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Media, Theory

Shaping Public Opinion on the Iraq War: Analysis Using a Theoretical Lens

Source: Elise Amendola/AP File

Source: Elise Amendola/AP File

Agenda Setting and Spiral of Silence:  A Cautionary Tale of Media and Government Complicity in Public Deception

Few events in modern history illustrate how the government uses the media to manufacture consent for their agenda quite as effectively as the Iraq War.  In fact, during the run up to the Iraq War, the government used the media to market the war by linking the government of Iraq with WMD, and Al Qaeda, a claim that later proved to be a lie (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).  In Buying the War, Bill Moyers examines how the government marketed the war, and how the press failed in their role as the fourth estate, surrendering their independence and skepticism before, during, and after the war (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).  Indeed, Moyer’s examination suggests that a media-savvy government, a corporatized media, and the fear of dissent in a post-9/11, hyper-patriotic, society all played some role in manufacturing consent for the war (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).  Of course, Moyer’s perspective on government’s ability to set the media agenda and the resulting compliance of the press, presents the opportunity for communication scholars to use theory to provide explanations for the alarming situation.  Specifically, both McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) Agenda Setting Theory and Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence (1991) have explanatory power for the near total complicity between a seemingly independent media and the government.  What follows in this essay is a brief overview of the media build-up of the Iraq War, and a specific examination of how agenda-setting and the spiral of silence functioned during the period leading up to and during the Iraq War, with a focus on identifying empirical support in the literature.  Moreover, this author identifies unanswered questions that inform the need for further research.

After 9/11, the dominant stories in U.S news media related to the War on Terror.  In fact, the “broad story included U.S. retaliation, the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders, and plans to attack countries and “outlaw regimes” that supported or harbored terrorists” (Altheide & Grimes, 2005, p. 620).  Increasingly, a dominant rationale for the invasion of Iraq emerged, as part of the broader War on Terror discourse; Iraq possessed WMD, Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, and Iraq sponsored terrorists (Gershkoff & Kushner, 2005).  According to a Gershkoff and Kushner’s (2005) content analysis of President Bush’s thirteen speeches between September 2002 and May 2003, “twelve referenced terror and Iraq in the same paragraph and ten placed them in the same sentence” (p. 527).  Indeed, Moyers would experience the Iraq-as-war-on-terror frame during a scripted White House press conference where President Bush would “invoke 9/11 and Al Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack” (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007, p. 1).  Moreover, the press coverage of the impending war would feature the Iraq-as-war-on-terrorism frame with little critical evaluation, skepticism, or objectivity on the part of the press, a perspective several journalists and scholars agree upon (Altheide & Grimes, 2005; Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007; Gershkoff & Kushner, 2005; Harp, Loke, & Bachmann, 2010).  Accordingly, there are two central questions this author intends to analyze, a) how does agenda setting theory and framing explain the public’s consent for the Iraq War, and b) what role did fear play in suppressing the media’s independence and objectivity?

According to McCombs and Shaw (1972), the media sets the agenda for the public by making some issues more salient than others.  For instance, media focus on unemployment over inflation can make people pay more attention to unemployment, assuming a person has a need for orientation towards to topic (Griffin, 2012).  Moreover, there is a second-level of agenda setting that transfers the salience of the dominant set of attributes, or the issue frame, associated with a salient issue (McCombs, 1997).  According to Entman (1993), a frame is made up of select attributes made more salient in the text “to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and / or treatment recommendation” (p. 52).  Indeed, the combination of first and second level agenda setting, paints a picture of a powerful mass media that “may not only tell us what to think about, they also may tell us how and what to think about it, and perhaps even what to do about it” (McCombs, 1997, p. 48).  Accordingly, in the rationale for the Iraq War, the first level of agenda setting resulted from the sheer dominance of the Iraq story in the government and the press as part of the larger War on Terror narrative.  The second level of agenda setting was in the Iraq-as-war-on-terror frame, the promoted the problem in terms of fear, suggested terrorism was the result of Iraqi state sponsored terrorism, suggested that preemptive action was the only logical course of action given Iraq’s possession of WMD, and thus left little room for critical debate.

Indeed, public opinion polls suggest the Bush administration’s marketing strategy was remarkably effective in creating consent for the war (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).  In fact, Gershkoff and Kushner’s (2005) meta-analysis of public opinion polls show remarkably high support for the war, with support for war as high as 80 percent, and never dipping below 55 percent.  Furthermore, Gershkoff and Kushner (2005) suggest the particularly high support for the war was partially the result of being “rhetorically connected to the powerful 9/11 frame” (p. 530).  Of course, the U.S. found no WMD, nor did a link exist between Iraq and Al Qaeda.  In fact, Kull, Ramsay, and Lewis (2003) found that public misperception about WMD and Al Qaeda links were central to support for the Iraq War, suggesting that “the presence of misperceptions was the most powerful factor predicting support for the war”  (p. 597).  Certainly it appears that the administration deliberately conflated Iraq with WMD and 9/11 in an effort to create consent for the war, and the media supported the government effort, by promoting the agenda and framing of the Iraq War without the critical examination sometimes characteristic of the fourth estate (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).  Importantly, this author’s analysis also examines potential reasons for the press’ abrogation of their traditional responsibility to provide objective accounts of reality.

