The Comparative Effects of Adversarial Media and Battlefield Developments in Iraq on Presidential Approval Rating

Abstract

Much is made in mass media about the interdependence between acts of the Executive and the perceptions of the voting public, between policy initiatives and the implicit approval of the governed. In the last 110 years, moreover, public opinion has also been shaped by the involvement of the United States in six declared wars abroad and numerous “low-intensity conflicts” the country waged principally to stem the tide of Communist-inspired insurgencies.

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In the latter, prolonged involvement, the lack of clear-cut victories, and even “strategic withdrawal” that occurred since the Kennedy presidency up to the incumbency of the younger Bush coincided with the propensity of mass media to attempt to shape public opinion, frequently in opposition to official policy.

Since the popular press is replete with explanations for improvements or declines in Presidential Approval Ratings (PAR) – owing to developments in wars being waged, as well as on the economic, health care, foreign relations, quality of life, immigration, and other fronts – this dissertation seeks to ascertain the relative impact of battlefield developments and editorial slant on PAR.

Specifically, the purpose of this dissertation is to find out whether, in a prolonged war, PAR is affected more by battlefield developments like casualties or Baghdad being taken and the duration of a conflict than by media support or opposition.

Introduction

In today’s media-intensive and IT-driven world it is imperative that political candidates have untrammeled access to the media in order to reach their targeted public. With millions of voters scattered all over the nation, it is no longer practical for a presidential candidate to actually visit every town to shake hands with potential voters. Often the candidate is condensed into a collection of pledges, promises, and rhetoric contained in media stories and it is on these images, words, and sound bites that the public develops an opinion of candidates. Research may remain inconclusive as to the true value of the image transplanted by the media to the viewing public in general.

There exist people who are highly educated and politically astute; this class of people is unlikely to be swayed by media, they actively seek information to acquire and assimilate. For example, Trenaman and McQuail (1959) found that those with greater mass media exposure are most likely to know where the candidates stand on voting issues and that voters do learn

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Mass media forces attention on certain issues. It builds up public images of political figures and media constantly suggest to the public what it should think, feel and believe.

McCombs and Shaw (177) hypothesized that the agenda-setting function of mass media can be summarized in that the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people precisely what to think, but is stunningly successful at telling readers what to think about. This means mass media has limited influence on the direction or intensity of audience attitudes, opinions, and beliefs; however, mass media can set the agenda for a political campaign and influence the salience of attitudes towards political issues.

Presidential Approval Ratings

Presidential Approval Ratings were introduced in the United States by George Gallup in 1937 to gauge public support during the term of an incumbent. An approval rating is determined by an opinion poll which reveals the percentage of the population who approve of a particular person or program.

More often than not, an approval rating is given to a political figure based on the responses to a poll in which a representative sample of people are asked whether they approve or disapprove of that particular political figure, his policy pronouncements, and executive orders. Like most surveys that predict public opinion, the approval rating is subjective. Many unscientific approval rating systems exist that skew popular opinion. However, the approval rating is generally accepted as the general opinion of the people.

Presidential Approval Ratings for George W. Bush

In the period from March 2001, President George W. Bush experienced great highs and reverses in PAR. The peak came soon after that catastrophic event on Sept. 11, 2001, after which the President rallied the nation to declare a war on terror. He rallied the nation in an unprecedented fashion, getting virtually all Americans to back his leadership (see Figure 1 below).

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Since then, however, his approval rating has been on a generally downward trend. PAR ratcheted upward to exceed 70% when the President finally launched the invasion of Iraq with the alliance of the willing. The proportion of the population supporting the White House also rose from an ambiguous 50% to two-thirds the week after Saddam Hussein was captured.

Otherwise, PAR has tended to decline. The extended length of the war in Iraq and the increasing casualties it brings has resulted in poor public opinion which in turn brings poor presidential approval ratings. Mueller (1973) argues that the war negatively affects presidential approval rating (PAR). Unhappily, news regarding the war in Iraq is delivered almost instantly via modern telecommunications methods. News on the course of the war has an immediate and significant impact on PAR.

Presidential approval for President George W. Bush was modestly good before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attack and the leadership shown by the President raised the Presidential Approval Rating to unprecedented highs. As the War on Terror continued to drag on, the level of approval began to decline. The attack on Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein restored some measure of confidence in the President.

However, the general trend was a steady decline with the exception of occasional improvements. This is consistent with the general trend of presidents who become less popular as their term proceeds. The conflict in Iraq should have been a means for the President to shore up his flagging popularity. But except in the two aforementioned instances, this did not happen. This is our first inkling that the continued presence in Iraq is not the only factor at work.

The War in Iraq

The focus of this study will be the effect of media agenda-setting on the Presidential Approval Rating of the President in light of the invasion and occupation of Iraq which has dragged on for over 5 years now. After the quick conquest of Afghanistan by Coalition forces in 2001, the Pentagon began to focus on an information campaign in order to curry support for upcoming operations against other terrorist-supporting states. Using the slogan “War on Terrorism” and “In the War on Terror, Iraq is now the central front.” (Bush, 2003). “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001.” Thus, the President himself links the war on Iraq with the war on terror.

