Text, Lies and Videotape
While you are reading this editorial, a subtle game is being played between the government bureaucracy and the media. The media frames the issues and sets the agenda, while the government decides which information to release and what secrets to leak. The media and the government share a symbiotic relationship, manipulating and reacting to each other. The media-governmental nexus is a single institution, and it possesses ultimate political power in our society; those outside the loop, namely you, the readers, are passive observers of the institution which actually governs our nation.
The media has incredible power in setting the agenda for policymakers. In a democratic society, elected officials must appear to be responding to constituent desires and concerns in order to be reelected, and the media has tremendous influence over public opinion. The media might not tell John Q. Public what to think, but the media certainly determines what issues John Q. Public thinks about.
Government officials, especially those in foreign policy, receive massive amounts of intelligence per day, which sometimes they read and sometimes they don't; yet every government official reads The Washington Post or The New York Times every day. In every government office, be it the Congress, State Department or Pentagon, television sets are tuned to CNN both for the latest news and so that government officials know what will be news. The headlines of the Post and Times determine the day's agenda regardless of whether that issue is trivial or detrimental to the United States.
Take Bosnia: Is ending the fighting really a U.S. strategic priority? Clearly not, but pictures of slaughtered Bosnians on TV motivate John Q. Public and thus motivate government officials.
The government compensates for its vulnerability in agenda-setting by managing the flow of information. The government has a monopoly on information, especially in foreign policy when information is classified secret. The government broadcasts its message through two channels: public and secret. Public diplomacy refers to on-the-record briefings, such as presidential news conferences and press releases. Leaks, on the other hand, are unauthorized disclosures of information attributed to anonymous sources. In foreign policy, these leaks contain classified information which, if given straight to the KGB without using the media as a conduit, would warrant prosecution for espionage.
Reporters would normally acknowledge leaks by citing "unnamed sources" or "officials who refused to be identified." The readers seldom consider the reason that this unnamed official consented to be interviewed. Government officials do not talk to the press off-the-record out of the goodness of their hearts or from a profound respect for the democratic process. Instead, officials leak information because it is in their interest to have a certain message broadcast by the media.
Media-government relations are complicated by the internal workings of the government. The U.S. foreign policy establishment, for example, is composed of several bureaucracies, including the While House and the Departments of State and Defense, and within each of these into political appointees and civil service. Bureaucracies are notorious for haphazard functioning, and many a Harvard professor (Allison, May, Kissinger) has padded his publishing averages by producing studies of the effects of bureaucracy on U.S. foreign policy decision making.
These bureaucracies frequently utilize the media to execute end-runs around their bureaucratic competitors. A bureaucracy may broadcast a certain message through the media to sway public opinion and thus influence the President, or to broadcast their competitor's policy for public ridicule.
Currently the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracies are locked in an internal life-or-death struggle regarding U.S. responses to the Bosnian crisis. The State Department historically is more cavalier toward the use of military force, perhaps stemming from the fact that foreign service officers would not be the ones risking their lives; in the case of Bosnia, the State Department favors an increased U.S. role. The Defense Department, on the other hand, has been very hesitant to commit U.S. forces when the objectives are political and unachievable, if defined at all; the Pentagon is dead set against any intervention in Bosnia, which would quickly turn into a quagmire for the U.S.
In their struggle over Bosnian policy, both sides will not hesitate to "go public" to gain advantage, utilizing both public diplomacy and leaks. It is no accident that General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, consented to an on-the-record interview which received front-page headlines in The New York Times, and that he had an editorial on the oped page. The subject: why the U.S. should be wary of intervention in Bosnia.
Leaks are also employed in bureaucratic warfare. If Defense Department officials sense that the State Department is winning the competition for the President's ear, it should not be a surprise if the next day in the press "unnamed Pentagon officials" are quoted as saying the State Department plans are foolhardy. These "unnamed Pentagon officials" are hoping that the public exposure of the State Department's crazy proposal would induce public pressure on the President to reject it.
By reading news articles with a critical eye, the reader can learn of the internal bickering and bureaucratic infighting which usually takes place behind closed doors in the government. Just ask yourself, "Who is this unnamed official, and how does his message benefit him?"
Leaks are also used as trial balloons in which one policymaker will give reporters an off-the-record briefing on a proposed policy. This way the proposal can be debated publicly without the reputation of that policymaker being associated with the policy. The most extraordinary aspect of trial balloons, however, is that public officials gauge public opinion not through polls but rather by reading the newspapers and especially editorials! Public officials assume that a solid connection exists between the media's message and public opinion, and the cause and effect work both ways. The slant of articles and the ideas of editorialists have a tremendous impact on government officials.
The government-media nexus is complicated in foreign policy by the requirement that nations act as singular actors; international relations, domestic politics must stop "at the water's edge." In our New World Order of shifting alliances and multipolarity, the U.S. government will have to utilize all means necessary to gain advantages in negotiations and crises.
The dependence of the media on public diplomacy and leads for its news creates enormous possibilities for the government to manipulate the media in order to broadcast a deceptive message to foreign countries. Government officials could leak false information, simulating either government policies or bureaucratic infighting which do not exist in order to maintain the element of surprise in international competition.
Does this sound too conspiratorial to be true? On August 25, 1986, the Wall Street Journal cited an unnamed Administration official saying that the U.S. was beginning a covert military operation to subvert Khadafi. The three major television networks picked up the Journal's story and repeated its assertions. When European allies became nervous, U.S. officials publicly backed off from this policy, but the idea had already taken hold throughout the world--and presumably with Khadafi himself.
In reality, no such U.S. policies existed; the leak was a complete and utter lie concocted by the National Security Advisor and his staff in order to intimidate Khadafi and destabilize his regime. An August 12, 1986 memorandum to the President had outlined a strategy of combining "real and imaginary events through a disinformation program--with the basic goal of making Khadafi think...that the U.S. is about to move against him militarily." How is this common knowledge? The secret memo was leaked, obviously to someone's advantage.
The media is just one branch of a larger public policy institution. The articles on the front page appear for a reason. It is up to readers to figure out the reasons behind the articles and editorials that appear. Don't believe everything you read.
Gordon Lederman 93 is a Crimson opinion writer. He worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff this summer.