We now suspect that in journalism, as in the natural sciences, simply observing an event, changes it. Accordingly, it is presumed, notably in an era in which perception and imagery are stylized as reality, that a ubiquitous press exerts a persuasive influence on public policy. Less certain, however, is in what way and to what extent this phenomenon is brought to bear upon policy makers and political institutions.
Essentially, that is what Martin Linsky and several associates at Harvard's Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government set out to explore. Based on a mail survey of 500 former government executives and personal interviews with 20 federal policy makers and 16 prominent Washington journalists, the three-year study represents the most definitive research yet into the mercurial relationship between press and government and how it affects the erratic and undefined formulation of federal policy.
For the most part, books on the press have focused on it as an institution, particularly on its working patterns, practitioners and professional customs. The Harvard group embarked on the vastly more arduous task of qualitatively assessing the media's influence in the policy arena. What it ascertained was that the press is part of the process and central to policy-making strategy far more than had been previously suggested. More than 96% of the policy-makers surveyed conceded that the press had an impact on federal policy, and a majority considered the impact substantial.
Wrote Linsky: "Because the press is such a presence, policy makers spend a lot of time thinking about and dealing with press matters. They use the press to explain themselves to colleagues and constituencies, and to learn what other officials and groups are thinking about them and their programs. They understand that what the press covers and how it covers the news can affect their policies, the way they do their jobs, and their careers. . . ."
In pursuit of their mission, the group clinically diagnosed six case studies to demonstrate the media's effect on policy making under various circumstances--the 1969 reorganization of the Post Office Department, Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation, President Carter's decision to defer production of the neutron bomb, the relocation of Love Canal residents, the Reagan Administration's support of the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University, and the 1984 suspension of Social Security disability reviews.
(The case studies, which offer interesting detailed accounts of how policy was arrived at in each instance, are included in a separate book but without analysis or historical perspective: "How the Press Affects Federal Policymaking--Six Case Studies," Norton: $25; 373 pp.)
The neutron bomb incident comes in for special attention. On June 6, 1977, the Washington Post carried a front page story by reporter Walter Pincus in which an unnamed source described the weapon as one which "kills people but leaves buildings standing." Picked up by the rest of the media, the characterization provoked international outrage and created a NATO crisis which ultimately led to a decision by Carter not to deploy the bomb. Linsky comments, "It may not be possible to prove that the Pincus story killed the neutron bomb, but without his story, there might have been no issue at all."
The study's findings show that the press plays a large part in setting the federal policy agenda, influences how an issue is understood, and speeds up the decision-making process. Moreover, a positive press increases the chances of attaining policy objectives, while a negative press pushes the decision-making process up the bureaucracy to a higher level of government and often causes a policy reassessment.
For example, in the case of the Social Security disability reviews, the media featured a long line of recipients who purportedly were being unfairly "purged" from the beneficiary rolls because of budgetary cuts. To no avail, Reagan officials insisted that the accelerated reviews had been mandated by Congress and that reforms were being introduced to mitigate individual hardships. Eventually, the Administration, under intense press criticism, suspended the reviews.
Inevitably, any study of the media's influence on public policy, by its very nature, tends to inflate that aspect of governmental affairs to the neglect of other independent elements, including congressional action, judicial decisions, lobbying and grass-roots pressure.