Commentary Magazine

The Press and Foreign Policy, by Bernard C. Cohen; and National Leadership and Foreign Policy, by James N. Rosenau

Foreign Interests

The Press and Foreign Policy
by Bernard C. Cohen.
Princeton University Press. 279 pp. $6.00.

National Leadership and Foreign Policy
by James N. Rosenau.
Princeton University Press. 362 pp. $8.50.

Journalists, like everybody else, tend to be happiest when they are comfortably swaddled in myths. Among their favorites is the myth that the press is a neutral conveyor belt which serves the democratic process by providing the factual information on which the public forms its judgments. The theory assumes not only that it is “the people” who make the decisions in a democratic society, but that they really care about such nuances of foreign policy as dumping Ngo Dinh Diem or selling wheat to the Russians. Given this assumption, the people obviously must have the facts so that they can pass on their instructions to their obedient legislators and civil servants. The public's “right to know” is thus enshrined in every editor's heart.

Yet even while pledging allegiance to this Platonic myth, the press knows better than to follow through its own precepts. If it did, foreign affairs would have to take up one-third of news space and most of the nation's papers would go broke tomorrow. Even the New York Times, the opinion-maker's Bible, devotes only 10 per cent of its news space to foreign coverage, and the nationwide average is nearer 4 per cent. Newspapermen know very well that their public would much rather follow the adventures of Daisy Mae than those of Kwame Nkrumah. But at the some time they have a nagging feeling that this is wrong—that the public, damn it, ought to be informed whether it wants to be or not.

The answer is a happy compromise: the news is watered down to make it comprehensible to devotees of Prince Valiant, spiked with fake crises to draw attention away from Sandy Koufax, and compressed into a few columns so that it won't cut into space reserved for the courthouse scandals and motel raids that sell most newspapers. All this is in honest recognition that only a handful of people know—or care—that Ben Bella is not a silent film star, and Pankow not a German dessert. Then, as though in an afterthought of obeisance to the democratic myth, the truncated mess is put on the front page. Thus the press reconciles its duty to inform “the people” with its desire for self-preservation.


It is to this anomaly that Bernard Cohen devotes his attention in a provocative, if rather circumspect, study of the role of the press in the formation of foreign policy. Drawing upon numerous interviews with journalists and policy-makers, he comes to the conclusion that the daily press—by refusing to differentiate among its readers—has misunderstood the role that it plays in democratic policy-making. In diluting the news to catch the eye of the disinterested reader under the assumption that this somehow aids the democratic process, the press abdicates its responsibility to those who have a vital need to be informed. The result is a dearth of analytical news material for the few who actually determine foreign policy, or who even care about it, and a plethora of daily crises which barely capture a passing glance from the general reader. Rather than serving a pablum of easy-to-digest foreign-news tidbits, Mr. Cohen suggests that the press provide analytical interpretation for the minority of its readers who depend upon it for forming policy judgments. It is, to borrow the political scientist's jargon, to the “opinion and policy-making elite” and to that small but faithful band known as the “attentive public” that he urges the press to direct its coverage of foreign affairs.

If the press overrates the need to entertain a mass audience with a jazzed-up version of foreign news, it also underrates the role it plays in the shaping of foreign policy. The government officials who try to preserve their secrets from reporters are themselves directly dependent on the daily press for the information on which they make their policy decisions. They are, in other words, trying to withhold information from the press with one hand while reaching out for it with the other. Not that one can blame them. The press has a distressing tendency to question bureaucratic infallibility and to embarrass officials who would prefer to carry out the public business in the soothing shadows of their administrative fortresses. But no matter how antagonistic they may be to reporters, every Washington official knows that it is the New York Times and a handful of other newspapers that give them the information they need to carry on their job. To compound the irony: they need the press not only to inform themselves, but also to get their views across to the public so that they can develop a consensus of support that will allow them to carry out their policies. At that point it becomes obvious that the reporter and the government official, rather than being natural enemies, are totally dependent on one another for their survival. They are both allies and competitors, carrying on a perpetual love-hate dialogue for the attention of an abstract and basically uninterested public.

What is to be done? Mr. Cohen would put the burden of proof on the press by having it deal with foreign news the way it does with the bridge column or the stock market—a feature for the reader with specialized interests. We don't imagine that the average reader cares about the Blackwood convention or the earning report of the Short Line Railroad; why should we assume that he cares about land reform in Chile? Also, instead of using the police courts as training grounds for foreign correspondents, Mr. Cohen would have editors recognize them as part of an elite corps and demand of them the kind of training that diplomats receive. In short, rather than entertaining an indifferent public, he believes the press could best do its duty to democratic policy-making by furnishing the elite with analytical news coverage.

There is a good deal of wisdom in Mr. Cohen's suggestions, as there is justice in his criticisms. As newspapers like Le Monde and The Guardian demonstrate every day, “what” happened is only meaningful if we are given the “why” behind the story. Certainly the importance of the syndicated columnists and the weekly news magazines in this country is testament to the fact that the daily press, with a few important but rare exceptions, has settled for the role of rag-picker of yesterday's crisis. If our diplomats have done the same, is the press then to blame? Would our foreign policy be more enlightened if the press scuttled the general reader and concentrated on Mr. Cohen's elite? Not very likely, I should imagine, but at least we might get better coverage. Mr. Cohen may have an undue faith in the bureaucracy's desire to inform itself on opinions other than its own. His valuable study, however, indicates that while the American press has been zealous in defending its responsibility to inform the public, it has some quaint ideas about what kind of public it is reaching.


Like Mr. Cohen, James Rosenau puts his money on the opinion and policy-making elite. Since the opinion-makers determine policy in a democracy, any consensus they reach should flow smoothly from inception to execution. But somehow it hasn't worked out that way. In this study of the 1958 White House conference called in support of the foreign-aid bill, he has tried to find out why national opinion-makers love foreign aid while Congress can barely stand the sight of it. A member of that school which tends to look on political science as a branch of statistics, Mr. Rosenau has scrutinized a lengthy questionnaire sent out to the 1067 national leaders who attended the conference. After presenting a formidable set of hypotheses and charts, he concludes that the reason Congress is out of step with the elite on the question of foreign aid is that Congressmen are isolated from the national, opinion-makers. They are instead subject to the influence of local Rotarians and Chevrolet dealers whose interests are sectional rather than nationwide. The lawmakers, to use the jargon, are constituency-oriented. And this, presumably, is why they hack up the foreign-aid bill every year.

The conclusion is not particularly surprising, but it fails to explain why the ordinary constituents as well as the local opinion-makers should be so opposed to foreign aid when they accept the philanthropy of the Peace Corps with perfect equanimity, why even nationally oriented Congressmen are sometimes more opposed to the aid program than their constituents, or why the Congress is able to subordinate local interests to national ones on a wide range of other issues. Was Senator Morse, for example, knuckling under to narrow-minded Oregonians when he led the “liberal revolt” against foreign aid during the last session of Congress? Despite Mr. Rosenau's awesome tables and questionnaires, may it not be just possible that Congressmen are less isolated from the national consensus than he imagines, that their growing opposition to foreign aid may be their way of responding to its failure in practice rather than simply an expression of narrow regionalism, and that it is the national opinion-makers who may be out of step in this case?

Mr. Rosenau's study is no doubt fair-minded and scrupulous. It might, however, have been more relevant to the problem of foreign-policy leadership had he laid aside his adding machine and hazarded a few more speculations. Politics, happily, isn't a science. At least not yet.

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