The most widely accepted explanation for the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon is a relative absence of elite criticism in the news during the initial stages of foreign crises. In this study we argue that the nature and extent of elite debate may matter less than media coverage of any such debate, and that these often systematically diverge. We also argue that not all messages in this debate matter equally for public opinion. Rather, the persuasiveness of elite messages depends on their credibility, which, in turn, arises out of an interaction between the sender, receiver, and message. Hence, only by understanding the interactions between elites, the public, and the press can we account for variations in public responses to presidential foreign policy initiatives. We test our theory by examining public opinion data and network news coverage of all major U.S. uses of military force from 1979 to 2003. We content analyze all congressional evaluations of the president and the executive branch of government from the three network evening newscasts within 60-day time periods centered on the start date of each use of force. Our results offer strong support for the theory.
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