The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling "byproduct" theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the "soft news" media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.
Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.
This study argues that, due to selective political coverage by the entertainment-oriented, soft news media, many otherwise politically inattentive individuals are exposed to information about high-profile political issues, most prominently foreign policy crises, as an incidental byproduct of seeking entertainment. I conduct a series of statistical investigations examining the relationship between individual media consumption and attentiveness to a series of recent high-profile foreign policy crisis issues. For purposes of comparison, I also investigate several non-foreign crisis issues, some of which possess characteristics appealing to soft news programs, and others of which lack such characteristics. I find that information about foreign crises, and other issues possessing similar characteristics, presented in a soft news context, has indeed attracted the attention of politically uninvolved Americans. The net effect is a reduced disparity in attentiveness to select high profile political issues across different segments of the public.
Replication datasets for this article are available for download as zipped Excel files here.
Scholars have repeatedly confirmed the phenomenon of relatively short-lived spikes in presidential approval ratings immediately following the occurrence of sudden, high profile foreign policy crisis events. Despite the massive attention heaped upon the rally phenomenon, relatively little attention has been paid to its constituent elements. Yet, recent research has found that different groups of Americans respond differently to presidents’ activities according to their interests and attentiveness. In this study, I disaggregate public opinion along two dimensions: political party and political sophistication. I argue that, in responding to presidential activities, particularly such high profile activities as the use of force abroad, different groups of Americans weigh various individual, contextual and situational factors differently. I investigate all major U.S. uses of force between 1953 and 1998 and find that the propensity of different groups to "rally" does indeed vary according to individual circumstances. Moreover, these differences are refracted through variations in the external environment. To explain these differences, I employ two models of public opinion change. The first emphasizes the importance of threshold effects in explaining opinion change. That is, individuals who are closest to the point of ambivalence between approval and disapproval are most likely to change their opinion in response to external circumstances. The second emphasizes both the propensities of different types of individuals to be exposed to a given piece of information, and their susceptibility to having their opinion influenced by any additional information. My results offer a more nuanced picture of the nature and extent of the rally phenomenon than has been available in previous studies. My findings hold important implications for other, related, scholarly debates, such whether, and under what circumstances, the use of force can successfully divert public attention from a president's domestic political difficulties.
You can download a pdf copy of this article here. (Note: This is an electronic version of an article published in International Studies Quarterly. Complete citation information for the final version of the paper, as published in the print edition of International Studies Quarterly is available on the Blackwell Synergy online delivery service, accessible via the journal's website at http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journals/ISQ or http://www.blackwell-synergy.com.)