Selling a War through the Mass Media:
Cunning Communications or Brilliant Brainwashing?

By Adam Rogers

During the March 2003 war in Iraq, public support for the conflict was much higher in the United States than in any of the countries amongst its allies. In some of the countries of the "coalition," public support was as low as one-tenth that of the United States [1] .

This extraordinarily high level of support can be attributed to a concerted and masterful use of communication strategies implemented by those who favoured a war. While knee-jerk patriotism played a roll, this patriotism was used and reinforced through the use of symbols and images – some of which, as in the case of Jessica Lynch, were created "Hollywood style" specifically for the purpose of rallying the masses [2] .

This phenomenon is not without precedent.  Communication theorists have looked at the dynamics of mass brainwashing ever since the advent of mass communications.  For example, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann recognized the power of public opinion in politics, which she described as "opinions on controversial issues that one can express in public without isolating oneself." [3] A term she developed for this, the spiral of silence, refers to the increasing pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority. As founder and director of the Allensbach Institute, the German counterpart to the Gallup poll organization in the United States, Noelle-Neumann discovered through her research that individuals' opinions are more or less constant, but their willingness to express opinion changes depending on others' judgment.  In formulating her hypothesis, Noelle-Neumann draws upon the work of the 18th Century Swiss/French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote that public opinion is "a compromise between social consensus and individual convictions." [4]

If Noelle-Neumann and Rousseau were to ruminate upon the events of Spring 2003, their theories could lead them to believe the average American was forced by public opinion (as presented by the media) and by his own vulnerable nature to seek out a compromise of conscience.  Their theories leave open the possibility that more Americans were against the war than had the courage to speak out.  According to Noelle-Neumann, the closer a person’s opinion is to the prevailing public opinion, the more he is willing to openly disclose that opinion in public. If the perception of public sentiment changes, the person will see that his opinion is in the minority and will be less willing to express that opinion publicly.

Noelle-Neumann also draws upon the work of social psychologist Solomon Asch, a comparison that is useful in looking at whether or not the media coverage of the Bush administration's position on the war influenced popular sentiment.  Asch investigated whether or not people could be influenced by others’ opinions – that is, if they would abandon their own convictions just because they thought other people saw things differently.  Asch determined that, indeed, most people will sell themselves short.  He did this by employing a simple experiment with a single subject making a very simple decision – with one catch: he found himself outnumbered by seven other people who deliberately made the incorrect choice. The choice involved comparing one line with a group of other lines, asking which line was closest in length to the others.  The group deliberately said the line was the same as one that was obviously different, even though there was a choice that was the same as the test line.

Asch's results showed that six out of ten subjects conformed to the false choice of the planted participants when asked to give their answer in front of the group, even when it was obvious that the answer was wrong [5] .  Noelle-Neumann interprets this finding to a fear of being ostracized by the group.  Applying this theory to the subject at hand, one could ask if the version of reality presented to Americans through the media influenced the a majority of them to conform to a vision put forth by the Bush administration.  It may be no coincidence that seven out of ten Americans supported the war [6] , while six out of ten Americans in Asch's study embraced an obviously wrong answer through peer pressure.

If the mass public in the United States was herded into believing what the state wanted it to believe, it would not be without precedent. Just over a 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the majority of French population at the time of the revolution went along with the dictates of the church because it dreaded "isolation more than the stigma of heresy," and was "intimidated into silence." [7]

If the average American was intimidate into silence to avoid the stigma of heresy, how was he or she exposed to that "dominant opinion"? How was the peer pressure applied?


Any study of mass communication and its effect on public perception of reality would not be complete without at least a cursory reference to Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan said the American Government was the first to be founded on the concept of public opinion [8] . It was, according to McLuhan the press that shaped the U.S., thereby creating a political crisis "with the passing of the press into the entertainment limbo, and with the rise of TV as a political shaper."

George Gerbner, another communications researcher, believed that heavy exposure to the cultural imagery presented through a television could shape a viewer's concept of reality.  Through his cultivation theory, Gerbner demonstrated how television nurtures a homogenous outlook on life, leading to a lack of diversity among heavy viewers.

