“A Momentary Lapse of Reason”:
Media Frames of Bush Administration Policy Issues
This paper examines the Bush Administration’s framing of major policy initiatives, and print
media coverage of these issues, to determine what role the press played in conveying White
House messages to the public. First, I analyze Iraq War coverage and find that reporters
generally regurgitated White House messages as a result of the “rally around the flag” effect,
described as complicit coverage. Next, I assess media coverage of the Bush Administration’s
policy agenda prior to 9/11 and do not find complicit coverage. Lastly, media coverage of
domestic policies post-9/11 is assessed to determine if the “rally around the flag” effect extended
to issues beyond the Iraq War. Post-9/11 coverage was not complicit, suggesting that heightened
presidential power through media coverage only occurs with military actions that are directly
linked (at least rhetorically) to the national crisis or threat at hand.
I would like to thank Erinn Carter for her tireless research assistance on this project. I
would also like to thank Tony Barnstone, David Adler, James Pfiffner, Todd Belt, Nancy
Kassenbaum, Tom Tripp, and Lori Han Cox for comments on earlier drafts of this project.
Prepared for delivery at the conference on Evaluating the George W. Bush Presidency,
University of Hawaii at Hilo, July 29th – 31st
Table of Contents
The Presidential-Press Relationship 3
Print Media Coverage of the Iraq War 7
Print Media Coverage of the Policy Agenda Pre-9/11 23
Print Media Coverage of the Policy Agenda Post-9/11 40
Discussion and Conclusion 58
Appendix A: Inter-Coder Reliability Analysis for Iraq War Datasets 65
Appendix B: Codebooks and Coding Frames for Iraq War Datasets 67
Appendix C: Inter-Coder Reliability Analysis for Pre-9/11 Policy Datasets 75
Appendix D: Codebooks and Coding Frames for Pre-9/11 Policy Datasets 81
Appendix E: Inter-Coder Reliability Analysis for Post-9/11 Policy Datasets 122
Appendix F: Codebooks and Coding Frames for Post-9/11 Policy Datasets 127
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the morning of
September 11, 2001, left an indelible scar on the American landscape, and ushered in a new era
of presidential politics. In the wake of this tragedy, President George W. Bush vastly expanded
the power of the presidency, mostly in the name of national security. His Administration’s artful
use of Executive Orders, signing statements, “secret” programs such as wiretapping, and skirting
of the Geneva Convention are but a few examples of this seemingly systematic expansion.
Since Clinton Rossiter (1956) first claimed that presidential power lay in formal powers
granted this office through the Constitution, political scientists have actively examined
presidential power and its evolution over time. Richard Neustadt (1960) argues that the power of
the presidency lies in his/her power to persuade Washington insiders, “beltway” insiders, and the
public. This model highlights the dependency of the presidential office on the persuasive
charisma of its occupant. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s (1974) theory of the imperial presidency is
that presidential power has reached a dangerous level for democracy because entities that are
meant to check presidential power – congress, “watchdog” interest groups, an active citizenry,
and media – have atrophied. Both of these classic theories are apropos to the primary question of
this paper: what role did media play in expanding presidential power during the George W. Bush
presidency? Did they serve their textbook democratic watchdog function? Serve as a
mouthpiece for the Administration, thereby enabling constitutionally questionable growth of
presidential power? Both? I approach these questions by analyzing White House “marketing” of
its major policies, and compare this marketing to media coverage of the same policies.
This rather long paper is divided into five sections. The first section of the paper
provides a brief description of the contemporary presidential-press relationship. The second
section analyzes print media coverage of the Second Gulf War to determine its level of
journalistic objectivity. I find that complicit coverage prevailed. The third section investigates
media coverage of President Bush’s policies pre-9/11 to see whether biased Iraq War coverage
was unique. The fourth section examines coverage of policy post-9/11 to uncover whether the
White House enjoyed complicit coverage for other policy initiatives during the “rally around the
flag” period post-9/11. The fifth and final section discusses implications of the findings for
The Presidential-Press Relationship
The contemporary presidential-press relationship is marked by presidents “going public,”
increasing inter-dependence, and the “rally around the flag effect.” Each of these is summarized
Presidents “going public” with their image and policies started with John F. Kennedy
(Kernell 1986), and those since have controlled their image as tightly as possible by spinning
stories and limiting information. Presidential reliance on public appeals to control their image
and pass major policy initiatives has led to a streamlining and tightening of information released
to the press. “The mass media is the principal vehicle through which [the White House]
influences public opinion” (Grossman and Kumar 1981:4). According to Rick Shenkman
(2001), press conferences no longer hold the importance of past years because the White House
uses them to “advance their own agendas, frustrating reporters who [want] to find out what the
administration’s position [is] on various issues” (1).
The pressure for George W. Bush’s Administration to control the terms of high-profile
policy debates was evident in steps they have taken to do so. The Administration attempted to
“spin” media coverage of Iraq by adopting new rules for press briefings on March 6, 2003.
Reporters were assigned seats, called upon in a pre-determined order, and not allowed to ask
follow-up questions. Helen Thomas, a United Press International reporter who frequently asked
tough questions about Iraq, was not called upon during this press conference. Reporters from
Time, USA Today, Newsweek, and The Washington Post were also overlooked (Johnson, 2003).
Additionally, the Department of Education paid news columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000
to promote Bush’s education initiative, No Child Left Behind, and syndicated columnist Maggie
Gallagher received $21,500 to promote the “Healthy Marriage” initiative (Kurtz, 2005).
In addition to paying reporters to promote policies, the Bush Administration produced
newspaper articles and prepackaged “news” stories that were disseminated to newspapers and
television stations throughout the nation without identifying their source. These stories
commended the Administration’s promotion of science education, praised President Bush’s
tutoring program, and promoted Medicare drug policies (Pear 2005). The Government
Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan arm of Congress, investigated these attempts by the
White House to control the terms of debates. The GAO ruled that the Bush Administration’s
“covert propaganda” was illegal, and that “the failure of an agency to identity itself as the source
of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the audience to believe
that the broadcasting news organization developed the information” (Poling 2005: 2). These
actions on the part of the Bush Administration illustrate the pressure presidents are under to
control media messages because they influence public dialogue, and ultimately, the passage of
policy initiatives. President Clinton learned about the power of public/media dialogue to
sabotage policy passage with his failure to enact health care reform in 1993, despite high levels
of public support for reform (Jacobs and Shapiro, 1995).
The Bush White House also sought to control media messages through their selection of
press corps members. One press corps member, Jim Guckert (a.k.a. Jeff Gannon), was issued
daily press corps credentials even though he was using an alias and working for Talon News
whose parent organization is a known Republican activist group (GOPUSA) (Froomkin 2005).
Furthermore, Guckert/Gannon attended press briefings four days before his employer was
registered as a news organization with the White House, and had previously been denied a
Congressional press pass due to his lack of proper credentials. Given the tight security after
, it seems implausible that the White House could be unaware of
Guckert/Gannon’s background. As he sat in close proximity to the President, Guckert/Gannon
posed some obviously biased questions, including one about how the President could work with
the Senate Democrats “who seem to have divorced themselves from reality” (Kurtz 2005). The
details of how and why Guckert/Gannon became a member of the White House press corps are
not known, but given the high stakes of controlling the message, the benefits of his presence are
The modern presidential-press relationship is also marked by increasing inter-
dependence. People born in the 1970s and later take the omnipresent existence of mass media in
their lives for granted, but the contemporary environment in which ideas and images can spread
through the social consciousness of the culture like wildfire is a recent phenomenon. This new
media environment has changed politics in many ways. Citizens have greater access to
information about their political leaders, campaigns revolve around candidates instead of the
political parties, and candidates appeal directly to citizens to gain office and support for their
policies. The media-intensive, candidate-centered nature of contemporary politics has brought
with it an increased interdependency in the presidential-press relationship.
Presidents have greater resources for conveying their message to the public than in the
past, and more reason to control the images since “going public,” so they leverage reporter
coverage with access (Grossman and Kumar 1981). The White House is dependent upon the
press to convey messages to the public, and the press must establish a favorable relationship with
the administration in order to maintain access to White House stories. Not so hidden agendas
underlie this mutually dependent relationship. It is within the best interest of presidents and their
staff to “spin” messages to the press, given that reporters from even reputable news
establishments are motivated to “dig up dirt” to advance in their profession. On the other hand,
reporters face a counteracting pressure from the White House. According to Washington Post
editor and one time reporter Meg Greenfield, reporters have to engage in a quid pro quo
relationship or face being frozen out of “inside stories” and favorable press room treatment
(Greenfield, 2001). This tension creates a tug-of-war for control of how specific policies are
talked about. At certain points in recent history, the president has dominated, while at other
times, the press has enjoyed an advantage in this on-going struggle.