The build-up to the war in Iraq was itself an Agenda-setting campaign by the administration, making use of the ostensibly independent but perfectly compliant media to spread propaganda via uncritical and deferential coverage of the same to government statements. These statements conditioned the minds of the U.S. public into believing the threat of Iraq to be clear and present. In fact, after the success of this campaign, it was revealed that some journalists and even entire news organizations had since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical (Associated Press, 2008).

Regardless of the truth of the existence of terrorism links or weapons of mass destruction, the agenda-setting campaign was very successful. Suskind (2008) said that the U.S. government’s public relations campaign was so successful in getting the American public to accept false beliefs to support the war that approximately 70% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks.

Later the Bush administration and congressional investigators admitted they had no evidence of this. Even when in 2006 Lichtblau found that a preponderance of evidence showed that the invasion of Iraq was fought on false pretenses, an astonishing 90% of U.S. troops in Iraq believed the U.S. mission was mainly a retaliation for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks.

Recent Events that affect PAR

Financial Meltdown

The financial meltdown is going to change many things in America. Among these, are changes in campaign themes and promises. While in the past, universal health care was the cornerstone of Barack Obama’s campaign strategy, it is now likely to be swept under the rug in favor of a solution to the economic crisis (Bill O’Reilly 2008). John McCain is not likely to be talking about across-the-board tax cuts any longer. Democrats will likely control Congress again and, in the face of a $700 billion bail-out plan, is not going to agree to any tax cuts. In short, the mortgage scandal has drastically altered the arena of Presidential elections.

Polls indicate that the man on the street is confused, despondent, and outright angry with all the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis. A Fox News survey put President Bush’s approval rating at just 26%. Earlier in the campaign, the refreshing charisma of Alaska’s Governor Palin as a Republican vice-presidential campaign had John McCain leading Barack Obama in just about every national poll. Now McCain has fallen behind because of the economic madness. Scenting blood, the media has gone on a feeding frenzy, not hesitant at all to gloat about the chaos and imminent disaster presaged by the insolvency of Freddie Mae, Freddie Mac, and many of the largest private banks.

The Bail Out Plan

The $700bn bailout plan is believed to be the only way to save the US economy from sliding into recession. It is advocated by Ben Bernanke of the Fed and Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary. The plan calls for using the money, tax-payer money, to buy derivatives and other receivables of insolvent financial institutions. In theory, the bail-out will encourage investors to spend money buying these assets as well and give banks the liquidity to be able to start loaning money again.

While essentially a sound plan, the bail-out is viewed with widespread dissatisfaction and fury by the public that views the bail-out plan as a government conspiracy to hand money to greedy Wall Street bankers who should foot the bill for their reckless wheeling-and-dealing which has brought the financial market to its knees.

Proponents of the plan believe that it will “take Wall Street’s pain and spread it to the taxpayers”. Ultimately this is how the bail-out plan is seen by the public. Taxpayer money is being used to bail out the financial system for its mistakes. A massive amount of money is being used to shore up bad investments just to get the money markets moving again.

What many critics fail to see is that the money which will be pumped into Wall Street will benefit the taxpayers eventually. Public perception fails to appreciate that the failure of Wall Street will lead to repercussions that will affect everyone. The failure of the financial market will lead to a domino effect that will cause serious harm to the American economy along with the rest of the world. Instead what the people see is rich people receiving money from poor people.

Money is a very emotional issue, the fiscal crisis is in part being blamed on the massive amount of spending by the government to support the war in Iraq.

Review of Literature

Agenda Setting Theory

“The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” (Cohen).

The Agenda-Setting Theory is the theory that the mass-news media has a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give to these stories. The central axiom of Agenda-Setting theory is salience transfer, otherwise known as the ability of mass media to transpose the importance of news items on their agendas to the public’s agenda.

The Media Agenda is the set of issues addressed by media sources and the public agenda, which are issues the public considers important (Miller, 2005). The Agenda-setting theory was first coined in 1972 by McCombs and Shaw in their groundbreaking study of the role of the media in the presidential campaign of 1968. The theory explains the correlation between the rate at which media covers a story and the extent to which the people believe the story to be important. Various studies show that this correlation has repeatedly been shown to occur.

The theory was introduced due to dissatisfaction with the “Magic Bullet” theory (McCombs and Shaw ). It was derived from their study which took place in Chapel Hill, NC. The researchers surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential campaign (Nixon versus Humphrey versus Wallace) on what they thought were the key issues and measured that against the actual media content presented to them. The ranking of the issues was nearly identical.

The hypotheses and conclusions were identical as well. The mass media at the time positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasizing specific topics. Subsequent research on agenda-setting theory affirmed the cause-and-effect chain of influence being debated by critics in the field.

One study that proves the cause-effect relationship was that conducted by Yale researchers Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder (as qtd. in Rogers, Hart, and Dearing). The researchers had three groups of subjects fill out questionnaires about their own concerns and then each group watched different evening news programs, each of which emphasized a different issue. After viewing the news for four days, the respondents were again asked to fill out the questionnaires, and the issues that they rated as most important were the same as the issues that they saw on the evening news (Griffin, 2005)

The study demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship between media agenda and public agenda. Since the theory’s conception, more than 350 studies have been performed to verify this theory. It has evolved beyond the media’s influence on the public’s perceptions of issue salience to political candidates and corporate reputation. (Carroll and McCombs, 2003).

