War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War

In This Review

War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War
By Matthew A. Baum,Tim J. Groeling
Princeton University Press, 2009
352 pp. $26.95

The prejudices of the media inevitably affect debate on foreign affairs, but their impact is as much eccentric as biased. Editorial judgments reflect convictions about what is newsworthy, which often involves highlighting conflict and dissent. This can be frustrating for governments, but they have the advantage of being able to frame issues to suit their policies. Meanwhile, the public, which knows and cares little about international affairs, must work out who they trust and what they want to understand. In this landmark study, Baum and Groeling reveal how foreign policy messages are conveyed and undermined. With a cascading set of hypotheses and a demanding methodology, at times the argument just gets too complicated. Nonetheless, perseverance is rewarded. Using the Iraq war as their main case, the authors show how governments can take advantage of the "elasticity of reality" -- at least until it becomes too difficult to fit awkward events into their preferred narratives. This limits the durability of any "rally round the flag" effect. Indeed, War Stories demonstrates that bipartisanship may become an even more elusive goal, not only because of the evident divisions among the elite but also because of the fragmentation of the new media, which lets the public choose their opinion sources without too great a risk of being challenged.

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