Members of the press are also motivated to serve the public good by providing
information to citizens. This sometimes involves exposing government wrong doing or secret
internal deliberations. This was the case during the later years of the Vietnam War, when many
reporters were openly critical of the Administration. The New York Times and the Washington
Post published portions of the Pentagon Papers, documents leaked by Pentagon analyst Daniel
Ellsberg that detailed the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. The press was also critical of the
Bush Administration’s delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast in 2005. Even
reporters from traditionally conservative news outlets vocally criticized the President for belated
national government response to the crisis. For example, Fox News correspondents Shepard
Smith and Geraldo Rivera were among many journalists who were openly disparaging of the
Bush Administration’s response to this natural disaster. Rivera, holding a child in his arms,
broke down into tears when describing the conditions at the Superdome shelter and the lack of
assistance provided to those still trapped in the city of New Orleans. These examples illustrate
the intense pressure faced by the White House in an age when mass media enables rapid
communication of news that can make or break a presidency in the eyes of the public.
Another notable aspect of the presidential-press relationship is the “rally around the flag”
effect occurs during times of crisis and uncertainty, describes a high level of public support for
the president and the media. John Mueller (1973) notes that the rally effect occurs with “an
event which is international, and involves the United States and particularly the president directly
. . . [I]t must be specific, dramatic, and sharply focused” (208). During times of crisis, the
President acts as a type of “living flag” in which the public looks to in order to bring stability
back to the country (Hetherington and Nelson 2003). “The irony of these events is that the rally
effect of a jump in approval of the president can occur whether of not the president has acted
successfully in an international crisis” (Pfiffner 1998, 42).
The rally effect has previously occurred with the Bay of Pigs invasion, U.S. military
intervention in Korea, the Truman Doctrine, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What was
so unusual about the 9/11 rally effect, however, was its lengthy duration. Instead of the typical
three to four months, the 9/11 rally effect persisted for over two years when finally, in April of
2004, presidential approval ratings ceased to be tied to the terrorist attacks (Davis and Silver,
2005). I expect to find that this historical expression of support for the president altered the
delicate balance of power in the presidential-press relationship, thus giving President Bush the
ability to shape public opinion through favorably biased coverage of war in Iraq.
The rally around the flag effect makes it difficult for reporters to ask the hard questions,
since public opinion is so strongly leaning in one direction. ABC anchor Sam Donaldson stated
it well when he pointed out that it is tough for reporters during wartime “to press very hard when
they know that a large segment of the population doesn’t want to see a president, whom they
have anointed, having to squirm.” (Johnson 2003, 4). Dana Priest, national security reporter for
The Washington Post, reports that stories that questioned the basis for the war in Iraq prompted
reader letters "questioning your patriotism and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into
the hands of the terrorists" (Kurtz 2005). The rally effect put pressure on reporters to rely on
messages coming from the White House regarding the war in Iraq as opposed to producing more
objective analysis of the situation. The question is how much did this affect coverage? In the
presidential-press tug-of-war contest, the rally around the flag effect can decisively tilt the
balance of power toward the Commander-in-Chief.
Evolutions in the presidential-press relationship imply coziness between the White House
and media that runs counter to the modern advent of objective journalism.1
In theory, elite
Objective or professional journalism emerged in the 1930s. Prior to that time, presses engaged in outright partisan
advocacy, and at one time were predominately operated by the major political parties (McChesney, 2004).
attempts to convince the public of certain policy positions are “checked” by reporters who cover
topics with a more objective lens. But media objectivity is compromised when coverage is less
than critical of elite messages, or coverage reflects its own biases. The next section highlights
elite use of agenda setting, priming, and framing to influence public opinion and policy support,
and examines each in terms of Iraq War framing and coverage.
Print Media Coverage of the Iraq War
Political elites and media coverage influence public opinion through agenda setting,
priming, and framing (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997; Krosnick and Brannon, 1993; Krosnick and
Kinder, 1990; Iyengar and Kinder, 1987; McCombs, 1981). Agenda setting – putting certain
topics on the agenda and not others – increases topic salience among the public (Terkildsen and
Schnell, 1997; Iyengar and Kinder, 1987). Priming, or the emphasis on certain aspects of a story
over others, changes the way citizens evaluate policies and politicians by placing more emphasis
on certain issues or attributes than others (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997; Krosnick, 1990; Iyengar
and Kinder, 1987). Attributes that are emphasized become the yardstick for evaluating public
policy and officials.
The framing of political issues – the narratives or “internal story patterns” (Terkildsen
and Schnell, 1997) that describe the core elements of the problem – shape voter policy
evaluations. Issue frames influence causal attribution for policy problems (Terkildsen and
Schnell, 1997; Gamson, 1992; Iyengar, 1987; Kinder and Sanders, 1990), policy preferences
(Kellstedt, 2000; Jacoby, 2000; Iyengar, 1991), perceived deservedness of different policy
recipient groups (Nelson and Kinder, 1996), and presidential performance ratings (Iyengar,
1987). Issue frames can be overtly stated or more subtly introduced through visual or verbal
symbolic means (e.g., slogans), stereotypes that play upon pre-existing notions of people or
events, historical analogies, and iconic visual images (Nelson and Kinder, 1996: 1057-1058).
Previous scholarship finds that, for the most part, public opinion is shaped through
public-elite interaction, with elites establishing the terms of the debate (Sniderman, Brody, and
Tetlock, 1991). Media coverage tends to reflect the frames presented by political elites; sudden
shifts in policy framing occur with major events and/or elite efforts to alter existing frames
(Gamson and Lasch, 1983; Gamson and Modigliani, 1987). In short, although “old media”
journalists strive for neutrality and fairness in their coverage of political events, coverage is
heavily influenced by the way in which public officials talk about these events. This section
assesses coverage of President Bush’s spin on the Second Gulf War in the wake of 9/11 to
determine the extent to which print journalists echoed the “spin” on the war from the White
Data and Methods
Content analysis and two datasets are used for this initial stage of analysis. The White
House Dataset includes communications from President Bush on the Iraq War. The Media
Dataset includes articles from Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report, America’s
three top-selling magazines, from September 12, 2001 to May 8, 2003.2
These dates span from
the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks to seven days after President Bush declared that the
war in Iraq was both successful and complete.3
The final Media Dataset includes 412 articles.
Print media coverage was selected over television coverage for this analysis because it is broadly
considered to be more substantive and objective. Therefore, if bias is found in this more
objective medium, it was likely heightened in television coverage.
The White House Dataset includes press briefings, press gaggles, radio addresses, and
Presidential speeches given during the same time period. The final dataset includes 361
communications from the White House.
Two trained coders worked on the project, including the author. We coded information
about who was representing the administration, as well as catch phrases used, primary frames
given to justify the war, the emphasis placed on the topic, and a variety of other pertinent
variables. Inter-coder reliability was acceptable using both absolute agreement and Cohen’s
Kappa measures. A detailed discussion of inter-coder reliability for all datasets is included in
Appendix A. Codebooks and coding frames for the Iraq War datasets are found in Appendix B.
This research replicates the protocol used by past scholars studying media coverage (Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997;
Gilens, 1996; Hunt and Rubin, 1993). These three magazine publications combined have been established as a solid
source for media analysis in previous studies based on “broad circulation, readership accessibility, and the
ideological range of their editorial positions (Hunt and Rubin, 1993; Davis, 1992; Gamson and Modigliani, 1987)”
(in Terkildsen and Schnell, 1997: 883). Furthermore, these weeklies, with a combined circulation of over 10 million
readers, are the only sources that can reach a mass audience, comparable to national television news, and still offer
content similar to the major daily newspapers (Willings, 1993). Furthermore, while several major print news
sources have admitted biased coverage in support of the war in Iraq (The New York Times, The Washington Post).
We are not proposing that the war in Iraq has come to an end, but this time period provides a window of analysis
that includes the months leading up to the Iraqi war and the period of most intense fighting.
