studies that include systematic analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, The Kennedy Crises (1983) by Montague Kern and colleagues and The Press, Presidents, and Crises (1990) by Brigitte Nacos, agree that the Kennedy administration faced difficulties from negative press coverage of issues relating to Cuba, especially in Republican-leaning newspapers, in the months leading up to the discovery of the missiles in mid-October 1962. Conservative newspapers highlighted the charges of Republican politicians and anticommunist Cuban exiles that the administration was too weak in dealing with Castro and with a large-scale Soviet military buildup in Cuba that, contrary to administration denials, might well include nuclear weapons.

The two studies also agree that, after Kennedy went on national television and radio on 22 October to reveal the missiles' presence in Cuba and to insist upon their removal, coverage in all studied newspapers swung decisively in his favor, thus building up his reputation as a strong and sensible leader who was "in control." After Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly agreed on 28 October to remove the missiles and thus handed Kennedy a widely perceived victory, coverage gradually returned to the more normal pattern of liberal support for the administration on Cuba and conservative questioning of its resolve to "stand up to" Khrushchev and Castro.

Based on their study of the missile crisis and three other crises of the Kennedy years, Montague Kern and her colleagues concluded that "the president dominates press coverage primarily in situations [such as the climatic week of the Cuban missile crisis] where competing interpretations of events are not being espoused by others whom journalists consider important." Brigitte Nacos agreed with this conclusion and added another: "The extent to which the president's domestic proponents or opponents were highlighted or downplayed in the news depended on the editorial stance of each newspaper. During all phases of the Cuban crisis there was a relationship between so-called straight news reporting and editorial positions of each news organization." This finding, confirmed in her study of other crises, suggests that editorial perspectives—especially general support for or opposition to the administration in power—correlated with news coverage of crises in the pro-Democratic New York Times and Washington Post and in the pro-Republican Chicago Tribune.

On the Sunday before Kennedy planned to take to the airwaves to confront Khrushchev and state the administration's policy, he learned that James Reston of the New York Times and other reporters had pieced together large parts of the story about the missiles in Cuba and about Kennedy's plan to blockade the island and demand that the missiles be removed. Fearing that premature publication of this information might derail his efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully, Kennedy phoned Reston and high-level officials of the Times and the Post and Time magazine and pleaded that details of the administration's plans not be published before Tuesday. Reston recalled that Kennedy "didn't deny what was afoot, but said that if I printed what we knew, he might get an ultimatum from Khrushchev even before he could go on the air to explain the seriousness of the crisis." Reston and the "eastern establishment" executives agreed to cooperate with Kennedy.

Kennedy's phone calls stand as striking high-level testimony about the perceived importance of the press in the policymaking process during international crisis. They also raise an intriguing question, prompted by Nacos's conclusion: if one of the reporters for the Chicago Tribune had gotten the story, would that anti-administration paper have responded as positively as the Times and the Post did to Kennedy's request not to reveal his plans?

During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy received highly positive, "rally 'round the flag" coverage at the time he needed it most. During the Vietnamese communists' Tet Offensive a little more than five years later, in contrast, the Johnson administration generally failed to get the positive press coverage that might have strengthened public and congressional support for America's war in Vietnam. At a time when U.S. and allied troops were being killed and wounded in unprecedented numbers, why was most of the coverage in the mainstream media unsupportive of the administration?

A major reason is that most journalists viewed the large-scale communist offensive beginning at the end of January 1968 as yet another example of the gap between U.S. officials' optimistic public assessments of America's and South Vietnam's "progress" in the war, and the reality that North Vietnam and its Vietcong allies were determined enemies who were far from being beaten. In other words, many journalists were skeptical about U.S. leaders' depictions of the war before Tet, a skepticism that the communist offensive appeared to confirm. Writing later, Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post mentioned another factor: "One reason the press was not 'on the [government's] team' was because the country was not 'on the team.' To a substantial degree, the newsmen represented and reflected American society, and like the rest [of the public], they had no deep commitment to or enthusiasm for the war."

Several developments during the offensive also contributed to the largely unfavorable press coverage. The fact that Vietcong troops attacked targets in Saigon—including the U.S. embassy—frightened the hundreds of American journalists stationed there and suggested that U.S. military leaders had been wrong to describe parts of South Vietnam as "secure." Another example: the widely published photo (and widely played television footage) of the shooting of a captured Vietcong suspect by a South Vietnamese brigadier general on a Saigon street raised new questions about that government's standards of behavior. And an American major's comment to a reporter about the battle to remove the enemy from Bentre—"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"—increased doubts at home about whether some of America's own military practices in the war were moral.

