The year 1941—when the United States went to war against Germany, Japan, and the other Axis powers in World War II—marked a watershed in America's participation in world affairs. Before then, the U.S. government's involvement outside the northern half of the Western Hemisphere had been limited and episodic. Since then, America has been so internationalist that it has had interests and troop deployments on every continent and ocean. Among many other things, America's perceived interests have included military security, international institutions, opposition to communism, trade and investment, foreign aid, health issues, and freedom of information. The press as a whole has supported this, the most expansive definition of national interests in human history. At the same time, the press has been the major locus of an often heated debate about precisely how America's internationalism should be defined and applied in many of the thousands of specific issues that have faced policymakers during the years since 1941.
In retrospect, the history of the relationship between the press and U.S. foreign policy since 1941 divides at the time of the large-scale U.S. involvement in Vietnam (1965–1973). If one were forced to pick one event that formed the watershed between the two eras in the press-government relations on foreign policy, it might well be the heavily publicized hearings on the Vietnam War held by Senator J. William Fulbright's Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the winter of 1966. These hearings exposed the sharp differences of opinion between witnesses like Secretary of State Dean Rusk who strongly supported the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the continued validity of a firm stance against communism, and witnesses like former State Department official George Kennan who argued that the containment policy should not be applied in Southeast Asia and that major changes were underway in communist nations that made earlier anticommunist approaches obsolete.
As part of a continuum of developments beginning with the well-publicized improvement in U.S.–Soviet relations during 1963, the hearings helped to make it intellectually respectable for some newspapers and magazines (for example, the New York Times and Newsweek ) to abandon their strong traditional support for containment, whereas others (the Wall Street Journal and National Review ) largely continued their Cold War approach. Thus the hearings—and, much more, the Vietnam War that prompted them and continued long after the hearings ended—divided press coverage of U.S. foreign policy from a pattern of largely supportive coverage of major administration policies—from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 roughly through 1965—to a new pattern from 1966 forward in which coverage was much more divided and typically was contested—at least until the end of the Cold War—along liberal/conservative ideological lines.
The Vietnam War coincided with a marked shift in news coverage away from the ideal of "objectivity" toward the acceptance of more analysis and interpretation in news stories in newspapers (news magazines like Time and Newsweek had never hesitated to mix news and interpretation). In part this shift by newspapers was a response to the fact that, by the 1960s, television had become the major source of breaking news for growing numbers of Americans. Thus print journalists moved toward a new focus: interpretation in greater depth than network television news could accomplish.
The shift toward larger numbers of interpretive stories also resulted from (1) a growing recognition that the norm of objectivity, however desirable in theory, was an unattainable ideal; and (2) the belief that this ideal had given government officials (including the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy) too much power to get their often questionable views into print in such a way that they appeared to be facts. In practice, interpretation meant that most newspapers carried more stories that raised questions about particular foreign policies, notably on the front pages that previously had been reserved for "news."
Although it is accurate to emphasize the greater diversity and more critical tone of press coverage of U.S. foreign policy after the mid-1960s, one should not draw too sharp a contrast between pre-Vietnam and post-Vietnam coverage. It is true that most journalists (and most newspapers and magazines) supported the major goals of U.S. policy from Pearl Harbor through the early 1960s: defeating Germany and Japan, helping to establish a peace favorable to American interests and ideals, and then providing leadership in containing communist and other challenges to America's preferred postwar world order. It is also true that the press generally accepted government censorship of news relating to military activities during World War II and the Korean War.
Yet anyone who reads large numbers of newspapers and periodicals on foreign affairs between the early 1940s and the early 1960s will find a tremendous diversity of views. That was true on many subjects during World War II, and it was even more evident thereafter. During the late 1940s, for example, the leading syndicated columnists—Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop—disagreed sharply about the approach America should take in containing the Soviet Union. And the nation's leading magazine publisher, Henry Luce of Time Incorporated, vehemently disagreed with the government and with the editors of the nation's leading newspaper, the New York Times, about U.S. policy toward China. Despite their differences of opinion, leading journalists like Lippmann, Alsop, and Luce were befriended and courted by presidents and other high officials after World War II to an extent that was unprecedented in American history.