The “Selling” of the War
Presidents and other elites use verbal combat to “sell” war to their constituents; “rhetoric is
an essential part of ‘real war’” (Kuusisto, 1998:603). Riika Kuusisto analyzed the selling of the
first Gulf War (1990-1991) and found that “besides framing the conflicts as heroic battles or
tragic feuds, the Western leaders employed various metaphors to make the distant events and
their politics seem significant and coherent” (1998: 603). Foreign events are particularly
susceptible to framing effects because they are geographically far away, necessitating public
reliance on the stories and interpretations of political leaders. The marketing campaign of Gulf
War II is compared to Gulf War I in this essay to illustrate that both campaigns involved
decisions made to sell their respective “products.”
The Bush White House used three primary stories/frames4
to justify going to war in Iraq: (1)
Hussein sponsors terrorism (hereafter referred to as the Terrorist Frame), (2) liberation of the
Iraqi people from an evil dictator (the Liberation Frame), and (3) Hussein’s WMD pose an
imminent threat (the WMD Frame). The coding frame was designed to pick up on multiple
frames, but it soon became clear that these three themes dominated the landscape of White
House communications on the war.5
Unlike the first Gulf War, which was sold to the American people as an international
conflict, the second Gulf War was predominantly framed as a domestic threat. The Terrorist
Frame typically mentioned or implied links between Hussein and al-Qaeda (and by association
or explicit link, September 11th
), whereas the Liberation Frame often mentioned bringing
democracy and freedom to a long oppressed people. The WMD Frame frequently referenced
Hussein’s past use of WMD and his apparent inability to tell the truth. The Terrorist and WMD
frames painted the war as a response to a domestic threat by tying Iraq into the events of
, and suggesting that American soil is in danger from WMD that can strike from
afar. The Liberation Frame conjured emotions of patriotism and altruism for people on the other
side of the world, similar to the stories used to sell the first Gulf War. Even the naming of the
Primary frames versus other frames were fairly easy to identify because they were almost always mentioned first
and emphasized in White House communications and media coverage by more extensive coverage than secondary
We analyzed the primary frame of each communication as well as up to two secondary frames. The secondary
frame patterns mirrored those of the primary frames, so for purposes of clarity, only primary frame figures are
war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, was an effort to persuade the American public to think in terms of
the Liberation Frame.
Chart 1 shows the percentage of White House communications (speeches, press conferences,
etc.) that employed each of the three major frames. Nearly half of the communications coming
from the White House mentioned the WMD Frame as the primary reason for going to war with
Iraq, clearly the most popular frame of the three.
Percentage of White House Communications Using Each Frame (n=320)
One-third of White House communications conveyed the Liberation Frame, while two-thirds
framed the war as a domestic threat (the Terrorist and WMD frames combined). The selling of
the war represented a tightly controlled marketing plan that was highly successful in conveying
certain messages to the American public.6
In fact, the Bush Administration continued to sell the war using all three of these primary frames for another two
years. Condoleezza Rice appeared on Tim Russert on August 9, 2004, and stated that, “the president has been
steadfast in his belief that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that he was a threat that had to be dealt with. This
president had to make a difficult decision in a post-9/11 environment in which you do not let threats materialize and
then hurt you. . . . And the American people will have a good democratic partner in Iraq that will be stable and that
will not be threat to this region. Because after all, to have Saddam Hussein, this terrible tyrant who used weapons of
Significant differences were found in terms of the primary frame of each communication pre-
war (September 11, 2001 to March 20, 2003) versus after the start of the war (March 21, 2003 to
May 8, 2003). Use of the domestic threat frames fell precipitously, while the Liberation Frame
shot up pre- to post- (Chart 2). Nineteen percent of pre-war communications presented the
Terror Frame, while only 5% of wartime communications mentioned this frame (p=.000).
Similarly, the use of the WMD Frame dropped to less than half its pre-war level (53.6% down to
20.5%) (p=.000). The Liberation Frame jumped from a pre-war level of 27.2% to 75% of
communications at the start of the war (p=.000).
Percentage of White House Communications Using Primary Frame after Start of War
The Bush Administration’s strategy for selling the war clearly shifted after troops were engaged
in heavy combat in Iraq, from a domestic threat focus to emphasis on America’s role as liberator
for the Iraqi people.
mass destruction, cavorted with terrorists, we’d gone to war against him before, that was a threat that you could not
leave; the most dangerous man in the middle of the world’s most dangerous region.”
The existence of WMD was discussed in 75% of communications coming from the White
House, whether or not it was the primary frame of the communication (Chart 3).7
Percentage of White House Communications Mentioning WMD (n=361)
WMD were an important point in selling the Iraqi war, as evidenced by its mention in three-
fourths of White House communications. Among the communications that made mention of
WMD, 98.5% stated, without reservation, that Iraq/Hussein possessed them.
The crucial elements of the White House campaign to sell the war – Hussein being a
terrorist threat who possesses WMD – resonated with the American public. According to an
October, 2003 PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, many Americans internalized messages from the
administration that ran counter to available evidence.8
Despite the lack of evidence for a
connection between Iraq and 9/11, 22% of the American public believed that “Iraq was directly
Two measures of WMD were included in the coding frame: whether this was the primary or secondary frame of
the communication/article, and whether WMD were mentioned at all. Chart 3 displays the second measure, whether
the communication/article made mention of WMD.
Steven Kull, “Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War.” The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, October 2,
involved in carrying out the September 11th
attacks,” while 35% thought that Iraq gave
substantial support to al-Qaeda. A Washington Post poll of August, 2003, found that 69% of
Americans thought it somewhat or very likely that “Saddam Hussein was personally involved in
the September 11th
When it comes to WMD, the CIA’s chief weapons
inspector, David Kay, reported on October 2, 2003 that no WMD had been found in Iraq. He
also reported that inspectors had discovered no evidence of an active nuclear weapons program.
However, 22% of Americans continued to believe that the U.S. had located WMD in Iraq, and
20% thought that Iraq had used chemical or biological weapons during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
President George W. Bush’s selling of the Iraq war was effective, despite the lack of
evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda and the existence of WMD. The summer 2002
Downing Street Memo, (reporting on meetings between British and U.S. officials in
Washington) indicated that even America’s staunch ally was aware that the reasoning for the war
Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through
military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence
and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC [National Security Council] had
no patience with the UN [United Nations] route, and no enthusiasm for publishing
material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the
aftermath after military action… It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take
military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam
was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya,
North Korea or Iran.10
As this memo excerpt indicates, the Bush Administration’s two chief frames used to sell the war
– the Terrorist and WMD frames – were not seen by the British as supported by available
intelligence. But despite this, a majority of people believed these claims, which, in all
probability, inflated levels of public support for the war in Iraq. A majority of Americans
supported the war in Iraq when the White House proposed the idea in 2002 until February, 2005,
when for the first time, over 50% of the American public reported that the United States “should
Washington Post Poll, “Questions on War in Iraq.” August 12, 2003.
Actual language from the Downing Street Memo, quoted in David Manning, “The Secret Downing Street Memo.”
The Sunday Times – Britain, May 1, 2005.
have stayed out” of Iraq.11
By October of 2005, only 41% of Americans reported that going to
war with Iraq was the “right thing to do.”12
Several conclusions can be drawn here. First, the White House waged a campaign to sell
the war in Iraq well before the Administration acknowledged this. Secondly, this campaign was
effective: the major theme of domestic threat used to market the war continued to resonate with
the American public for over two years after the start of the war. The role that print media
coverage played in this successful White House public relations campaign is examined next.
Three research questions are of interest in this first of three stages of analysis:
R1: Did print media coverage of the second Iraq War reflect agenda-setting from the White
R2: Did a majority of print media coverage of the second Iraq War reflect the frames used by
the White House?
R3: Did a majority of print media coverage of the second Iraq War reflect the priming of the
In order to test whether White House framing of the war was reflected in media coverage
during the period examined, I identified a fairly complete set of stories being told about reasons
for going to war in addition to the three primary frames presented by the administration,
including: spreading democracy, American imperialism/colonialism, oil resources, President
Bush’s political gain, revenge/finishing George H.W. Bush’s work, and defense industry build-
CBS News Poll, “Poll: Fading Support for the Iraq War.” October 10, 2005.
Ibid. CBS News Poll
As Chart 4 shows, 75% of print media articles used the primary frames presented by the
White House to sell the war.
Primary Frames Used by the White House (light bars) and Media (dark bars)
WMD Frame Imperialism
Oil Frame Revenge
The three frames presented by the White House were by far the most popular frames in media
coverage of the war. Nearly half of the articles offered domestic threat (Terrorist and WMD
frames) as the primary reason for the war.
