Buying the War: How Big Media Failed UsFilm Reflection
Ashamed. Flabbergasted. Appalled. After watching the documentary Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us, I question whether or not I can trust any source of media within my hometown. As a Washingtonian, it is a unique feeling to read and consider the Washington Post your local paper. Hard-hitting national and political news adorns the front page, unlike smaller community newspapers that may dedicate a front-page story to a feature story. A prevailing attitude amongst Washingtonians is that those of us living inside the beltway are “in the know.” Bill Moyers successfully drove a knife through my heart as I watched the documentary proving quite the opposite. The Washington Press Corps, some of the most talented journalists, some of whom I know and have studied under, were duped. The film analyzes how the media’s agenda became intertwined with the administration’s post 9/11. Which in turn, reinforced false information used to gain support going to war with Iraq. The agenda-setting theory of McCombs and Shaw and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence explain just how this manipulation occurred.
Agenda-setting theory hypothesis states mass media can transfer the salience of items on their news agendas to the public agenda (Griffin, 2015, pg. 376). The Washington press corps took a backseat in pushing the administration on any of their claims. Simultaneously, the administration leveraged rising patriotism after 9/11 to their advantage. A lackadaisical press corps coupled with feelings of solidarity among the American people created perfect conditions for administration officials to influence public opinion. Soon, the media agenda became intertwined with the administration’s goals to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Examining the pattern of news coverage and prominence of stories proves the agenda-setting hypothesis. Journalists gathered information from sources associated with neo-conservative groups, an interest aggregation, defined by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw as “clusters of people who demand center stage for their one overriding concern; pressure groups” (Griffin, 2015, pg. 383). Representatives of neo-conservative groups used their insider status to garner appearances on political talk shows and appear as experts in news broadcasts to create their spin. Newspapers followed TV news’ example and editorials were published as the political pundits made their rounds. Cable news networks picked up stories for their nightly broadcasts, and even documentaries were produced supporting the administration’s claims. Just as McCombs and Shaw point out, “we judge as important what the media judge as important” (Griffin, 2015, pg. 375).
Attributes within these stories began to shape the public’s opinion. Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda and accused of housing weapons of mass destruction. Cable news networks and newspapers across the country echoed messages that Hussein was an imminent threat to the security of the United States. This successfully framed public opinion to overwhelmingly support a preemptive attack; thus, the second level of agenda-setting theory concludes. “The transfer of salience of a dominant set of attributes that the media associate with an attitude object to the specific features of the image projected on the walls of our minds,” (Griffin, 2015, pg. 380).
The need for orientation principle can explain just how strong an influence the media has on public opinion. People susceptible to the media agenda are said to, “have a willingness to let the media shape their thinking have a high need for orientation” (Griffin, 2015, pg. 378). Relevance and uncertainty defines a person’s need for orientation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided relevance for Americans while the looming threat of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction created uncertainty.
As Intelligence professionals raised red flags and supplied evidence counter to the administration’s allegations, only a handful of journalist wrote stories contrary to the consensus. These stories were buried within the inside pages or never ran at all as these media professionals were a minority. The majority of journalists were afraid to dissent from the main narrative in fear of being labeled as having a liberal bias or being un-American. Questioning the administration was risky; as Dan Rather stated, “every journalist knew it. They have, and they had a very effective sly machine. The way it works is you either report the news the way we want it reported, or we’re gonna hang a sign around your neck” (Hughes, 2007).
This strong-arm atmosphere in the media created pressure for journalists who viewed themselves in the minority to not share their opinion. An obvious example of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence (Griffin 2008, pg. 372). Prevailing public opinion began to overshadow anyone with a minority viewpoint. Journalists became increasingly unwilling to question the administration as fear of isolation pervaded. By the time intelligence officials leaked information, journalists were firmly planted in their positions. Warnings that the administration was “cooking the books” and manipulating information to support their reasons to go to war ultimately fell on deaf ears.
Griffin, E. (2015). A first look at communication theory (9th edition). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Griffin, E. (2008). A first look at communication theory (7th edition). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Hughes, K. (Producer) (2007, April 25). Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us Bill Moyers Journal [Television Broadcast]. New York, NY: Public Affairs Television, Inc.