When Threats are Internal: National Identity and Cascading Frames, from My Lai to Abu Ghraib
Rowling, Charles Michael
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This dissertation explored the role of national identity in shaping how political actors, journalists and citizens interact and respond to moments in which America's image has been threatened by the transgressions of the U.S. military. I focused on what types of national identity frames tend to emerge within public discourse in these moments, what kind of contestation is advanced by political opponents and journalists, and how the public responds to these dynamics. Three studies were conducted. I began by analyzing the communication environment surrounding two nationally dissonant moments in U.S. history--the My Lai Massacre and the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal. In these studies, I systematically examined: (1) White House and U.S. military communications to determine whether and what extent these officials articulated national identity frames; (2) Congressional communications to measure the degree to which these officials echoed or challenged the frames; and (3) news coverage to assess whether the range of debate in official discourse was matched by parallel disagreements in news content. As a final step, I conducted an experiment to test the effects of these national identity frames--when echoed or contested in the press--on citizens in response to a news article about U.S. military transgressions. Methodologically, I combined quantitative content analysis with experimental methods. The results suggest that frames designed to protect and restore the nation's identity in nationally dissonant moments broadly resonate within the citizenry and, in turn, encounter diminished resistance as they cascade downward in the framing hierarchy from political opponents to journalists and finally into the public. By examining political communication in these three important areas--political messages, news content, and public opinion--I sought to illuminate the complex process through which the press aligns its coverage with government communications and how national identity plays a crucial role in this process. This work has important implications for our understanding of press-state relations and how Americans perceive and evaluate the nation, its leaders, and its policies.
- Political science