Of the 412 media articles analyzed, only 64 percent actually mentioned a reason for the war. More than one-third
of the articles failed to analyze why we were or soon would be in Iraq. The lack of “meaty” articles on the subject
was a thorn in our side. About half way through the coding process it became necessary to go back and add a code
for articles that mentioned Iraq extensively but did not really pertain to the war, e.g., stories about the French
illegally shipping goods to Iraq, troop entertainment, rebuilding contracts, Bill Maher getting fired, the sexual
proclivities of Hussein’s eldest son, tacky art found in Hussein’s palaces, the pillaging of the museums, the coverage
of the war in prime time comedy, and Queen Noor, to name a few. Our first finding then, not related to any specific
hypothesis, is that media coverage of the war was often slim on substantive.
Agenda Setting Effects
Agenda-setting effects are tested by looking at when the major themes of the war were
put on the agenda, and by whom. The first and most obvious measure of agenda setting is when
the idea of going into Iraq first emerged. The connection between the events of 9/11 and war in
Iraq is not organic. This connection was skillfully drawn by the Bush Administration, selected
from many different strategies available to the White House. While the war in Iraq is now
commonly thought of in terms of the larger war on terrorism, this is a reflection of the success of
the selling of the war and not an inevitable state. Average Americans were not turning their
sights towards Iraq on September 12, 2001.
The first official mention of the Iraqi war came from the White House on September 17,
2001 in a briefing in which President Bush, referring to Iraq, stated that “anybody who harbors
terrorists needs to fear the United States and the rest of the free world. Anybody who houses
terrorists, encourages terrorism will be held accountable.” When asked about possible Iraqi
involvement in 9-11 during this same briefing, he replied “We are gathering all evidence on this
particular crime and other crimes against freedom-loving people.” It is notable that all three
centerpieces of the selling of the war were presented again on the one-month anniversary of 9/11.
After alluding to an al-Qaeda/Iraq connection, President Bush stated that, “There’s no question
that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people. We know he’s been
developing weapons of mass destruction. . . We’re watching him very carefully.” The story
being told here is that Saddam Hussein is a domestic threat because of his links to al-Qaeda and
9/11, and his WMD. Furthermore, the Iraqi people are victims of his nefarious dictatorship in
this statement – the core of the Liberation Frame.
The timeline below shows that the White House put Iraq on the public agenda before
reporters, shortly after 9-11, first by aligning Hussein with al-Qaeda, and a few weeks later, by
presenting all three primary frames in a major speech by the President on the war on terrorism.
Media coverage of Iraq lagged about a month behind and reflected the Administration’s selling
points early on.
This media dataset only includes three sources and is not necessarily representative of all print or other media for
that matter. The topic of war in Iraq and the three primary frames of the war could have emerged earlier in media
Emergence of Major War Frames by the White House and Media
Mention of Iraq WH 1st
(Post 9-11) & Terror Frame Liberation & WMD Frames
9/17/01 10/11/01 10/29/01 12/26/01
Mention of Iraq Media 1st
(post-9-11), Terror Frame, Liberation Frame
& WMD Frame
The analysis up to this point suggests that the Bush Administration had a clear plan to sell
the war in Iraq shortly after 9-11, given the early presentation and unification of the three
primary frames in White House communications of various sorts. Given their content, these
frames were not calibrated to garner support for United Nations weapons inspections; the selling
of the war began early and ran often.
Priming effects were tested by comparing the importance placed on different aspects of
Iraq by the White House and print media. I compared the popularity of the three primary frames
at different times using a new variable that breaks the White House dataset into quadrants of 90
units each to provide enough cases for comparison between the datasets.15
Chart 5 shows the
percentage of communications/articles using the Terrorist Frame as the primary frame in each
We attempted this analysis by month, but many months had too few cases in both datasets for comparison. We
also tried to analyze this question by quadrants based on time, but both datasets had too few cases to analyze in the
first two quadrants. Our quadrants based on the White House dataset are categorized as follows:
Quadrant 1 – 9/17/01 to 9/19/02
Quadrant 2 – 9/20/02 to 11/18/02
Quadrant 3 – 11/19/02 to 2/10/03
Quadrant 4 – 2/11/03 to 5/8/03
Percent of Communications/ Articles Using Primary Terrorist Frame by Quadrant
Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
White House Media
The use of the Terrorist Frame by the news media appears to be dependent upon White House
priming of this frame in the first three quadrants, but as media use accelerates in the fourth
quadrant, White House use of the frame continues to decline. Further analysis shows that this
media bump can be explained by one event sponsored by the White House: Colin Powell’s
February 5, 2003 speech to the United Nations in which he presented evidence of a link between
al-Qaeda, Iraq, and WMD. The percentage of articles using the Terrorist Frame following
Powell’s speech skyrocketed to 29% until the end of February, when they return to pre-speech
levels of about 10%.16
This indicates that this one action on the part of the Bush Administration
had an unusually potent priming effect.
Chart 6 shows the relationship between White House communications and media articles
that include the Liberation Frame.
The start of the war in Iraq does not account for the difference in the fourth quadrant. Nineteen percent of White
House communications used the Terrorist Frame as the primary frame prior to the start of war, while 16 percent of
media articles did the same. White House use of this frame dropped to 5 percent after the war began, and media use
dropped to 4 percent. This uncanny similarity is further evidence of a priming effect.
Percent of Communications/ Articles Using Primary Liberation Frame by Quadrant
Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
White House Media
Chart 6 indicates a fairly close relationship between White House emphasis on the Liberation
Frame and media articles that use this frame. This frame is initially more popular with the White
House but declines steadily until it quadruples in the fourth quadrant. Media use of this frame is
much higher in quadrant 2, but it then drops in line with the White House and skyrockets in
quadrant 4. Early use of the Liberation Frame does not seem to be primed by the Bush
Administration, but the subsequent drop and then dramatic rise in use suggests a major priming
effect in the third and fourth quadrants. As Charts 6 and 7 indicate, White House priming effects
with the media are not as tight in the time prior to the one-year anniversary of September 11,
2001, than after. This is no surprise given that the Administration first overtly set out a plan for
war with Iraq on this anniversary occasion.
Chart 7 shows the relationship between White House and media use of the WMD Frame.
Percent of Communications/ Articles Using Primary WMD Frame by Quadrant
Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4
White House Media
This chart provides visibly compelling evidence of a priming effect with the WMD Frame. This
frame is more popular with print media than the White House in the first quadrant, but the latter
three quadrants show the two moving together. It appears that once the Bush Administration
presented the idea that Iraq possessed WMD in September, 2001, media coverage ran with the
idea while the White House remained more tentative. Another interesting point to note is that
while both the Bush Administration and media used WMD as the primary frame in nearly three-
quarters of communications/articles in the third quadrant (November 19, 2002 to February 10,
2003), media use of this frame declined more steeply than that of the White House to the benefit
of the Liberation Frame.
Chart 8 shows the overall picture of media shifting gears in tandem with the White House
in terms of what aspects of the war were emphasized.
Use of Primary Frames Pre-war versus During War
Primary Frames Pre-War and After Start
White House Media
This chart indicates that when the Bush Administration shifted focus from one primary frame
to another, media coverage followed suit. All of these shifts are statistically significant from pre-
to post- (p=.000 for all six shifts).
In summary, print media articles reflected the three pillars of the Bush Administration’s
marketing plan in their explanations for the war. Critics might point out that reporters were
simply doing their job and reporting on information coming from the White House, but this is
not the case because their coverage reflected active choices. The “primary frame” code was
assigned to articles that explained the impending/current war in Iraq using a particular frame, and
reporters by and large made the choice to adopt the frames of the Bush Administration despite
knowledge of and access to other frames. Sometimes reporters would tell their story of the war
without citing sources, and at other times they would endorse a certain frame by citing someone
else, but either way, the ultimate responsibility for framing fell on the reporter’s shoulders. It is
evident that reporter choice was involved, especially in retrospect, as frames were used without
compelling evidence and in light of contradictory voices among political elites. With this said,
it’s not surprising that reporters relied so heavily on White House “spin” considering the
interdependent presidential-press relationship, unusual Bush White House tactics to control their
message, and the stakes involved in selling the idea of an expensive military operation.