Functions of Theory

The agenda-setting function has multiple components

  1. Media Agenda – issues discussed in the media (newspapers, television, radio)
  2. Public Agenda – issues discussed and personally relevant to members of the public
  3. Policy Agenda – issues that policymakers consider important (legislators)
  4. Corporate Agenda – issues that big business and corporations consider important (corporate)

The four agendas are interrelated. There are two basic assumptions that underpin agenda-setting research. The first is that the press and the media do not reflect reality, instead, they filter and shape it. Secondly, media concentration on a few issues and subjects has a propensity to lead the public into perceiving these issues as more important than other issues that do not receive as much press time.

Characteristics of Agenda-Setting

Research on agenda-setting has been focused on the characteristics of the audience, the issues, and the media presenting these issues. Research done by Weaver in 1977 suggested that individuals vary in their need for orientation. This need for orientation is a fusion of an individual’s interest in a topic and uncertainty about an issue. A high degree of interest and uncertainty produces a need for a higher degree of orientation. In other words, an individual is more likely to be influenced by media stories (Miller, 2005)

Research performed by Zucker (1978) suggested that an issue is obtrusive if most members of the public have had direct contact with it, and less obtrusive if audience members have not had direct experience. This means that agenda-setting results should be strongest for unobtrusive issues because audience members must rely on media for information on these topics (Miller, 2005).

Levels of Agenda-Setting

  • 1st Level – This level is the one most often studied by researchers. Here, the theory suggests that media sets what the public should think about based on the level of coverage it gives.
  • 2nd level – The second level of agenda-setting focuses on the characteristics of the objects and issues. It is the level where it is presumed that the media suggests to the people how they should think about the issues (Coleman and Banning 2006; Lee 2005; and Shoemaker & Reese, 1996).

Limitations of Agenda-Setting

Media viewers may not be as vulnerable to agenda-setting as initially assumed. People may not be well-informed, deeply engaged in public affairs, thoughtful and skeptical. Instead, they may merely pay casual attention to public affairs and continue to remain ignorant of the details of the real issues. On the other hand, people who have already made up their minds about public affairs have already decided their opinions and are not affected by agenda-setting. Media cannot create or conceal problems, they may only alter the awareness, priorities, and salience people have already attached to a set of problems.

Other Theories

The Anxiety Disorder theory – A theory is developed which explains the psychological disposition of the public during times of conflict. Expecting prolonged war to increase the level of personal anxiety due to a feeling of possible personal loss, hypotheses are drawn concerning the effects of the length of the war and the effect of a perceived end to the war on presidential approval ratings (Williams, 2). According to a non-bylined analysis in the Atlantic Economic Journal, voter anxiety correlates significantly with voter participation rates.

Other theories extant in the literature that seek to explain PAR is “Media System Dependency” (Hindman, 2004) and the Product Life Cycle Model from the field of consumer marketing (Eisenstein and Witting, 2000).

Flaws of Presidential Approval Rating system

Presidential approval ratings are informative. However, the biggest problem is that media and all other political analysts use as a baseline the start of the incumbent’s term; at this time, every sitting President enjoys what is known as a “honeymoon period” with the press, Congress, the public at large and every other constituency (except perhaps the diehard supporters of the defeated rival). This is a practice of the Gallup poll as well as other pollsters who trend the President’s approval ratings.

Figure 3.2A (overleaf) shows the Gallup graphs of President George W. Bush’s approval ratings at 6, 11, and 18 months after September 11, 2001.

Gallup graphs of President George W. Bush's.

This series of post-September 11, 2001 approval findings for President Bush demonstrates the problem with this graphical practice. Commentators suggest that Bush’s approval ratings seemed quite stable in the months after September 11 and that these sustained high ratings were a function of strong public support. The president’s standing remained above 60% for 14 months after September 11, the rate of decline was also similar to the rate of decline suffered by President George Herbert Bush after the Iraq war. Due to graphical misrepresentation, media commentators misunderstood the rate of change in the 43rd president’s approval rating.

The problem arises because the number of months plotted on the horizontal axis in graphs of approval changes as more data arrive, that is, as time passes. If the width of a graph is four inches, for instance, and 12 months of data are plotted in those four inches a different perspective emerges than if a 48-month data trend is depicted within the same space. If a President starts his term with a 65% approval rating and suffers a steady decline of half a percent per month, and increasingly longer scale of time on the same amount of space will show an increasingly steep decline in the approval rating.

The downward slope Increases as the time scale increases. Simply put, approval ratings appear to show a greater decline when seen from a multi-year perspective even if the rate of decline in approval rating is actually the same. Another variation on this is to truncate the coverage of the y axis, the percentage of voters, from 40% to 70% rather than the more normal perspective of a 0% to 100% chart. As a result, minor, even statistically insignificant movements in PAR are magnified beyond all reason. This is the trickery known as lying with statistics.

History of Gallup Polls

The Gallup Poll is the division of Gallup that regularly conducts public opinion polls in the United States and more than 140 countries around the world. Gallup Polls are often referenced in the mass media as the most reliable and objective measures of public opinion (Gallup.com).

The Gallup Poll was named after American statistician, George Gallup, who is the inventor of the same. The American Institute of Public Opinion which would later become the Gallup Organization was founded by Dr. Gallup in Princeton, New Jersey in 1935. In order to safeguard his independence and objectivity, Dr. Gallup decided that he would not undertake any poll that was paid for or sponsored in any way by special interest groups such as the Republican or Democratic Parties. Gallup maintains that commitment to this day.

