Entman, Robert M. Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. -

Entman, Robert M. Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Daniel Cassino
Fairleigh Dickinson University

1 Issue framing is one of the most valuable tools in the arsenal of someone attempting to push the public one way or the other in regard to foreign policy. In essence, framing is an attempt to define the alternatives and dimensions of an issue to make it more likely that the public will agree with the proposal a certain policy elite favors. For instance, a proponent of the war in Iraq might argue that we have to choose whether we are going to continue to fight in Iraq, or if we’re going to surrender to the terrorists. When the choice is defined in such a way, the outcome is always going to favor the pro-war position. As such, a successful frame turns the debate into a game of three-card Monte, where the dealer wins not when you pick a card, but when you buy into the premise that one of the cards is a winner.

2 Framing has been important to political science and social psychology alternatives to the “minimal impact” theory of the media for at least the past 20 years, but Robert Entman’s work adds substantially to the existing literature. Most importantly, he attempts to put forward a unified theory of how framing works on the macro-level, in contrast with most of the literature on framing, which examines how it affects individuals. This “cascade model” draws heavily on those same individual-level approaches, arguing that information and interpretations spread from the White House to the major networks in the same way that they spread through an individual’s long-term memory. For instance, Entman argues that the American media accepted the notion that the Soviet Union intentionally shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983 because it conformed to the existing schema of the brutal, calculating communists. In contrast, the media failed to condemn American forces in the Persian Gulf for similar actions in the 1988 downing of an Iran Air flight.

3 In general, this sort of anthropomorphism is a bad idea: ideas may spread like diseases but that doesn’t mean that we should inoculate school children against them. However, in Entman’s hands, it’s fairly compelling stuff, for two main reasons. First, he brings an enormous amount of information to bear in support of his contentions. Each of the chapters are largely built around one or more examples from the last 25 years, including the airline downings mentioned earlier, the nuclear freeze movement, American interventions in Somalia and the Balkans, and the 2003 Iraq war. Second, it seems that the terms used in political science and social psychology to describe individual’s responses to political information are vague enough, and divorced enough from the physical mechanisms of the brain that they can be applied without too much difficulty in such a context. Entman is also smart enough to avoid drawing parallels on the processes involved: there’s no mention of the American public avoiding cognitive dissonance, or information being activated in the long-term memory of the media. To his credit he also generally refrains from individual-level conclusions based on his macro-level data.

4 Even aside from the application of individual-level models to the macro-level, some of Entman’s arguments are of interest to a broad range of scholars interested in American foreign policy. Projections of Power makes a case for giving the US president and his cabinet a privileged position not just in the formation of foreign policy, but also in how that policy will be understood by the public, an extension of the bully pulpit crying out for further analysis. The book also argues that the media itself is growing, rather than declining, in power, with the end of the Cold War loosening in the ways that the American media feels comfortable portraying the world.

5 It’s possible to question the rigor of Entman’s cascade model but that may well be missing the forest for the trees. Are the interactions between the White House, the elites, the media, and the public the same as the interactions between the various mental components underlying the evaluative process? Probably not. Are the parallels close enough to give valuable insight into how policy makers attempt to frame foreign policy issues? Certainly, and that’s reason enough to applaud Entman’s effort.

Daniel Cassino is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.