The analysis above shows that print media coverage of the Second Gulf War uncannily
reflected White House attempts to set the agenda, prime, and frame coverage. Additionally, print
media articles generally reflected positive slant towards war in Iraq, rarely mentioned opposition
to or critiques of the war, and overwhelmingly reported that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons
of mass destruction (WMD) without questioning this claim. In short, print media coverage was
complicit coverage, defined as defined as media reporting that conveys the White House
position, typically using White House language and frames, without counter arguments,
discussion of alternative frames, or noting opposition to the policy at hand. Several major news
organizations admitted as much with mea culpas. On May 26, 2004, The New York Times
published an historic admittance of biased coverage. After noting “an enormous amount of
journalism that we are proud of,” the editors stated, “we have found a number of instances of
coverage that was not rigorous as it should have been.” This apology describes problems with
reporting unsupported “facts” and priming certain aspects of coverage more than others:
“Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up
articles that called the original ones into question were buried.” Soon after The New York Times
apology was published, The Washington Post issued their mea culpa. The article notes the
pressure that writers and editors felt, not only to report on the many different facets of the war,
but to also present work that their audience was comfortable with. Reporters noted that
“skeptical stories [about the war in Iraq] usually triggered hate mail ‘questioning your patriotism
and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into the hands of the terrorists’” (Kurtz, 2004).
The “rally around the flag” effect played a key role in pressuring print media outlets to engage in
complicity coverage of the Iraq War during the first two years.
Print Media Coverage of the Policy Agenda Pre-9/11
The analysis in this section focuses on press coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda
prior to 9/11 for comparative purposes. Was coverage complicit from the start of his first term,
or did this type of coverage come about after 9/11? President Bush was only in office nine
months when the terrorist attacks occurred, so one would expect that he was relatively popular
among the general public during this time. Most presidents enjoy a “honeymoon” period, or
what Pfiffner (1998) calls the “halo effect”: The first part of their term when public opinion is
high, regardless of presidential action. “From Eisenhower through Clinton (with the exceptions
of Reagan and Bush [senior]), every newly inaugurated president’s approval rating was ten
percentage points or more greater than his election margin” (40). Public opinion polls during the
first nine months of the Bush presidency, however, indicate that his halo was a bit rusty. He had
just survived a nail-biter election which left some people questioning his legitimacy in the Oval
Office. As Chart 9 shows, President Bush’s approval ratings were on the lower end of the
spectrum relative to other media-age presidents, starting with Kennedy, at least for the first eight
In September, Bush’s approval rating jumped from 55 percent to 90 percent.
Presidents Johnson and Ford are not included in this analysis because they were not elected to office and therefore
did not experience a comparable halo effect period.
Presidential Job Approval of Media-Age Presidents, First Nine Months
Source: Gallup Polls
President Job Approval Ratings
First Nine Months of the Administration
President George H. W. Bush
President George W. Bush
In addition to relatively low approval ratings leading up to September 11th
, President Bush was
second only to Bill Clinton in terms of negative job approval ratings during his first nine months
in office. Chart 10 shows negative approval ratings for media-age presidents since Kennedy.
Negative Job Approval of Media-Age Presidents, First Nine Months
Source: Gallup Polls
President Job Approval Ratings
First Nine Months of the Administration
President George H. W. Bush
President George W. Bush
It is safe to say that before September 11th
, President Bush was a relatively unpopular, polarizing
president compared to other media-age presidents. Therefore, I anticipate finding that coverage
of the White House during this time was rather negative, despite an active six-point policy
agenda with issues close to the hearts and minds of Americans. Media coverage of Bush’s
policy agenda is analyzed to determine whether coverage was complicit pre-September 11th
Data and Methods
As with the previous analysis of the Second Gulf War, both White House and media
datasets were generated for the analysis of press coverage during President Bush’s first nine
months in office. The White House Dataset is comprised of press briefings, press gaggles, radio
addresses, and Presidential speeches that mention items on Bush’s policy agenda. President
Bush clearly articulated his six-point policy agenda in his inaugural address on January 20, 2001,
the “big six” as it would later be called by White House officials: Tax reform, education reform,
faith-based initiatives, rebuilding the military, reforming Social Security, and reforming
Medicare. The White House Dataset contains 124 cases. A detailed discussion of inter-coder
reliability for this datasets is included in Appendix C, and the codebooks and coding frames used
for this second stage of the project are located in Appendix D.
Six different media datasets were compiled, one for each policy topic put on the agenda
by the Bush Administration during the first nine months of his presidency. Each dataset includes
all articles mentioning the topic that appeared in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World
Report from January 20, 2001 – the day of Bush’s inauguration – to September 11, 2001.
Articles that were editorial in nature or only mentioned the topic in passing were dropped,
leaving the following number of articles on each topic: Tax reform (92), education reform (24),
faith-based initiatives (11), rebuilding the military (33), reforming Social Security (18), and
reforming Medicare (10).
The Bush Policy Agenda Pre-9/11
As with the Second Gulf War, the White House carefully crafted a marketing plan to
“sell” each of these initiatives to the American people. We identified the frames for each policy
topic by reading through all of the White House communications on the topic. Messages from
the White House reflected six different frames crafted to generate support for the President’s tax
• Government Spending Frame: “Washington was built to spend,” and “the surplus isn’t
the government’s money; it’s the people’s money.”
• Working Class Frame: This tax cut is going to benefit the working class. Bush would
often use an example of a waitress or other working class person.
• Class Warfare Frame: Wealthy people pay an unfair share of taxes, and they should get
a break like everyone else.
• Small Business Frame: Small business owners will benefit from this tax cut that will
keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive. Bush often introduced a “tax family” who would
benefit from his plan.
• Marriage Penalty Frame: The current tax structure penalizes marriage. Reducing the
marriage penalty will build community.
• Economic Stimulus Frame: Tax cut plan will “strengthen the economy”
President Bush crafted three different frames to generate support for his education reform
• Local Control Frame: We should have “deep faith in the ability of local people” to run
their own schools. Control should be at the local level.
• High Standards Frame: Higher standards should be established so that kids who get
shuffled through, e.g., inner city children and those who don’t speak English, will get the
same education as other kids. The goal is to “close the inexcusable achievement gap that
exists among students attending public schools across this country – primarily among
minority students and economically disadvantaged students.”
• Accountability Frame: Increased accountability is needed for schools. More federal
money should be spent to promote greater accountability.
It’s notable that there are seemingly contradictory frames for this policy – control at the local
level but enforcement of accountability at the federal level. Similarly, the Working Class and
Class Warfare frames above seem contradictory in that one is selling the idea that the tax cut will
help the working class while the other says it will benefit the wealthy. Frames are often used to
appeal to specific constituencies, and are thus used at different times and in front of different
audiences. The seeming contradictions are consistent with the purpose of framing, which is to
influence support. Political marketing campaigns are tailored to audience and may shift over
time, depending upon public sentiment. For example, when President Bush did a whirlwind tour
to promote Social Security reforms in March, 2005, he started the tour with “Save Social
Security” banners. However, after realizing that he need to appeal more to Americans over 55
who are more politically active than their younger counterparts for whom Social Security would
be “saved,” his banners were changed to “Protecting Seniors.”
The Bush Administration crafted six frames to market their plan for faith-based
initiatives, a policy designed to give money to local churches and synagogues for social service
• Compassionate Frame: “On the side of caring and compassionate people, there’s a
Compassionate Capital Fund.” Funding should be given to local religious organizations
because “they have a compassionate mission of help and aid.”
• Community Building Frame: Giving money to local churches, synagogues, and
mosques will build community solidarity.
• Family Frame: Broken families can be mended through faith-based initiatives.
• Needy People Frame: Faith-based initiatives will help the poor and needy.
• Love Frame: Legislation can’t achieve love, but people can through faith-based
• Secular Frame: The government should fund both secular and religious programs.
Government should not reject religious programs as long as there are secular alternatives.
Despite the obvious religious bent of faith-based initiatives, the White House carefully packaged
its proposals without overtly religious frames. Instead, it was marketed as a community initiative
to help people help themselves without trying to proselytize. The warm themes of “love” and
“compassion” were strong selling points.
As soon as President Bush took office, he proposed several major reforms to rebuild the
military. Four frames were introduced to promote increased military spending.
• Post- Cold War Frame: The Cold War is no longer the most imperative paradigm. We
have a new environment when it comes to war, and we need to be better-equipped. Thus,
new missile initiatives are necessary.