In the past, the Gallup Poll measured and tracked the public’s attitudes concerning virtually, every social-political and economic issue of the day; these include highly sensitive and controversial topics. In 2005, Gallup began the World Poll, which continually surveys citizens in more than 140 countries, representing 95% of the world’s adult population. General and regional-specific questions, developed in collaboration with the world’s leading behavioral economists, are organized into powerful indexes and topic areas that correlate with real-world outcomes.

Gallup Polls are well known for their accuracy in predicting the outcome of the current United States presidential elections. The only exception to this is the 1948 election of Harry S. Truman when it predicted that Thomas Dewey would win. Gallup also failed to accurately project the victory of Jimmy Carter in 1976 when it said that Gerald Ford who was winning by a small margin.

Currently, the Gallup poll interviews no fewer than 1,000 U.S. adults each day, providing the most-watched daily tracking poll of the race between John McCain and Barack Obama. Gallup publishes the results of its tracking survey in a three-day rolling average on Gallup.com (Gallup.com).

Roosevelt

Approval ratings for Franklin Roosevelt.
Figure 2 Approval ratings for Franklin Roosevelt.

As the incumbent just before and during the last widely-popular global conflict, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) retained high PAR throughout his entire presidency and remained popular during the war. His comparatively worst ratings occurred when the country was still climbing out of the depths of the Great Depression. The New Deal system that he advocated had yet to take effect. When the American was treacherously attacked at Pearl Harbor, the Gallup polls revealed that FDR received widespread support.

His ratings remain fairly consistent during his entire career as the nation is too focused on wartime news to be overly concerned with major issues at home. In fact, wartime rhetoric and news that American troops were victorious overseas largely hid domestic concerns from the public eye. It is this model of using wartime or a war effort to distract the public that can be seen in the U.S. situation following the September 2001 attacks.

Kennedy

Approval Ratings for John F. Kennedy.
Figure 3 Approval Ratings for John F. Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy was the president at the height of the Cold War with the Communist bloc. He was one of the most popular presidents in history. In fact, he continues to rank high among former US Presidents. He was the first president to benefit from Television and his live debate with Richard Nixon is cited as one of the contributing factors to his election.

JFK was the president during the Cuban missile crisis and was the president who broached the idea of putting a man on the moon.

He remained popular throughout his career as he followed the trend of post-war US Presidents as an enemy of communism in all its forms. He even went as far as actively supporting efforts to suppress communism in the western hemisphere. Among the steps he took to contain communism was the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba which was a failed effort to wrest Cuba from the control of Fidel Castro.

Even in death he remains very popular and his family continues to benefit from his heroic legacy.

Nixon

Approval Ratings of Richard Nixon.
Figure 4. Approval Ratings of Richard Nixon.

Unlike JFK, Richard Nixon was not a popular figure. Defeated in the 1960 elections by the younger, more charismatic Kennedy he ran again in 1968 and won. Nixon was the president during the worst of the Vietnam War years. In contrast to Roosevelt and Kennedy, the ‘wartime’ impression failed to create popular support for Nixon. The Vietnam war was so unpopular that it hounded the Nixon administration. The public clamor for a withdrawal from Vietnam was so great that Nixon won reelection in the 1972 elections in part on a platform of sending the G.I.’s home.

The repercussions of the Watergate scandal and the ignominy of being the first president to be impeached weighed negatively on Nixon’s last months in office and ensure that he has some of the lowest PARs in history.

Bush

Over all approval rating of President George W. Bush.
Figure 5. Over all approval rating of President George W. Bush.

Following the general trend among all U.S. Presidents, George W. Bush started with high approval after his first election; this steadily declined until he left office. He obtained his highest approval rating (92%) when right after the September 11, 2001 attacks and his lowest (19%) were just the previous September after the mortgage scandals broke out. President Bush’s highest approval ratings are tied to the success of his war or terror.

Initially, Bush was regarded as lacking legitimacy due to controversies related to his narrow victory in Florida and the attendant controversy surrounding his electoral college victory. Among the accusations were vote suppression and tampering. He has also been accused of squandering opportunities to unite Americans and dividing even the Republicans, American celebrities, sports and media personalities who have criticized him in the past.

Activist filmmaker Michael Moore criticized Bush in his 2004 movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” for using public sentiments following the 9/11 attacks for political purposes and lying about the cause for war in Iraq. Bush has not been spared from criticism by the international community; as he has been targeted by the global anti-war and anti-globalization campaigns, as well as criticized for his foreign policy. Bush’s policies were also the subject of heated criticism in the 2002 elections in Germany(Overhaus 2002)] and the 2006 elections in Canada(CBC News 2005).

The President has been openly condemned by liberal and leftist politicians such as Gerhard Schröder, Jean Chrétien, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Romano Prodi, Paul Martin, and Hugo Chávez. Diplomatic visits made by Bush have been attended by protests, sometimes on a significant scale. These negative portrayals have received copious coverage in local media and as a result have helped to drag the PAR down.