Diversity of coverage was found in both of the studies of the press and foreign policy during this era in which the authors of this essay were involved. Both studies used content analysis of coverage during several periods. In The Press and the Origins of the Cold War, 1944–1947, Louis W. Liebovich did content analysis of coverage between 1944 and 1947 in Time magazine, the New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He repeatedly found varied coverage in the four publications, with coverage in the highly idiosyncratic Chicago Tribune (the newspaper with the largest circulation in the Midwest) diverging the most sharply. In a time of considerable uncertainty in relations between America and Russia in which President Harry S. Truman did not spell out his own views on U.S.–Soviet relations for more than eighteen months after the end of World War II, Liebovich concluded that "[o]nly the Chicago Tribune could claim steady opposition to any Soviet-U.S. accord."
In a book on the press and four foreign policy crises during the Kennedy years, Montague Kern, Patricia W. Levering, and Ralph B. Levering found substantial differences in coverage in all five newspapers studied—the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and San Francisco Examiner. Not surprisingly, given its location in Washington, the Post gave the most weight to administration sources, the Times had the most foreign sources, the Post-Dispatch offered the most criticisms from a liberal perspective, the Tribune 's news stories and editorials frequently were imbued with the paper's unique blend of isolationism and militant anticommunism, and the Examiner emphasized a Republican internationalism that viewed President Kennedy as too weak in dealing with communist nations.
In light of the relative liberalism and internationalism of northeastern elites and government employees, the fairly liberal, internationalist views of the Post and Times are easily understood. But could even most residents of Chicago and St. Louis explain why the leading papers in their cities were, respectively, militantly isolationist and liberally internationalist? And who would expect a conservative Republican paper to be one of the two leading newspapers (along with the San Francisco Chronicle ) in traditionally liberal San Francisco? Diversity indeed.
A broad range of opinion on foreign policy between Pearl Harbor and the mid-1960s was even more pronounced in magazines. During World War II, for example, several prominent conservative magazines published articles warning that it would be impossible for America to continue to cooperate after the war with the dictatorial, expansionist Russian government. During the mid-1950s, writers for the liberal Nation and New Republic argued that America should pursue policies designed to end the Cold War; meanwhile, contributors to the conservative National Review were insisting that World War III already was underway and that the communist side was winning. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some conservative journals prematurely denounced Fidel Castro's "communist" revolution in Cuba, whereas some liberal magazines featured articles praising Castro even after he acknowledged his allegiance to communism.
Despite this diversity of coverage even at the height of the Cold War, there were significant differences beginning about 1966. The changes resulted primarily from the Vietnam War and the breakdown of the Cold War consensus among the "responsible" mainstream journalists who worked for leading newspapers and magazines. Because the New York Times was the most respected newspaper among officials and journalists in Washington, and because its news and editorial judgments influenced coverage at the major magazines and television networks located in New York, the shift at the Times away from the Cold War consensus was especially significant.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Times effectively had supported Central Intelligence Agency interventions designed to overthrow existing governments, either by accepting official denials of U.S. involvement (for example, Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954) or by playing down coverage of planned interventions (such as Cuba in 1961). The Times also helped the government maintain numerous official secrets, including the fact that some U.S. journalists stationed abroad were part-time CIA employees who assisted the government in waging the Cold War. In contrast, when the Times learned from disgruntled officials that the Nixon administration had secretly been bombing North Vietnamese forces inside Cambodia, it printed the information and thus demonstrated the falsity of the administration's public statements on the subject.
In subsequent years the Times repeatedly exposed and denounced the CIA's (that is, Nixon's) efforts to oust Chile's Marxist president and the CIA's (Reagan's) efforts to defeat Nicaragua's Marxist leaders. The Washington Post, which had given at least as fervent support as the Times to most anticommunist policies, also challenged the government's continuing Cold War approach by the late 1960s and early 1970s. The publication of large sections of the Pentagon Papers (a classified official study of the evolution of U.S. policy in Vietnam) by the Times, Post, and Boston Globe in June 1971 was a clear sign from leading news organizations that the era of unquestioning cooperation with officials on national security issues was over.
In addition to growing differences of opinion over U.S. foreign policy, the 1960s ethos of questioning authority—an ethos reinforced by Nixon's dishonesty during the Watergate affair that cost him his presidency—also affected relations between reporters and officials for many years thereafter. During and after Watergate, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger recalled, "the press took great delight in demonstrating that the government was wrong." In comparing Dean Rusk's relations with reporters in the early 1960s with the experience of another Democratic secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, in the late 1970s, Martin Linsky found "no sense from Vance of personal intimacy with reporters, and no sense that from his perspective they were waiting for his wisdom." Vance told Linsky that he saw the press as "playing a critically important role. The press can either make or break a policy initiative."
