January 31, 2008 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Soldiering onward

I am still writing to myself here, as usual, as an online version of “thinking out loud” about my thesis topic. I am gonna post my tentative proposal—it’s something I turned in yesterday—but after a day’s thought, I am thinking that my idea for a case study doesn’t fit with my broader interests. Ugh. Well anyway here it is.

Tentative Thesis Title:

Out of Frame:
How Old Media and New Media Cover Old Europe and New Europe

Thesis Mentor:

To be confirmed (see below)

Synopsis of problem to be investigated:

Americans are shockingly ill-informed about the world around them and their impact upon it. As a result of this ignorance, there is little or no natural constituency in the United States for foreign affairs advocacy or sensible decision-making by politicians and other elite decision-makers. Myopic, poorly-conceived foreign policies regularly violate national ideals while working directly counter to the interests of ordinary Americans. There is no way to eliminate this problem—it is perhaps an inherent feature of democratic government—but long-term strategies of improved international education and increased cross-cultural communication, enhanced by emerging information technologies, might at least reduce the scope of the dilemma. Policies and initiatives that increase Americans’ knowledge of the world and their contact with foreign citizens have tremendous potential to improve the world, but in order to adequately assess such programs, there is a need for better understanding of where average citizens get their ideas about foreign affairs.

I propose to study the role of mass media in presenting information about foreign-affairs topics during a time period of information revolution (via the Internet, cable news, “soft news programs,” and new international global news networks). Traditionally, most studies of this topic asserted that media played little part in the transmission of ideas from elites to the masses, but recent analysts have undermined those claims, focusing on the impact of media framing of political issues. 1 Based on my own studies of international affairs, I think that this distinction makes intuitive sense, and hope to look at media framing in greater depth. In particular, I hope to analyze U.S.-media coverage of European reactions to the build-up and onset of the Iraq War. As possible case studies (and because of personal expertise and interest), I propose a comparison of the coverage of German opposition and Polish support for the war. I am interested in the degree to which these topics were covered, and the impact—if any—that respective support and opposition to the war had upon American perceptions of these nations. I believe such a study would attract wide interest, because the topic touches upon a number of themes that are deeply important to the United States and the world today.

My proposed topic deals with perennial issues that are crucial to any democratic system: What impact does public opinion have upon foreign policy? Where and how do ordinary citizens get their ideas about foreign policy? Do new, decentralized media have a substantially different impact on their audience than traditional media? Based on my previous coursework, I am interested in approaching these questions by looking back at the work of Walter Lippmann on the role of media and experts in democracy, with an analysis informed by Michael Schudson’s work on the history of journalism in American democracy and Michael Hunt’s overview of ideology and U.S. foreign policy. I am also interested in assessing the implications of changing technology: is there any real hope that tech-savvy teenagers who comment on Internet forums and play Xbox games across national boundaries will gain any broader perspective on foreign cultures? Or does the Internet function merely as an echo chamber, always ready to supply evidence that reinforces one’s pre-suppositions?

These are significant problems in political science and the study of international affairs, and they extend far beyond the ambit of any master’s thesis, but I believe that a comparative case study will help to illuminate the forces currently at play. In addition, I have personal interest in American perceptions of Germany and Poland because I have lived in each of those countries, including Poland at the time of the Iraq invasion. As the circumstances of that invasion demonstrated, perceptions of international affairs matter at least as much as facts do; the role of media framing is critical to those American and world citizens who hope to learn from recent and current events.

1. Based on the work of Matthew A. Baum at the University of California, Los Angeles, including “Sex, Lies, and War: How Soft News Brings Foreign Policy to the Inattentive Public,” in American Political Science Review 96:1, March 2002.