• Strong Military Frame: A strong, well-equipped military prevents war and defends
American ideals. Increased military spending will strengthen military.
• Clear Mission Frame: We need a clear mission and a clear statement of purpose for our
• Legitimacy Frame: Military careers have lost legitimacy that can be improved by
raising salaries and providing better health care and housing for military personnel. Good
treatment of military personnel will boost morale and pride.
The Administration used three primary frames when talking about reforming Social Security,
clearly aimed at different audiences:
• Honoring Commitment Frame: Reforming Social Security is about “honoring the
commitment of American seniors.” We need to maintain the system for the deserved
(i.e., those who paid into it).
• Preservation Frame: The surplus should be used to protect and preserve Social
Security. Keep Social Security money in the Social Security system.
• Young People Frame: Social Security should be preserved for younger generations.
Note that the preservation frame is as much about tax reform and how the surplus is spent as it is
about Social Security.
The last of the “big six” policy proposals, reforming Medicare, was also marketed using three
• Dignity Frame: Seniors should be able to retire with dignity (and not have to eat cat
food!). Seniors should not have to choose between food and prescription drugs.
• Choice Frame: Medicare reform will provide greater health care choices for senior
• Cost Frame: The cost of Medicare is out of control. Modernizing Medicare (e.g.,
implementing Medical Savings Accounts) will cut down on Medicare costs.
The use of these frames by the White House and media is analyzed after presentation of the
Three research questions are of interest in this second phase of the project:
R4: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda reflect the
framing presented by the White House pre-September 11, 2001?
R5: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda reflect the
priming presented by the White House pre-September 11, 2001?
R6: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s public policy agenda reflect
complicit coverage prior to September 11, 2001?
Tax reform was the most popular policy topic discussed by the White House in the first
nine months of Bush’s presidency. Out of the 124 White House communications mentioning at
least one of the six topics, 69% discussed Bush’s tax cut proposal. About one-in-four White
House communications brought up rebuilding the military (27%), education reform (25%), and
Medicare reform (22%). Fewer communications mentioned Social Security reform and faith-
based initiatives (Chart 11).
Percentage of White House Communications Mentioning Policy Topic (n=124)
Tax Cuts Education Faith-Based Rebuilding
The use of White House Frames by reporters for each policy topic is examined to test our first
Among the six tax frames used by the Administration – Government Spending, Working
Class, Class Warfare, Small Business, Marriage Penalty, and Economic Stimulus – the Economic
Stimulus and Working Class frames were the most popular. About half of White House
communications used each of these two frames (Chart 12).
Percentage of White House Communications on Taxes that Use Each Frame (n=85)
Although President Bush made appeals to small business owners, married couples, and wealthy
people to sell his tax cut proposal, his tax reform was mostly framed as a boon for the working
class that would stimulate the economy and keep money out of the hands of irresponsible
politicians. The question is, did print media package Bush’s tax package in the same way?
Chart 13 shows the use of White House frames among articles written about Bush’s tax reform
Percentage of Print Media Articles about Taxes that Use Each Frame (n=92)
As with presidential communications, the Economic Stimulus and Working Class frames were
the most popular. However, very few articles used these or any other White House frames when
discussing Bush’s tax policy. In fact, only 30 percent of articles on taxes mentioned any White
House frame. This lends support for our first hypothesis that print media coverage did not reflect
Bush policy frames pre-9/11.
As Chart 14 shows, nearly sixty percent of communications from the White House used
the Local Control frame, and over half used the Accountability frame. A sizable number also
presented the High Standards frame (45%).
Percentage of White House Communications on Education that Use Each Frame (n=31)
Local Control Accountability High Standards
Turning now to our media analysis, only 24 articles on education were available: too few
The fact that so few articles were written on this subject is a finding in itself. The
Bush Administration attempted to put all six items of its policy agenda on the public radar, but
they were less successful with some of the “big six.”
Chart 15 shows that the most popular frames used by the White House to garner support
for faith-based initiatives were the Community Building and Needy People frames. However,
these percentages are based on only 15 cases.
Although too few articles were written on education to properly analyze, it is notable that even these articles did
not often include White House frames. Out of the 24 articles written, 11 used the High Standards frame, followed
by 8 that used the Accountability frame, and 7 that reflected the Local Control frame. It is also important to point
out that media articles written on Bush’s education reform clearly did not follow the Administration’s priming of
these different frames.
Percentage of White House Communications on Faith-Based that Use Each Frame (n=15)
Needy People Family Compassionate Love Secular
Chart 15 indicates that while only a small number of White House communications mention
faith-based initiatives, the Administration used multiple frames in each briefing.
When it comes to analyzing media use of faith-based initiatives, scant media attention is
again a problem. Only eleven articles were written on this topic over the nine month period
examined – not enough to analyze.19
Of the 11 articles written about faith-based initiatives, 3 used the Compassion frame, 2 used the Community
Building, Needy People and Love frames, while only 1 article used the Family and Secular frames each. Print
media coverage did not generally use frames from the White House.
Rebuilding the Military
The Bush Administration’s program to market proposals to rebuild the military relied
primarily on the Strong Military and Legitimacy frames, as indicated in Chart 16. The Clear
Mission and Post-Cold War frames were used far less often by President Bush and his staff to
frame this issue.
Percentage of White House Communications on Rebuilding the Military that Use Each
Strong Military Legitimacy Clear Mission Post-Cold War
A comparison of Charts 16 and 17 illustrates that print media use of the military
rebuilding frames do not match up. The Post- Cold War frame is the most used by reporters, but
only mentioned in a handful of White House communications. This frame is the most used of
any White House frame by reporters, but it still fails to achieve use in a majority of articles on
Percentage of Print Media Articles about Rebuilding the Military that Use Each Frame
Post-Cold War Strong Military Legitimacy Clear Mission
The Preservation frame was used in almost three-quarters of White House
communications pertaining to Social Security, making it by far the most popular frame for this
topic. One-third of presidential communications used the Young People frame to garner support
for this policy.
Percentage of White House Communications on Social Security that Use Each Frame
Preservation Young People Honoring Commitment
As with previous media coverage on Bush’s policies, too few articles were written on Social
Security to analyze. Only 18 substantive articles were written on the issue during the nine
The Bush Administration primarily used the Cost frame in its selling of Medicare. The
Choice and Dignity frames were used far less frequently in White House communications on the
subject, as noted in Chart 19.
Of the 18 articles written, 7 articles mentioned the Preservation frame. Only two articles used the Honoring
Commitment or Young People frames each.
Percentage of White House Communications on Medicare that Use Each Frame (n=27)
Cost Choice Dignity
Only 10 media articles discussed Medicare in a substantive way during the first nine months of
Bush’s presidency; too few to analyze.21
This analysis of each of President “big six” policy issues shows that White House frames
were not particularly popular in print media articles pre-9/11. With all policies combined, fewer
than 40% of articles used any White House frame. Thus, reporters did not generally use White
House policy frames prior to 9/11.
The next research question of whether media coverage reflected the priming presented by
the White House is tested by examining whether media emphasis on different aspects of policies
reflected White House emphasis on these same policies. In terms of priming the policy agenda
overall, the Bush Administration mentioned all but one topic – faith-based initiatives – in at least
20% of White House communications. Granted, tax policy was emphasized much more than the
others at 70%, but if Bush is priming the agenda beyond just setting it, I would expect all of the
topics except for faith-based policy to receive a moderate amount of media attention. The
overall paucity of articles on the subjects of faith-based initiatives, Social Security, and Medicare
Of the 10 articles written on the subject of Medicare, two used the Cost frame and one used the Dignity frame.
offers evidence that the White House was not able to prime the media agenda. In fact, so few
articles were written on these topics over a nine-month period that a more in-depth analysis of
priming is not even possible. Furthermore, the percentage of articles on tax reform that used
White House frames is so low (the most used frame is mentioned only 15% of the time) that
framing analysis is also not possible for this topic. In other words, White House frames were
simply not used to a significant enough degree to analyze whether the White House influenced
which frames were used (the priming measure used here). Education reform and military
rebuilding are examined further to see if the White House primed these policy topics.