As noted earlier, Bush received his highest approval rating following the September 11, 2001 attacks; after this the next significant spike in his popularity was the beginning of the 2003 Iraq invasion and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Bush began his presidency with approval ratings near 50% (Roper Center 2006). Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bush held approval ratings greater than 85%, among the highest for any U.S. President ever. Since then, his approval ratings and the implied consensus behind his handling of domestic, economic, and foreign policy issues have steadily declined. Despite strenuous efforts to stem the tide, President Bush and his Administration have been unable to rally public support for nearly three years (Ipsos News Center, 2008).

In 2002, Bush had the highest approval rating of any president during a midterm congressional election since Dwight Eisenhower. In an unusual deviation from the historical trend of midterm elections, the Republican Party regained control of the Senate and added to its majority in the House of Representatives. Typically, the President’s party loses congressional seats in the midterm elections; 2002 marked only the third midterm election since the Civil War that the party in control of the White House gained seats in both houses of Congress (others were 1902 and 1934). His high approval rating is attributed to the widespread public support to his “War on Terror”

The 2003 PAR spiked up around the time of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and continued to go up in the build-up towards the invasion of Iraq in March. But by Late 2003, opposition presidential candidates began their campaign in earnest and PAR started to fall to the low 50s. Most of the polls at the time tied the declining PAR to the growing concern over the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and the slow recovery from the 2001 recession.

In early 2006, PAR dropped even lower to 40% despite coming right after the State of the Union Address which would normally generate a boost. By April of the same year the PAR began to follow the traditional trend of decline. Four states continue to maintain a positive approval rating: Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nebraska. His disapproval rating in traditionally red states had risen, with higher than 60% of voters disapproving in Ohio, Florida, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Missouri and Iowa.

Even in his conservative home state of Texas, disapproval reached 51 percent. His disapproval rating in several American states had reached an all time high, with more than 70% disapproving in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware, Vermont and New York. His highest approval rating stood at 55% in Utah, and his lowest, 24%, in Rhode Island (Survey USA 2006).

Liberal Bias of the New York Times

The New York Times is a daily newspaper published in New York City and enjoying international distribution. It is the largest metropolitan newspaper in the United States, so-called the “Gray Lady” for its staid appearance and style. Founded in 1851, the newspaper has won 98 Pulitzer Prizes brandishing the motto “All the news that’s fit to print”. The paper is owned by the New York Times Company, which publishes 18 other newspapers including the International Herald Tribune and The Boston Globe. The company’s chairman is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., whose family has controlled the paper since 1896.

Daniel Okrent (2004) wrote that the New York Times is a liberal newspaper. His article “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” agrees with the assumption that it is a biased paper because of its coverage of liberal social issues like gay marriage. He claims that this bias is a reflection of the paper’s cosmopolitanism which arose from its roots as a hometown paper of New York City which is one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world.

In the survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in 2007 about the public perceptions of major media outlets, 40% of those questioned believed that the New York Times had a liberal slant while 11% believed that it had a conservative slanti. A University Of California study in December 2004 gave the NYT a score of 73.7 out of 100 in a scale where 0 was the most conservative and 100 was the most liberal.

History of Bias

“…history is what appears in The New York Times archives; the place where people will go to find out what happened is The New York Times. Therefore it’s extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion.” [(Johnson, Taylor 2007) The book Until Proven Innocent]

Like many news organizations, the New York Times is often accused of giving too little or too much coverage to events for reasons which are not related to objective journalism. Among these allegations the alleged downplaying by the New York Times of the news that the Nazi regime in Germany was targeting Jews for expulsion and genocide. The reason for this was the fact that the owner of the firm was Jewish and feared recriminations if the paper took on any “Jewish causes”. Still another accusation was the major efforts it took to uncover Ukrainian Genocide by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s at a time when the Western World knew little of the Soviet Union.

NYT (21 Feb 2008) published an article on John McCain’s alleged relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman and other involvement with special interest groups. The article received a widespread criticism among both liberals and conservatives, McCain supporters and non-supporters as well as talk radio personalities. Robert S. Bennett, whom McCain had hired to represent him in this matter, defended McCain’s character. Bennett, who was the special investigator during the Keating Five scandal that The Times revisited in the article, said that he fully investigated McCain back then and suggested to the Senate Ethics Committee to not pursue charges against McCain.

Bias against the incumbent President

The incumbent president and his administration has been the frequent target of the NYT’s bias. A random selection of NYT editorial lends support to the hypothesis that the NYT seems consistent in opposition to Pres. Bush regardless of the logic of the news story of the day. Ideology prevails over sober news reportage, a tendency evident even in coverage of the present election. With respect to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for instance, one tends to find the NYT exhorting from its high horse without considering the plight of the Iraqi people, the perils endured by local civil authorities and occupation troops both, and the geopolitical standing of the United States.

In October 2005, Times reporter Judith Miller was released from prison after 85 days, when she agreed to testify to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury after receiving a personal waiver, both on the phone and in writing, of her earlier confidential source agreement with Lewis “Scooter” Libby. No other reporter whose testimony had been sought in the case had received such a direct and particularized release. Her incarceration has helped fuel an effort in Congress to enact a federal shield law, comparable to the state shield laws which protect reporters in 31 of the 50 states. After her second appearance before the grand jury, Miller was released from her contempt of court finding (Miller 2005).

In 16 December 2005, the NYT revealed that the Bush administration had ordered the National Security Agency to tap into the telephone conversations between certain suspected terrorists in the U.S. and other countries without first obtaining a warrant of surveillance from the courts in apparent violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) and without the knowledge and consent of Congress.

