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The Impact of the Media on National Security Policy Decision Making

Authored by Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II. | October 1994

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This project was undertaken to produce a strategic level study which would lay the foundation for deeper examination of specific issues relating to the impact of the media on national security policy decision making. It is not intended to provide answers, although some emerge.

The opening quotation from one of America's most notorious news figures will stimulate argument, for it is equally preposterous and accurate; suggests abuse of the First Amendment protection of free speech, yet lies within the heart and soul of republican government. Insofar as Hearst claims for the media the power to make war, it impinges upon national security.

Some areas of suggested research will require the passage of several years as American society and its political processes adapt to the exploding potential of the Information Age; the study asks if the growth of communications technology could inaugurate the advent of true democracy.1

This study employs a relatively narrow definition of national security issues as only those which are concerned with national survival and preservation of our way of life. The problem with a broader definition is that national prestige or image often become confused with national interests. Such a definition is too inclusive to be useful.

The media affects us as individuals and as a collective body. The collective body expresses itself as "public opinion" and has been extensively studied and measured. The effects on individuals are not as easy to determine without extensive research, which has not been undertaken.

The measurability and control of media influence is highly situational. The most prominent examiner of the media-public opinion interaction, Professor Benjamin I. Page, concludes that much more study is required to understand fully this interaction; likewise, the conclusions herein are couched in tentative terms.2

The issue of influence on the National Command Authorities (NCA) concerning questions of national security may be addressed in part by recourse to the process of American government. In this process, the media "informs" the people who then "speak" to their elected representatives in a wide variety of ways including letters, telephone calls, FAXes, and political action groups. The Congress then "speaks" to the president, who in turn may speak to the people through the media. In matters of foreign affairs, media, people, and the Congress expect the president to lead. If the administration is unsure of its own goals or if it finds it is at odds with the mood of the people, it will be like the "double minded" man who is "like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed," in this case by the winds of the news.3

Daniel C. Hallin wrote, "The behavior of the media . . . is intimately related to the unity and clarity of the government itself, as well as to the degree of consensus in the society at large."4 This conclusion seems to be as valid now as when it was written of a period now 20 years past.

The most important questions from this study are those which can not yet be answered for they deal with the future. They are listed separately in the hope that other researchers will undertake their study.


There are only a few certainties about the news. The first is that there is likely to be more of it available to more of us. Another certainty is that major news media are still going to be driven by the profit motive; consequently, whatever sells they will purvey. Since its inception as a mass phenomenon, what sells is spectacular, titillating, eye catching, or sensational; truth, accuracy or context can become secondary.6

Considering the impact of the Information Age, Americans may be facing a new phenomenon in the news arena? interactive news tailored to individual interest. This may allow the truly interested "reader/viewer" the opportunity to get beyond headlines and into the "facts" at a depth and breadth hitherto unknown. Of course we must realize that while this opportunity will be generally available, participation is unlikely to be much above current levels of "active" public interest. The cold fact is that reading and thinking about the news takes time and that is what most people are unwilling to give up for something that may not affect them directly.7 Interactive news is also likely to generate more discrete interest levels or focus. Currently, several major newspapers are shifting their overseas coverage to directly accommodate their readership. Marketing areas heavy with Hispanic readers are closing European offices in favor of South and Central American locations.8

Another aspect of the Information Age that could have an impact on policy is the possibility of enhanced public responsiveness to events. As the FAX and E-mail become increasingly available, the power of public opinion may be enhanced. "On Air," real-time polling is already in place on major television networks. These two avenues of public expression may well serve two different groups of citizens. The first group is the computer-literate, foreign policy aware. The second group is synonymous with the television viewing public, not necessarily synonymous with those informed of and active in foreign affairs.Those people with access to FAX and E-mail are increasing dramatically, but their identity and involvement in public affairs is yet to be defined. It is already possible and acceptable to FAX or E-mail one's opinion to the White House directly, but who are the people who do? What impact a surge of FAX traffic will have is probably going to be governed by the same factors that govern the impact of public opinion now. If an election is imminent, public reactions will likely be voiced more frequently and are likely to be followed more closely; if the domestic situation is threatening, likewise. If a genuine national security interest is threatened, president and public are likely to draw together if the White House leads; if the administration is weak or unpopular, the impact of a flood of public expression may have unforeseen consequences.

The point is that the potential of the public to become informed and to make its voice heard in response to events portrayed in the media is increasing dramatically, but the potential must pass through the filter of public interest, a filter of episodically varying permeability.

For purposes of this study, the supposition is that the media exert influence through two channels, direct and personal, and indirect and collective. The direct and personal aspect is difficult to investigate and minimal effort was devoted to it in this study. The indirect and collective is the realm of public opinion, a battleground of politics unique to democratic societies. This study concentrates upon the latter arena.


1. W. Russell Newman, "Mass Audiences," Media Studies Journal, Fall 1991, p. 157; also see Gladys Ganley, "Political Uses of Personal Electronic Media," p. 175, and Michael C. Janeway, "Power and Weakness of the Press," p. 3.

2. Benjamin I. Page, "Democratic Responsiveness? Untangling the Links Between Public Opinion and Policy," Political Studies Quarterly, March 1994, pp. 25-28.

3. James 1:6, The Holy Bible, King James Version.

4. Daniel C. Hallin, The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 213; also Ted Koppel, "The Perils of Info-Democracy," New York Times, July 1, 1994, A25.

5. William Randolph Hearst as quoted in Gerald F. Linderman, The Mirror For War: American Society and the Spanish-AmericanWar, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974, pp. 165-166, from a signed editorial in the Journal on September 25, 1898.

6. Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice: How the Networks Lost Their Way, New York: Random House, 1991. Author details the shift in direction of the networks toward the pure profit motivation of ordinary big business. The Hearst and Pulitzer competition was likewise market-share driven, but, says Aulette, the current trend is a disturbing turn away from any attempt toward reporting truth.

7. W. Russell Neuman, "Mass Audiences," Media Studies Journal, Fall 1991, p. 157. Neuman suggests that the public attention span responds in a variety of ways which require further investigation.

8. Alicia C. Shephard "An American in Paris (and Moscow and Berlin and Tokyo...)," American Journalism Review, April 1994, pp. 25-26.