Many high officials in the Reagan administration believed that the government, by giving the news media a relatively free hand in covering the conflict in Vietnam, had contributed to America's failure there. Accordingly, when Reagan in October 1983 ordered U.S. troops to invade the small Caribbean nation of Grenada and overthrow its pro-Cuban government, the administration did not permit any reporters to accompany the troops. Two immediate results were the press's dependence on administration sources for information about the invasion and criticism of official news management in many news stories and editorials. The invasion revealed that conservative concerns about a monolithic "eastern liberal press" were overblown: after U.S. troops had defeated Cuban forces and installed a noncommunist government, editorials in the liberal New York Times criticized the invasion, but the moderate Washington Post concluded that "President Reagan made the right decision in Grenada."
Press coverage of the Grenada invasion and its consequences largely occurred within a couple weeks in late October and early November 1983. A relatively big story that spanned the entire decade—U.S. policy toward the civil wars in Central America—illustrated the sharp divisions within Congress and American society that found their way into press coverage of many foreign policy issues after the mid-1960s. To the Reagan administration and its conservative supporters, the Marxist left, aided by the Soviet Union and Cuba, had gained power in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and was threatening to establish pro-Soviet communist regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala as well. Deeply concerned that communist ideology and Soviet power were expanding in "America's backyard," conservatives believed that the Marxist left needed to be defeated decisively. Liberals, who viewed the existing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala as highly repressive and feared "another Vietnam," thought that America should send neither military aid nor troops to assist anticommunist governments in those two nations or rebel "contra" forces in Nicaragua. Because of the sharp ideological divisions on this issue and most Americans' lack of knowledge about the region, U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s was a subject on which many reporters, editorial writers, and columnists had almost as much difficulty in obtaining accurate information and presenting balanced perspectives as did administration officials, members of Congress, academics, religious leaders, and political activists.
With the ending by early 1990 of both the Cold War and the U.S.–Soviet–Cuban contest in Central America, journalists and officials turned their attention to new issues that thankfully could no longer be placed in Cold War frames. America still had alliances and a strong general interest in peace and stability, but vital interests in specific situations were harder to define in the absence of an international communist movement. When foreign policy issues involving possible military interventions arose in the 1990s, therefore, the debate in Washington and in the press focused on whether the nation had sufficient national interests to send troops to nations like Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti.
Even within the affluent news organizations, the issue of priorities became more difficult to resolve in the absence of a communist threat. "We have chosen to invest major resources in covering the former Yugoslavia, but is this the correct move?" Bernard Gwertzman of the Times wrote. "Should we care what happens to Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians?" Except in a few papers like the Times with a strong tradition of international reporting, the volume of foreign news coverage dropped sharply in both newspapers and news magazines in the 1990s.
There were positive trends as well. Reporting and commenting on the lengthy deliberations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) treaty in the early 1990s and over most-favored-nation trading status for China several years later, the press played important roles in the largest public discussions of America's international economic policies since the debates over tariff policy in the 1920s and early 1930s. Because the print media are indispensable for detailed analysis, and television excels in presenting vivid images, newspapers and magazines may well have had relatively greater influence than television in the debates over economic policy than in the discussions of possible military interventions.
The press also has played an important role in bringing environmental issues—including proposed international actions to deal with them—to public attention. An example is the debate over the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to address global warming. An analysis by Brigitte Nacos, Robert Shapiro, and Pierangelo Isernia of press coverage in two national newspapers during a six-month period from September 1997 through February 1998 found that the New York Times published sixty-five articles on the subject and the Wall Street Journal published twenty-three. The authors also found that
contrary to the American media's more common coverage of foreign policy issues, government officials did not dominate that press coverage. Taken together, policy and scientific experts, a variety of organized interests (business, labor unions, environmentalists), as well as the public, were more frequently covered than officials at Washington's major news beats…. As a result, the media—especially newspapers—reflected the kind of robust debate that is especially essential in the American system of government, where decision makers pay considerable attention to public opinion.
This and other studies suggest that, with the Cold War over, the press is less likely to rely as heavily on administration and congressional sources for its news stories as it did earlier. To be sure, the views of governmental leaders in a democracy need to be publicized and evaluated, so that voters can have information on which to base judgments in future elections. But the views of others—including the representatives of the groups listed in the above quotation—also need to be included so that voters have a broad base of information and perspectives upon which to form their opinions. By giving detailed coverage to relatively neglected issues like international economics and the environment, and by providing greater balance between governmental and nongovernmental sources for news stories about these issues, the press may well be doing a better job in covering foreign policy issues today than it did during the Cold War.