A federal judge ruled that the plan divulged by NYT was contrary to the constitution and hearings have been held on that issue in Congress. The article then pointed out that the NYT had known about the intelligence-gathering plan for over a year but had delayed publication at the request of certain White House officials. The embarrassment caused by this controversy spurred the Justice Department to launch an investigation to determine the actual sources of the classified information. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006 for reporting these stories.

Additional controversy was caused on 23 June 2006 when the Times revealed the existence of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, a CIA/Department of Treasury scheme to access transactional database of the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (“SWIFT”). In September 2006, the Belgian government declared that the SWIFT dealings with U.S. government authorities were, in fact, a breach of Belgian and European privacy laws. (Bilefsky, Lichtblau 2006)

In October 19, 2004 the New York Times published an article, “Bush vs. the Laureates: How Science Became a Partisan Issue.” The article was an attack on the objectivity of the Bush administration and makes use of the Nobel Laureates’ disappointment with scientific development during the Bush era. Its decidedly negative slant was an attack against the administration.

According to the article, scientists in an out of government have been criticizing the Administration with rising intensity because it has selected research findings to suit preset policies, skewed advisory panels or ignored unwelcome advice and even quashed discussion within federal research agencies.

The newspaper reported that Administration officials brushed off the criticism as partisan and a function of the expectation of the scientists to have a significant role in policy debates. For example, Dr. Jesse H. Ausubel, an expert on energy and climate at the Rockefeller University, expressed his bitterness on how some researchers are being excluded from policy circles that were once open to them in the previous Administrations. He believes that these scientists now feel unimportant when before they used to be exalted and part of policy circles.

The situation has deteriorated so far that in 2004, 48 Nobel prize laureates dropped any pretense of being non-partisan when they signed a letter that endorsed Senator John Kerry. Part of that advertisement accused the Bush Administration of ignoring scientific advice in the crafting of policy that is so important to national welfare.

Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has become a source of criticism for Bush, according to the article. The research agency of NASA claims that its data on global warming studies had been revised by administration officials in order to downplay the definitiveness or risks of global warming. There are even allegations that the president has been asking the scientific community if it supported him.

The article’s slant is an attempt to attack the president and to rally support against him. This is especially obvious considering that it is election time and the claim of the global warming issue being downplayed. At the time global warming was a major issue of public concern.

For his part, Kristof (2002) claims that President Bush became insensitive to the plight of women. He went so far as to claim that Bush’s policies have resulted in the U.S. reversing the tide of modernization and returning women to the medieval ages.

Such criticism was based on claims that the President’s act of cutting $34 million from the UN population fund would result in great suffering for women worldwide. The article exaggerates the effect of this budget cut by saying that emergency obstetric care program in Burundi and the midwife training program in Algeria would all be cancelled because of the budget cut. There is an unfair attribution of blame considering that these are sovereign nations which are supposed to take care of their own affairs. Unfortunately, the article ignores this and instead accused the Administration of killing women in Third World nations just to protest the repressive Chinese one child policy.

There is also considerable coverage of the President’s opposition to an allegedly landmark international treaty on the rights of women called the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” Another accusation of Bush being anti-women is alleged when Administration representatives tried to remove lines that they felt connoted abortion from the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. Finally, the article claims that family planning efforts will be crippled by denying US funding for such programs because Bush felt they were allegedly being used to provide abortion information.

The article closes with an appeal to misery. It gives examples of women who have been maltreated or suffering because of the lack of proper health care. After which it proceeds to blame the President for allegedly reversing progress in women’s rights because of his conservative actions.

Even before the invasion of Iraq, the NYT has already done its best to present the coming war in a negative light. The thrust of a Purdum and Tyler article (2002), for instance, is to say that while conservative Republicans agree that Saddam Hussein must be removed they do not agree with Bush’s plan for a pre-emptive strike because it will cause even more instability in the region.

At the time, critics contended that Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction have yet to be proven. They also claimed that an attack on Iraq would cause long-term instability in the region and would provoke more regional conflict. World opinion was also against any attempt to use force to dislodge the Iraqi regime.

They also believed that while it would be easy to conquer Iraq, actually replacing the regime with a viable government would take a long-term commitment. Finally the use of the pre-emptive strike doctrine might actually cause the other nations to use the same doctrine to attack neighbors who they feel threatened them.

Fast forward to 2007 and one finds Nizza drawing on the widely-held bogeyman of America, the Vietnam war to put the drawn-out Iraqi occupation down. This article drew parallel between events in both countries. The President is presented as brushing aside the comparison with the exception of pointing out that the critics then, as they do with Iraq today, underestimate the social and political cost of pulling out from the war effort.

The article is mainly a rebuttal of a prepared speech by the President which points out that when the American forces pulled out from Vietnam the country turned on its people and terms like “boat-people” and “re-education camp” were coined as a result of their suffering. The bleeding hearts in liberal circles always have a way of sweeping inconvenient truths under the rug.