When it comes to priming education policy, as noted previously, a pattern of presidential
influence in the media is not found. The Bush Administration emphasized Local Control,
Accountability, and High Standards frames in that order, whereas print media articles on this
topic emphasized the opposite framing order. In terms of military rebuilding, the Bush
Administration relied heavily on the Strong Military and Legitimacy frames to sell this policy
proposal, whereas print media used Post-Cold War frame the most, and the Military Rebuilding
frame at a much lower rate. It is worth noting that only 15% of White House communications
mentioned the Post-Cold War frame – the least popular frame presented – while 45% of print
media articles used this frame, making it the most popular of the four. Again, while media
coverage did reflect White House frames to a greater extent with this policy than any other of the
“big six,” the framing use does not reflect presidential priming. In summary, print media
coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda pre-9/11 did not generally reflect the priming of the
R6, the question of whether media coverage complicit prior to 9/11, is tested with a
simple univariate analysis of a question included in the media coding frame asking whether the
particular article at hand reflected complicit coverage of the policy. Complicit coverage required
that the article presented the White House’s position on the topic using the Administration’s
language and frames, without presenting counter arguments, discussion of alternative frames, or
noting opposition to the policy. Chart 20 shows that few print media articles pre-9/11 were
complicit. Only 16 percent of articles reflected such coverage.
Percentage of Policy Complicit Print Media Articles (n=188)
The policy with the highest level of complicit coverage was Social Security with 28% of articles
falling under this category. Military rebuilding had the lowest level of complicit coverage at 9%.
Given the low level of complicit coverage overall and by policy, particularly compared to
coverage of the Second Gulf War, the finding for R6 is that print media coverage of President
Bush’s policy agenda was not generally complicit prior to September 11, 2001
Print Media Coverage of the Policy Agenda Post-9/11
The third and last phase of this project seeks to better define the conditions that induce
complicit coverage. Did the rally effect influence other Bush Administration policies post-9/11?
This analysis replicates the methodology used in the two previous phases of the project to test
agenda setting, priming, and framing effects through April, 2004 when the rally effect reached its
The Bush Policy Agenda Post-9/11
The number of policy issues on the Bush Administration’s plate post-9/11 mushroomed
after September 11, 2001 as a result of the terrorist attacks. Four general types of policies were
1. reactionary policies (e.g., the airline bailout, the USA PATRIOT Act, and creation
of the Department of Homeland Security);
2. crises or events President Bush chose to take a position on (e.g., conflicts in
Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the SARS outbreak, and nuclear testing in
3. policies initiated in the other branches of government that required some action on
the part of the Administration (e.g., campaign finance reform, late-term abortions,
and Affirmative Action); and
4. policies initiated by the White House (e.g., education reform, media deregulation,
and the Clear Skies Initiative).
These four categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, while the late-term abortion
policy was put on the agenda and passed by Congress, President Bush’s vow to approve the
legislation no doubt got the policy ball rolling. Furthermore, some may argue that the USA
PATRIOT Act is not a necessary reaction to the events of September 11th
, but rather, a political
move to concentrate power in the executive branch. Given these complications and our primary
questions, our analysis includes only policy topics that originated with the Bush Administration
and are not reactions to pressing events or crisis. Policies were selected that fit the following
criteria: (1) the policy reflects a new position/ new direction; (2) the policy came primarily come
from the Administration; and (3) the policy was non-reactionary, meaning that the content was
primarily determined by the Administration. The following policies were initially picked for
analysis based upon frequency of mention in White House communications:
1. Clear Skies Initiative
2. economic stimulus package
3. energy policy
4. estate “death” tax
5. Faith-based initiatives
6. Healthy Forest Initiative
7. Medicare reform
8. missile defense
9. tort reform
10. trade promotion authority
11. Social Security reform
Some policies appeared to be on the President’s agenda, but upon closer inspection, they
were not active policy components during the time period analyzed, including stem cell research,
media deregulation, bankruptcy reform, and education. The Bush Administration took a
complicated stance on stem cell research, approving the use of existing embryos in research, but
prohibiting the harvesting of additional embryos for this endeavor in August of 2001. The
Administration also took a clear stance against human cloning. After 9/11, this policy topic was
not a key component of the President’s agenda. The Administration did issue a statement of
support for HR 2520, an act of Congress approving stem cell research using umbilical cord blood
(and thus not involving embryos) in May of 2005, but stem cell was not actively championed by
the President post-9/11. Likewise, the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to
deregulate some aspects of media ownership in June of 2003 received a lot of press attention, but
it was not actively promoted by the Bush Administration as a policy priority. In fact, the FCC
held only one public forum on the issue. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention, Consumer
Protection Act was signed into law on April 20, 2005, and while the White House did support
this legislation early on, it was primarily a congressional initiative. (Similar legislation was
presented in congress several under the Clinton Administration.)
President Bush’s education reform package, No Child Left Behind, passed on January 8,
2002. It was actively promoted by the Bush Administration prior to 9/11, but then disappeared
from the radar screen after the terrorist attacks. In fact, the President was selling this policy
using an appearance in an elementary school in Jacksonville, Florida, when two planes hit the
Twin Towers, but after this appearance, he spoke of education reform only twice more before it
passed in January of 2002. Neither of these appearances involved direct promotion of what
would become No Child Left Behind, rather, they concentrated on schoolchildren learning more
about American history and connecting with Muslim children. It is safe to say that the high-
profile marketing campaign for education reform ceased after September 11, 2001, even though
this policy item was active.
Data and Methods
The methodology used in the third phase of this project replicates the model used in the
first two phases: a content analysis of messages from the White House pertaining to each policy,
and a content analysis of print media coverage of each policy. The White House Dataset is
comprised of press briefings, press gaggles, radio addresses, and Presidential speeches that
mention items on Bush’s policy agenda from September 11, 2001 through April, 30, 2004 – the
end of the “rally around the flag” effect. The White House Dataset contains 480 cases. Inter-
coder reliability was acceptable using both absolute agreement and Cohen’s Kappa measures, as
reported for this dataset in Appendix E. Codebooks and coding frames for this dataset are
located in Appendix F.
Eleven media datasets were originally compiled, one for each policy topic put on the
agenda by the Bush Administration post-9/11. Each dataset includes all articles mentioning the
topic that appeared in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report.
Chart 13 shows the percentage of White House communications pertaining to each of the
eleven policies initiated by the Administration. The reader should note that each White House
communication could feasibly contain more than one policy topic.
Percentage of White House Communications Mentioning Policy Topic (n=480)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Clear Skies Initiative
Healthy Forest Initiative
Trade Promotion Authority
Social Security Reform
Based on the breakdown of policy mentions above, it seems clear that certain policies are
more important to the White House than others. In fact, five policies – Tort Reform, Missile
Defense, the Healthy Forest Initiative, the Estate Tax, and the Clear Skies Initiative – are
mentioned so rarely as to suggest that the White House was not truly promoting them.
Therefore, the analysis only involves the remaining six topics: Economic Stimulus (176);
Energy Policy (67); Faith-Based Initiatives (40); Medicare Reform (60); Trade Promotion
Authority (52); and Social Security Reform (83).
The Policy Landscape Post-9/11
This section examines how each of the six major policy initiatives post-9/11 were
marketed to the American public by the Bush Administration. Chart 14 shows the frames used
to “sell” the economic stimulus package. A more detailed breakdown of each frame is included
in Appendix F.
White House Economic Stimulus Frame Use (n=176)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
When it comes to “selling” the Economic Stimulus package, the Bush Administration relied most
heavily on the narrative that this policy would promote the creation of new jobs. The related
Unemployment Frame was mentioned in one-fourth of White House communications. Few
addresses used the Global Competition Frame to sell their Economic Stimulus package.
Chart 15 shows the frames used to market the White House’s energy policy post-9/11.
White House Energy Policy Frame Use (n=67)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Find New Source Frame
A majority (52.2%) of messages pertaining to Energy Policy used the narrative of how it would
reduce reliance on foreign oil, and this in turn would diminish our ties to countries linked to
terrorism. This was by far the most popular frame used when discussing this policy. Far fewer
messages about Energy Policy use the Economic Stimulus and Find New Source Frames.
Only two frames – Needy People and Compassionate Conservatism – were used by the
Bush Administration to market Faith-Based Initiatives post-9/11, as shown in Chart 16 below.
White House Faith-Based Initiatives Frame Use (n=40)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Needy People Frame
The Needy People narrative – that Faith-based Initiatives will help the neediest Americans get
back on their feet – was used in 40% of White House communications. One-quarter of
communications mentioned Compassionate Conservatism in the context of Faith-Based
Chart 17 shows the frames used to market the White House’s Medicare Reform proposal.
White House Medicare Reform Frame Use (n=60)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
The most popular framed used to sell Medicare Reform is the story of modernizing the system.
