The President and The Media– Kathryn Olson’s 1991 Journal Article

I stumbled across this awesome article in the journal Argumentation and Advocacy from 1991 written by Kathryn Olson. This is the link that I use to access the article, although I’m not sure if it will work for you all to see, since I had to access it through a proxy attached to my school. The article discusses the ways that Bush and Reagan shut down deliberative democracy in order to justify their military action in Grenada, and a decent chunk of the article is about how they portrayed their actions through the media. I thought it was an excellent description of how the media helps maintain the presidents ability to do whatever he wants. I’ll paste the relevant parts of the article here.

Again, the author is Kathryn Olson, and the journal is Argumentation & Advocacy; Fall91, Vol. 28 Issue 2, p64, 16p. NOTE– everything past this line in this post is NOT original content, it is Olson’s words, NOT mine.

Encouraging Media Consumption to Replace Deliberation

The presidents’ media use and management of media access to information during wartime is a fourth means for discouraging open deliberation. First, the administration’s wartime use of the media may intensify the media’s usual tendency to offer manufactured deliberation for individual consumption instead of offering information and raising questions that stimulate deliberation. Second, government control of news in wartime decreases the amount and types of information, especially controversial information, that the public can marshall in deliberating. Third, the news media’s predictable response to news control is to fill coverage with material tangential to deliberation.

Initially, Habermas’ general discussion of how cultural conversation itself becomes a commodity that is “administered” is instructive here. Habermas argues that the rational debate of private people becomes a salable commodity to be packaged and distributed through media talk shows and panel discussions (164). Presentation of such a commodity, especially by the electronic media, discourages debate among its consumers by replacing participation in debate with consumption of a finished product, and public communication unravels into “acts of individual reception, however uniform in mode” (161). Instead of preparing members of a public to deliberate, then, packaged media debates tend to replace deliberation.

In particular, Reagan’s use of the media takes Habermas’ observation to a new level. The Lebanon/Grenada address presents a packaged “debate” in a speech given by a single person. Reagan poses seven questions on behalf of the audience and uses eleven additional rhetorical questions. The format gives the impression that Reagan presents both pro and con positions, then resolves the issue in favor of military action. So, rather than packaging a conversation among disagreeing experts to be consumed whole, Reagan uses a monologue suitably structured to substitute for the audience’s deliberation.

Not only does Reagan’s packaged “debate” encourage individual consumption to replace participation in deliberation, but it also subtly avoids critical issues. The monologue’s format allows the president to answer concerns with rhetorical questions instead of with arguments and evidence. In the Lebanon section of the address, for example, Reagan answers the “audience” question of whether American troops serve any purpose by being in Lebanon with another question: “Would the terrorists have launched their suicide attacks against the multinational force if it were not doing its job?” (“Address to the Nation” 1519). Of course, he implies that they would not. Yet, earlier in the speech, Reagan comments that the terrorists’ attack was “hideous, insane” (1517). In an actual debate, an opponent might probe how the actions of a savage enemy who makes insane decisions can serve as the evidence for an intelligent calculation of the effectiveness of the troops’ presence, but the packaged “debate” ignores such objections.[4]

Certainly it is acceptable for a president to try to persuade the public to accept his or her point of view using two-sided persuasion. The problem here, however, is that Reagan uses the “audience” questions primarily as transitions, without presenting the strongest formulation of his opponents’ position before defeating it. So, Reagan’s “debate” not only is packaged for easy consumption and substitution for public deliberation; it also often slides past the concerns raised without addressing their substance. And poll data suggest that the approach was effective in affecting opinions. According to polls taken before and immediately after the speech, Reagan successfully generated significantly greater support for his Grenada actions and moderately greater support for his position on Lebanon (ABC; Sussman A1, A18; “Washington Post”; CBS Evening 3).

Another important way that presidents indirectly influence wartime deliberation using the media is through news controls. News controls inherently limit the information available for a public’s use in deliberating about war. The news media’s predictable tendency to fill the resulting void with inconsequential information presented as “news” exacerbates the negative effect of government news controls on open deliberation.

First, whether justified for security reasons or not, restricted access to information inherently constrains open deliberation. Of course, restrictions on wartime news coverage are not unique to these two wars.[5] In the cases of Grenada and the Gulf, however, the Vietnam experience colored both the news media’s and the officials’ positions on restricting news coverage (“Ban on Press”; Kaiser et al.; Rosenbaum). Journalists distrust the government because of the official deception accompanying the Vietnam War. And officials perceive that the news coverage of Vietnam significantly contributed to the loss by undermining morale and public support for the war.

Consequently, tight controls on news reporting existed in both the Grenada and Gulf conflicts.[6] For instance, reporters were not allowed to cover the Grenada landing firsthand until the action was all but over, which they claimed was a first (Burnham). Thus, although Americans increased attention to the news during the two wars (Nelson 20; Times-Mirror; Gallup), the government largely selected the information that they received. The resulting dearth of relevant or controversial material further constrained deliberation.

Second, in spite of their pleas that the public needs more information, the news media’s predictable response to wartime news controls further undermines open deliberation. When the government successfully inhibits the flow of information, news coverage does not stop, but shifts to peripheral subjects. For example, during the Gulf War, stories about the technology of war and the process of wartime news gathering and dissemination received extensive coverage. R. Michael Schiffer and Michael F. Rinzler explain,

Media restrictions have further served to shift the debate from vital questions . . . toward wide-eyed wonderment at America’s technological prowess. Detailed knowledge about the Patriot missile cannot replace information about the political and military execution of the war. . . . The networks have filled the hard-news gap with experts, maps and props. But these have only served to create the simulacrum of information where only speculation exists.

Such coverage deemphasizes the absence of the information essential to public debate. It also hampers deliberation by differentiating the tangential material as little as possible from important information.

Similarly, when news is controlled, efforts to gather and disseminate news become a news focus, again one only tangentially related to the vital deliberative issues of war. During the Gulf War, for example, the news team that disappeared and the reporters who transmitted reports from their war zone hotel became featured news subjects. Schiffer and Rinzler comment,

The news vacuum has had yet another unexpected result. The media themselves have become the story. Viewers watch the high drama of journalists donning gas masks and hurrying to bomb shelters, and CNN [Cable News Network] reporters ducking under desks to the sound of explosions nearby. Although the news-gathering process has been revealed, journalism itself has been short-circuited. . . .

Certain changes in the news media themselves, such as the advent of CNN with its continuous need for “news” to report, magnify the tendency to feature and exaggerate the importance of peripheral stories. Ironically, then, the news media that protest controls on wartime information react in a way further impoverishing open deliberation. By filling the news gap with tangential material presented as news, the news media both divert attention from central deliberative issues and clutter debate with peripheral information.

Together presidential discourse structured as packaged “debate,” government controls on wartime news coverage, and the media’s predictable response to those news controls all constrain open deliberation. The result is “discourse designed to keep us watching, while symbols dance,” rather than discourse promoting “knowledgeable conjoining of motion and action to construct a future” (Goodnight 225, note 33).


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