The President points out that in Vietnam the enemy did not have the means of striking at the U.S. while the enemy in Iraq, presumably Al Queda, has launched attacks on the homeland and has not exactly been shy about encouraging the rabid “faithful” to continue to do so. Naturally, the NYT trumpets its horror that the Departments of Homeland Security and the FBI trample on the human rights of Muslims by engaging in “ethnic profiling”. As if Catholic Caucasians or Buddhist Asian-Americans had anything to do with the Twin Towers tragedy or setting off bombs in the “crescent of terror” that now stretches from Algeria to India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The article points out that back in Vietnam the enemy was confident that they could win because they knew that Americans did not like long inconclusive wars and the Vietnam war would be a long and inconclusive one. The current situation in Iraq, the author points out, is one of civil war as the Shiites and Sunnis go at each other while the U.S. is hapless to do anything about the inter-sect conflict. In a final comparison to Vietnam, the article points out that “support for the Iraq war is all but non-existent,” conveniently ignoring the fact that PAR never dropped as low as 35%.

On the 5th anniversary of the Iraqi conflict, the NYT published a piece (Myers and Shanker, 2008) pointing out that troop levels in Iraq would remain the same based on the plans of President Bush. The NYT is quick to point out that the announcement that US troops would remain in Iraq was made on the day the 4000th American soldier died in Iraq since the invasion that began five years previously.

In effect, the article criticized the fact that a US withdrawal from Iraq would be left to the next president and would be a major issue in the coming elections. Instead of troop withdrawals, Washington promised more reviews to see when the withdrawals might be allowed to resume, without any predetermined outcome and, given the time required to put plans into motion, little likelihood of substantial reductions in the short term.

To the NYT and like-minded readers, it has all been reduced to a question of getting out quickly without due regard for the consequences. If the British people had behaved like this during the long string of defeats they suffered at German hands in Western Europe, Norway, Northern Africa, Cyprus and the Middle East from 1940 to 1942, what would have become of English-speaking civilizations?

Myers and Shanker scorn the white House policy based on, “only if ‘conditions’ allowed it would more troops be allowed to leave Iraq.” The article points out the President Bush is eager to end his presidency with the impression that things are getting better in Iraq. The president is held as wary of risking the gains made in the campaign so far, gains which, as of the article’s publication, cost 4000 American lives. [Has Bush v. Gore Become the Case That Must Not Be Named? By ADAM COHEN Published: August 15, 2006]

Two years after it had become a fait accompli, Cohen points to the fact that Bush v. Gore appears to have been buried. Bush v. Gore was the historic case where the Federal Supreme Court, led by then Chief Justice William Rehnquist, stopped the Florida recount and handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

Essentially, Bush v. Gore held that holding a recount was unacceptable because the standards for vote counting varied from county to county. “Having once granted the right to vote on equal terms,” the court declared, “the state may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.” If this equal protection principle is taken seriously, if it was not just a pretext to put a preferred candidate in the White House, it should mean that states cannot provide some voters better voting machines, shorter lines, or more lenient standards for when their provisional ballots get counted — precisely the system that exists across the country right now.

There is significance in the fact that while Bush v. Gore said this the Federal Courts are unwilling to use this jurisprudence. The core fact is that a state must provide equal voting opportunity for all voters using the same technology and without preferential right for any group. Yet reality dictates that not all voting machines are the same and there will be some disparity one way or another.

The author alleges that setting aside Bush v. Gore undermines the courts’ legitimacy when they depart sharply from the rules of precedent, and it gives support to those who have said that Bush v. Gore was not a legal decision but a raw assertion of power.

A year later, Shane (2005) weighed in with the accusation that the administration had allowed a “mere analyst” to set policy. This article is about that contributions of Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and his contributions to shaping Administration announcements about the war.

Despite the president’s oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. With Dr. Feaver onboard the administration now tried to convince people to accept casualties in Iraq because the effort would ultimately succeed.

The article attacks the speech as it is not a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency in Iraq. Instead it is clearly targeted at American public opinion. It is an effort to increase waning public support for the war. Dr. Feaver is painted as being highly sympathetic of the Bush administration while being critical of Democrats and Liberals.

Conclusion

This admittedly brief review supports the hypothesis, due to be validated by systematic longitudinal research, that NYT coverage of the Bush Jr. presidency has strayed from the path of objective news reportage to an agenda-setting stance of attempting to influence American public opinion towards its liberal ideology of favoring minorities, protecting “defenseless” nations from American intervention and painting Pres. Bush as the most unloved and ineffective Chief Executive of modern times. There is much preliminary evidence that the publication would have all others abide by the letter of the law and abrogate to itself the sole responsibility for well-meaning social and political ideology.

None of these is intrinsically seditious nor perilous to the security of the nation. Free speech and vigorous debate is healthy. Nonetheless, the author wishes to test the proposition that the long-term trend of PAR has more to do with socio-economic developments and the fortunes of war in Iraq and the Middle East generally rather than the ideological and defeatist criticism that the NYT prefers to level on Pres. Bush.

Research Methods

Hypotheses and Objectives

The thrust of this study is to determine if in a prolonged war and occupation, as happened in Iraq, media did not affect the PAR as it did in the beginning of the war when the war was a big issue. Therefore the level of media coverage and its impact on PAR as the conflict dragged on will be of interest. The following hypothesis will be proven or disproved over the course of this study.

  • H1: Media coverage of a war has a positive impact on Presidential Approval Rating.

As covered in the introduction, the War in Iraq resulted in a significant boost to President Bush’s PAR. This boost was accompanied by a media blitz that included media personalities being ‘embedded’ into U.S. Military units to cover the activities of the invasion force and bring up to date information to the audiences back home.