Four-in-ten White House communications used this frame when discussing Medicare Reform.
About one-fourth of the communications mentioned the Strengthen System and Choice Frames,
White House Trade Promotion Authority Frame Use (n=52)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Level Playing Field
Global Prosperity Frame
As Chart 18 indicates, the Economic Stimulus Frame was the most popular story used to market
Trade Promotion Authority by the White House, mentioned in nearly half of the communications
on the subject. The ideas that policy will level the playing field, bring about global prosperity,
and stimulate the economy were used far less frequently when Trade Promotion Authority was
discussed by the Bush Administration.
Chart 19 shows the major frames or narratives used when discussing Social Security
White House Social Security Reform Frame Use (n=83)
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Young People Frame
The most popular story used to sell Social Security Reform was its benefit to young people
(63.8%). The Strengthen System Frame was also quite popular: six-in-ten White House
communications mentioned this as a reason to support reform of Social Security. The benefits to
retirees and the economy were less used frames mentioned by the White House to promote
support for Social Security Reform.
I anticipate that President Bush’s domestic policy agenda benefited at least somewhat
from the extended rally effect post-9/11. Perceptions of the president as a “living flag” may have
buoyed support for President Bush beyond the Iraq War. Three research questions are of interest
in this last stage of analysis:
R7: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda reflect the
framing presented by the White House post-9/11?
R8: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda reflect the
priming presented by the White House post-9/11?
R9: Did a majority of print media coverage of President Bush’s public policy agenda reflect
complicit coverage post-9/11?
Framing effects are tested by comparing White House frames with print media frames on
each topic. The following number of articles were written during the time period analyzed:
economic stimulus (58), energy policy (41), faith-based initiatives (36), Medicare reform (51),
trade promotion (9), and Social Security reform (48). Trade promotion received too little media
attention for analysis, which indicates that reporters were not following the White House agenda-
setting, at least for this policy topic.
Economic Stimulus: White House and Media Frame Use
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
White House Media
As chart 20 shows, fewer than 10% of print media articles about President Bush’s economic
stimulus used the Business Incentive, Jobs, or Unemployment frames coming from the White
House. In other words, print media reporters were not the mouthpiece of the Administration
when it came to reporting on the stimulus.
The analysis of energy policy frames in shown below. Reducing foreign reliance on
energy sources was by far the most popular frame used by the White House to promote this
policy, and it was also the most popular media narrative. Likewise, the narrative about finding
new energy sources is equally popular with the White House and reporters. Thus, for energy
policy, print media coverage framing looks strikingly similar to President Bush’s frames.
Energy Policy: White House and Media Frame Use
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Find New Source Frame
White House Media
Chart 22 compares media coverage of faith-based initiatives to White House frames on
the issue. Reporters simply did not discuss these initiatives in the same way the President
presented them. Furthermore, as noted below, coverage of this policy issue was quite negative in
print media articles.
Faith-Based Initiatives: White House and Media Frame Use
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Needy People Frame
White House Media
According to Chart 23, the Modernizing Frame was the most popular frame used by both
the White House and print reporters. However, media use of this frame is much lower than
White House use, and a clear pattern of joint media-White House framing is not apparent with
this policy domain.
Medicare Reform: White House and Media Frame Use
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
White House Media
The most popular White House frame for Social Security reform – that it would benefit
young people, was not very popular in print media articles, as indicated in Chart 24. Overall,
President Bush’s framing of this policy area was not picked up by the press for the most part.
Social Security Reform: White House and Media Frame Use
0% 20% 40% 60% 80%
Young People Frame
White House Media
In summary, the only policy area where reporters followed White House framing post-
9/11 is energy policy, and the two most popular frames for this policy – ending oil dependence
and finding new energy sources – were both rhetorically tied to the war on terrorism by the Bush
Administration. Officials frequently referenced our dependence on foreign oil as related to
countries in the Middle East – some of which harbor terrorists – so this finding adds a nuanced
wrinkle to the post-9/11 coverage of domestic policy issues. Print media leaned towards
complicit coverage on the only domestic policy post-9/11 that was rhetorically linked with
Priming effects are tested by revisiting the charts in the previous section to see if the
emphasis placed on certain frames by the White House were also reflected in media coverage
post-9/11. Media framing did not follow White House framing, with the exception of energy
policy that was framed in terms of foreign oil dependence promoting terrorism. With regard to
R8, media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda did not generally reflect the priming
presented by the White House post-9/11.
Our last research question concerns complicit coverage of domestic policies post-9/11.
Chart 25 shows the number of articles that achieved the criteria for complicit coverage for the
five policies that received enough media coverage to be analyzed.
Complicit Coverage by Policy
While some of the Administration’s policies received more complicit coverage than others post-
9/11, none of the five policies examined received a substantial amount of such coverage.
Furthermore, negative affect was high for most policies, reflecting a generally critical tone of
policies coming from the White House. Clear negative affect was present in 48% of articles
about President’s Bush’s economic stimulus package, 47% of energy, 42% of faith-based, 34%
of Medicare, and 48% of Social Security articles. Chart 26 shows that a vast majority of print
media articles covering the White House policy agenda pre-9/11 were not complicit in their
coverage. Only a small number of articles fit this criterion.
Percentage of Policy Complicit Print Media Articles Post-9/11 (n=188)
The response to the last research question, R9, is that media coverage of President Bush’s policy
agenda was not generally complicit post-9/11. As shown in Chart 27, print coverage was slightly
more complicit pre-9/11 than in was post-9/11.
Percentage of Complicit Print Media Articles Pre- and Post-9/11
In summary, post-9/11 print media coverage of President Bush’s policy agenda does not
generally reflect the priming or framing put forth by the administration, nor complicit media
coverage. The only exception is energy policy that was rhetorically linked to terrorism.
Discussion and Conclusion
This paper presents two major findings. First, print media coverage of the Iraq War was
complicit and influential in the marketing of the war to the American people, The severity of the
terrorist attacks, coupled with unprofessionally complicit media coverage, extended the rally
around the flag effect from the typical three or four months (Pfiffner, 1998: 42) to April of 2004
when presidential approval was no longer tied to 9/11.
The second major finding of this paper is that media coverage of President Bush’s
domestic policy agenda post-9/11 was not complicit, despite the country rallying behind the
President for over two years. In fact, reporters were critical of the Administration and their
policies, suggests that complicit coverage will surface in times of national crisis only for policies
that are characterized as a response to the crisis. This finding is further confirmed by the fact
that the only policy where coverage followed the White House was energy policy, and the
primary frames focused on foreign reliance promoting links to terrorists.
With regard to democratic checks on presidential power, these findings show that
complicit media coverage during times of national crisis can be added to the list of eroding
democratic checks on the White House. This type of coverage is the result of new developments
in the presidential-press relationship, namely, heightened inter-dependency between reporters
and the White House land the “rally effect” leading to biased coverage and public
misinformation. The crisis of 9/11 allowed President Bush to persuade the public through
media; he did not enjoy a particularly favorable relationship with the press prior to the terrorist
President Kennedy “went public” four decades ago and set the stage for a new media-
centered style of presidential politics, but he did not have the level of persuasion with the press
and the public that President Bush enjoyed for at least a year. Perhaps it is all simply due to the
effect of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, but it is possible that an extended rally effect and the new
“going public,” which now often means not going public with information, has a multiplicative
effect that is to be expected with future crisis situations. If the nation is again confronted with
circumstances similar to 9/11, reporters will again experience extreme pressure to rally behind
the president and give him/her immoderate power to persuade. This scenario is likely for two
reasons. First, reporter-presidential interdependence is as strong as ever. Reporters will
acquiesce to the pressure to provide complicit coverage from both the White House and the
public when it arises. Secondly, the White House’s selling of the Iraqi war was ingenious and
illustrates the power of a strong political marketing campaign. Bush Administration messages
were unified from the start, expertly communicated through multiple channels by many different
White House representatives, and resonated well with the American people. The primary
framing of the war as a domestic threat was perhaps the crowning point of this campaign. This
frame elicited strong emotions post 9/11 by presenting a tangible target in the war on terrorism
and suggesting that the country would be safer if that target were defeated. Another professional
campaign along these lines would have a similar effect, regardless of the person or political party
in control of the White House, as long as the marketing experts are top-notch. This threatens the
representative basis of our republic when public opinion can be so effectively be set by political
leaders if the conditions are right.
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