Scholars have long recognized that public support for presidential uses of military force depends critically on elite support. Similarly, scholars have argued that the media “index” their coverage of foreign policy to reflect the responses of partisan (particularly congressional) elites. We argue that journalists' choices also play an important role by systematically (and predictably) skewing the elite rhetoric presented to the public. In particular, we argue that criticism of the president by his own party is disproportionately likely to be broadcast -- particularly in unified government -- and that such criticism should be exceptionally persuasive to citizens. To separate the media’s independent effect from that of the actual tenor of elite discourse, as presented in the news, we investigate all interviews with members of Congress on network television Sunday morning political interview shows between 1980 and 2003. We then determined which comments were selected for inclusion on the evening news and compare the characteristics of such comments to those that were not selected, both during periods immediately following major U.S. uses of military force and during “normal” periods. We find that the evening news presents a biased sample of elite rhetoric, heavily over-representing criticism of the president by his own party, while under-representing supportive rhetoric. Our findings indicate that future studies of public opinion and U.S. foreign policy must take into account the intervening role of journalists, who function as strategic, self-interested gatekeepers of public information regarding foreign policy events.
You can download a pdf version of the paper, here.