In a detailed study of press coverage during the offensive, journalist Peter Braestrup argued that the media mistakenly portrayed Tet as a "defeat for the allies" and hence by implication a victory for the communist forces. In fact, after early reverses, America and its allies won a major victory over enemy forces throughout most of South Vietnam—a victory that received little coverage compared with the heavy dose of negative news early in the crisis. "Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality," Braestrup concluded.

Although Braestrup rightly pointed out failings in press coverage, his thesis is only partly persuasive. One can agree that, from a military viewpoint, allied forces by mid-March generally had dealt communist troops at least a temporary defeat. But the Vietnam War also had large psychological and political components. From those viewpoints, the communists were strikingly successful: they convinced most Americans (including most journalists and many members of Congress) that, after three years of heavy fighting with superior equipment, America still faced capable, courageous opponents who could not be defeated in the foreseeable future, if ever. Braestrup's criticisms notwithstanding, journalists were right to portray the Tet Offensive as an impressive military attack and, more importantly, as a severe blow to Johnson's belief that America could "prevail" in Vietnam while continuing to fight a limited war there.

The third crisis, sparked by Iraq's conquest of neighboring Kuwait in August 1990, was so different from the first two situations—them-selves very different from each other—as to demonstrate that the concept "foreign policy crisis" is itself multifaceted. Unlike the situation in Cuba or South Vietnam, a sovereign nation was conquered before U.S. leaders had time to take effective action. Moreover, the public (including the press) debate about what moves, if any, America should make in response took place with memories still strong about America's painful departure from Vietnam only fifteen years before.

Scholars rightly point out that, during the first few weeks after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August, the George H. W. Bush administration largely framed the issue in terms of the immorality of the conquest, the Hitler-like expansionism of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that threatened such important U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the necessity of restoring Kuwait's independence through either diplomacy or force. What some scholars opposed to President Bush's policy are less likely to acknowledge, however, is that the overwhelming majority of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines (and major television and radio news operations) basically agreed with the administration's arguments and willingly assisted in building public support for an active U.S. role in ending the Iraqi occupation. In newsrooms across the nation as well as in Congress, the only large-scale debates centered on whether America and its allies could achieve this objective through economic sanctions, or whether the nations opposed to the occupation also needed to be prepared to use military force in the relatively near future. A broadly based study of newspaper editorials on the Gulf crisis found them overall to be "respectful toward the president and generally supportive. When there was dissent, it was usually over tactics and timing, rather than goals and principles."

Especially helpful to the administration was support from respected news organizations that frequently had disagreed with recent presidents—especially with Republicans like Nixon and Reagan—on major foreign policies. An example was the New York Times. From the start of the crisis, political scientist Benjamin I. Page noted, editorials in the Times "condemned the Iraqi invasion and insisted upon a complete and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait." Page also lamented the limited range of opinions expressed in the Times columns as well as editorials: "There was certainly no talk of U.S. imperialism or hegemony, or of our historical policy of trying to control Middle Eastern oil reserves." Compared with the Times, however, Newsweek was blatantly supportive of the administration. In late November it even published a column by President Bush entitled "Why We Must Break Saddam's 'Stranglehold.'"

Building upon solid but far from unanimous backing at home, during the fall of 1990 Bush gained strong support from allied nations in western Europe and the Middle East and from the United Nations Security Council. The administration and its allies (notably Great Britain) also built up a large, well-equipped military force in Saudi Arabia and threatened to go to war with Iraq if Hussein did not withdraw from Kuwait. Assuming that Iraq did not end its occupation quickly, only two important questions remained. First, would the Democratic-controlled Congress, many of whose members still had vivid memories of the Vietnam debacle, pass a resolution supporting a war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait? And second, would the mainstream media accept the unprecedented degree of control over journalists and their stories that the administration, with its own fresh memories of press coverage of Vietnam and other interventions, insisted upon imposing? When Congress and the mainstream media effectively answered "yes" to both questions, the administration's victory over potentially powerful domestic opponents was complete.

Now all that the United States and its allies had to do was liberate Kuwait, which occurred more quickly and with fewer casualties—at least on America's side—than most observers had anticipated. Begun with allied bombing attacks on Iraqi targets on 16 January 1991, the war ended with a cease-fire agreement six weeks later. Although systematic studies remain to be done, it appears that, given the almost total absence of congressional criticism while the nation was at war, news and editorial coverage was even more favorable to the administration during the war than it had been earlier. In this and other ways, both press coverage and the press-government relationship during the Gulf War were strikingly different from what they had been during the Tet Offensive twenty-three years earlier.

If past experience holds, one would expect continued diversity in press coverage and in press-government relations during foreign policy crises in the future. One also would expect continued diversity in noncrisis situations and in coverage of the many different kinds of foreign policy issues that draw journalists' attention.



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