Consequently, this author will examine the role of fear in the press’ complicity spreading the false conflation of Iraq with WMD and War on Terror linkages.  In fact, fear appears to have played a prominent role in the press’ hesitancy to challenge the dominant discourse of the day.  Indeed, Dan Rather succinctly expressed the fear of challenging the administration in Buying the War (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007):

Fear is in every newsroom in the country.  And fear of what?  Well, it’s the fear it’s a combination of: if you don’t go along to get along, you’re going to get the reputation of being a troublemaker.  There’s also the fear that, you know, particularly in networks, they’ve become huge, international conglomerates.  They have big needs, legislative needs, repertory needs in Washington. … And that puts a seed in your mind; of well, if you stick your neck out, if you take the risk of going against the grain with your reporting, is anybody going to back you up?  (p. 1)

In particular, Rather appears to be describing two distinct fears, the fear of the power of a network concerned with larger corporate interests that override the interests of the public good, and the fear of dissent, with its ramifications for career and reputation.  This author will defer exploration of the first for later in the essay, and explore the fear of dissent using Noelle-Neumann’s (1991) spiral of silence theory.  According to Griffin (2010), the spiral of silence is the pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority.  Indeed, Noelle-Neumann sees the mass media as a powerful agenda that can tell people what to think and how to think about it, but also “provide a sanctioned view of what everyone else is thinking” (Griffin, 2010, p. 375).  Moreover, Noelle-Neumann (1991) suggests that fear of isolation is the driving factor that silences a person that holds a minority view, arguing fear as a powerful inducement to remain silent.  Consequently, as more voices of dissent are silenced, the voices of consent appear stronger and hence, the spiral begins to take shape (Noelle-Neumann, 1991).  Does the spiral of silence have explanatory power for Rather’s fear of dissent and subsequent choice to avoid going against the grain?  This author believes so.  In fact, there is some empirical support for evidence of a spiral of silence affect in the lead up to the Iraq War.

Specifically, Gershkoff and Kushner (2005) found, in their meta-analysis of public opinion, that “more than 40 percent felt that those opposed to the war should not be allowed to speak out or hold protest marches or rallies because it might hurt the war effort” (p. 529).  While their findings do not specify journalists, there is little reason to believe the hyper-patriotic environment did not equally affect journalists.  In addition, recent research conducted by Neuwirth, Frederick, and Mayo (2007) explored the fear of isolation specifically in the context of the Iraq War in 2002.  In fact, Neuwirth, et al. (2007) found empirical support for fear of isolation measures and identified both silence and deception equally viable strategies for avoiding potential isolation.  Of course, this author finds it interesting that deception is also a viable strategy, given the media’s complicity in Iraq War deception.  Certainly, some media organizations, reporters, and pundits, expressed advanced knowledge of the deception inherent in the Iraq War rational, and yet were unable or unwilling to go against the grain (Noelle-Neumann, 1991).  Thus, this author believes that the spiral of silence is useful to explain fear as a sufficient cause for the media’s complicity in the Iraq War rationale deception.  Equally so, there may be other causes at work.

Indeed, there clearly appears to be a connection between the commercial logic of corporatized media and the media’s role during the Iraq War.  To what extent did financial and corporate political pressures dictate the tone and tenor of media organizations?  Furthermore, were organizations like NBC, that were owned by General Electric, have a vested interest in fanning the flames of war, given GE’s deep ties to the defense industry?  Finally, what was the role of ideology in the creation of consent?  These questions are worth exploring to create a more complete understanding of the military-industrial-media dynamic that led to the deaths of millions, and the waste of trillions.

In summary, this author provided a brief overview of the media build-up of the Iraq War, based on the PBS documentary, Buying the War.  Specifically, this author explored how agenda-setting and the spiral of silence functioned during the period leading up to and during the Iraq War, and worked to manufacture the consent of the public, based on a shared deception that conflated Iraq with 9/11, Al Qaeda, WMD, and the War on Terror.  Indeed, as this author showed, the deception was effective, creating significant public support for the Iraq War, despite its weak foundations.  These conclusions suggest a powerful, yet only partially understood, mass media.


Altheide, D. L., & Grimes, J. N. (2005). War programming: The propaganda project and the Iraq War. The Sociological Quarterly, 46(4), 617-643.

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01304.x

Ganguzza, M., & Hughes, K. (Writers) & K. Hughes (Director). (2007). Buying the War. In K. Hughes (Producer), Bill Mouyers’ Journal. Washington DC: PBS.

Gershkoff, A., & Kushner, S. (2005). Shaping public opinion: The 9/11-Iraq connect in the Bush administration rhetoric. Perspectives on politics, 3(3), 525-537.

Griffin, E. A. (2010). A first look at communication theory (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Griffin, E. A. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Harp, D., Loke, J., & Bachmann, I. (2010). Voices of Dissent in the Iraq War: Moving from Deviance to Legitimacy? Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 87(3-4), 467-483. doi: 10.1177/107769901008700302

Kull, S., Ramsay, C., & Lewis, E. (2003). Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq war. Political Science Quarterly, 118(4), 569-598.

McCombs, M. (1997). New frontiers in agenda setting: Agendas of attributes and frames. Mass Comm Review, 24(1&2), 32-52.

McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of the Mass Media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.

Neuwirth, K., Frederick, E., & Mayo, C. (2007). The spiral of silence and fear of isolation. Journal of Communication, 57, 450-468.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1991). The theory of public opinion: The concept of the spiral of silence. In J. A. Anderson (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 14 (pp. 256-287). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.




About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor


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