This hypothesis will establish the link between the heavy media coverage ‘glamorizing’ the war and the increase in PAR.

  • H2: The effect of Media coverage goes down as “war weariness” sets in

War weariness in this context is used in the normative sense. The public grows weary of a war as it drags on and remains unresolved. Although the president has already declared major combat operations over as early as May 2003 fighting continues and more people have died since the announcement than during the heaviest part of the fighting.

This hypothesis will cover the causal link between media coverage, war weariness and PAR. It is believed that as people see images of the war in Iraq becoming more and more commonplace they are less affected. As a result, there is little or no effect on PAR when images of the war are presented in the media.

  • H3: The level of media coverage affects the amount of impact it has on Presidential Approval rating

This hypothesis aims to establish the link between the level of media impact versus the amount of media coverage the war is receiving. It is believed that the war itself would not have any impact on the PAR if it is not given copious coverage in the media over local issues.

Methodology and Data Analysis

Based on the Agenda-Setting Theory, the relationship between current events as presented in the media and the PAR will be tested by correlating the trend for both over time.

The core of the analysis will be the effect of media coverage on the war in Iraq and specifically, the extent to which the editorial slant given by the admittedly highly-influential NYT can be shown to move in step with changes in PAR.

The first part of the analysis will therefore concern the relationship between PAR and positive or disagreeable developments on the ground in Iraq. In general, one expects that favorable developments such as launching the invasion correlate positively with PAR while unfavorable events such as “record” casualty counts, any spate of bombings, internecine fighting among Iraqi Muslim sects, seditious pronouncements by insidious Muslim clerics, and other signs of “instability” under the governments that replaced the Saddam dictatorship will have the reverse effect.

All the data will be inputted into SPSS version 15 and preliminary relationships tested with simple correlation. At this point, it is worthwhile mentioning that:

  • The researcher will take care to avoid multicollinearity and spurious relationships for variables that randomly vary together over time but bear no logical relationship.
  • Hence, the approach will be refined a priori following the model specification step recommended by Eisenstein and Witting.

At the second stage of analysis, relationship modeling will bring in the question of a liberal-oppositionist bias on the part of the New York Times. This requires content analysis of the newspaper’s coverage of the war and occupation.

One option at this point is to employ the DICTION 5.0 program in order to classify all editorial relevant to the war as to the tone of argument framed in five ways: certainty, optimism, activity, realism and commonality.

Since massive analysis of NYT reportage on the Iraqi conflict is central to this thesis, coding as to positive or negative treatment will be replicated with a range of other content analysis software:

  • CATPAC – an intelligent program that can read any text and summarize its main ideas. It needs no pre-coding and makes no linguistic assumptions. It has a distinguished record of research with publications in many of the world’s foremost journals worldwide.
  • CoAn
  • Concordance
  • DIMAP
  • General Inquirer
  • HAMLET
  • Intext
  • LIWC
  • PCAD
  • PLCA
  • Profiler+
  • PROTAN
  • SALT
  • SATO
  • SphinxSurvey Lexica
  • SPSS Text Analysis for Surveys
  • SWIFT
  • TABARI (formerly KEDS)
  • TACT
  • TagHelper
  • TAPoRware
  • TextAnalyst
  • TEXTPACK (information available at ZUMA)
  • TextQuest
  • TextSmart
  • T-LAB
  • VBPro
  • Verbastat
  • Verbatim Blaster
  • VisualText
  • webLyzard
  • WinATA
  • WordCruncher
  • WordSmith
  • WordStat

This stage of analysis will account for intervening variables such as presence or absence of illustrative photographs, how the photographs reflect on subject Pres. Bush (neutral, positive/complementary, unflattering), page position, and length of the article.

In yet a third stage, we shall model for the predicted effects of other theories. For instance, Williams (3) posits that prolonged war increases the level of personal anxiety due to a feeling of possible personal loss or a generalized demoralization of the population, otherwise known as defeatism. The alternative hypotheses in this case is that length of war (or its unforeseeable end) adversely impacts PAR while pronouncements about an imminent end have the reverse effect.

Such hypotheses may be tested with the fairly straightforward Box-Jenkins time series analysis. The independent variables then become the length of the war and the perceived end to that war. This variable is represented as “short war, mid-length war or prolonged war”. The dependent variable is the level of presidential approval as measured by Gallup. Were these relationships to prove statistically significant, one may well conclude that popular support for a war notwithstanding, PAR will not be helped by prolonged war.

In the fourth stage, PAR trends will be analyzed against other socio-cultural phenomena presumed to reflect governance and hence, directly affecting PAR. The great hue and cry over the last two years about fuel costs and the ever-widening ripple effects of the sub-prime mortgage collapse are merely two examples of such variables. The researcher will test for a linear regression or structural equation model incorporating other variables such as government handling of the obvious moral hazard in these faulty decisions by banks, perennial issues concerning universal health care, unemployment, general inflation, immigration issues, abortion rights, Title IX, gay marriage and the like.

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McCombs, M.E., & Weaver, D. (1985). Toward a Merger of Gratifications and Agenda-Setting Research. In: Rosengren, K.E., Wenner, L.A. & Palmgreen, P. (Eds.) Media Gratifications Research: Current Perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage.

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