According to Gerbner, television often provides its viewers with biased and stereotyped depictions of reality, which can create a false paradigm for those individuals who spend a lot of time watching it, and who believe that what they see represents reality [9] . Although Gerbner focused his research on how television violence influences culture, the same principles may apply when looking at the heavy television coverage before and during the war in Iraq, and the how the Bush administration's position was televised. Cultivation theorists would say that heavy television viewing in the days leading to and during the conflict exposed Americans to consistent messages that lead them to be more supportive of the war.

If television did play a roll in telling people what to believe through broadcasting consistent messages, and if in fact they were influenced to fall in line with these messages out of a felt need to join the majority, how did this process lead to a fictitious construct of reality?

Rhetorical visions.

Looking at the work of Ernest Bormann, John Cragan and Donald Shields in the area of symbolic convergence theory, one may conclude that the consistent messages presented through television created rhetorical visions that became a shared reality for at least half of the American public.  This theory postulates that an individual's perception of reality is for the most part guided by stories, or fantasy themes, that when woven together create a rhetorical vision. These visions structure our sense of reality in areas where we lack direct experience but come to know and embrace through symbolic reproduction. 

Rhetorical visions, according to the theory, are built up gradually over time through the compilation of fantasy themes. [10]   Although mostly applied to small group interactions, the theory can also be applied to larger groups, and even to a collection of groups large enough to form a nation.

According to Bormann and his colleagues, a rhetorical vision requires four components to be effective in establishing a paradigm (false or otherwise) in the minds of a community: characters, plot lines, scenes, and a sanctioning agent.

The characters are heroes, villains and other supporting players. Cast in these roles through the mainstream media during the build up to the war in Iraq were George Bush, Jr., Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and the "soldiers of the coalition" as heroes; and Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, Uday and Qusay Hussein and even Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the incorrigibly-insistent Iraqi information minister, as villains.  Other supporting players included the embedded reporters, the humanitarian aid workers and the volunteer human shields.

The plot line, according to Bormann, is the action or the development of the story.  The story under the microscope has a plot line with a prequel that began with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, followed by the first Gulf War, several years of sanctions, inspections and the U.S.-British-imposed no-fly zones.  There were also other non-related events, which the Bush administration worked hard at including in the plot line, such as the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the war in Afghanistan. The Bush team worked tirelessly to weave suspicions of weapons of mass destruction into the plot line. It also tried to establish a link between the Iraqis and the 2002 anthrax attacks in the United States – and even to al Queda. 

Beginning with the inauguration of George Bush, the son, in January 2001, we saw how public communication can add to or modify the plot line by amplifying, changing, or adding fantasy themes.  Some of these fantasy themes were intentional, others perhaps not.

The third dimension of Bormann's rhetorical vision is the scene: the setting, location, properties and sociocultural milieu.  Here we have, of course, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf region, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan, the United States, the World Trade Center, etc.

The first three features of a rhetorical vision were fairly easy to construct, taking existing material and supplementing them with fiction. It was the fourth requirement, the sanctioning agent, where the Bush administration ran into a bit of trouble.  Bormann defines the sanctioning agent as a "source that legitimizes the story."  If it was just for the American public, the Administration expected the "U.S. Government" to be an adequate sanctioning agent.  However, it quickly became evident that the rhetorical vision had to be created for much of the world, including the publics among Iraq’s neighbours and the NATO allies.  For this they needed the United Nations, which, unfortunately for the Bush administration, did not go along with the plan [11] .  As the United Nations is a democratic organization, votes from its member states had to be respected.

The result of a failure in achieving the fourth feature of a perfect rhetorical vision was that the only sanctioning agents were the governments of those countries who pushed for war, lead by the United States – where 73% of the public supported military action [12] .  In the United Kingdom, which contributed combat troops to the campaign, 44% of the population backed the war.  Australia, the sanctioning agent from down under, enjoyed 53% in favour.  Only Spain, the only other vocal supporter of the invasion, failed to fulfill the roll of sanctioning agent for its population: only 16% of Spaniards wanted war.  All other countries in the world were well below 40% – with the exception of Canada, which was equal with Britain at 44% (perhaps a consequence of being pulled into the rhetorical vision by excessive exposure to American television programming).

If the Bush administration made a concerted effort to create a rhetorical vision amongst the public, and saw the media, and in particular the television medium as the most effective tool, what role did the media play in the plan? 

Was the media a weapon of mass deception or an unknowing participant?

Was the media a participatory partner in the Grand Illusion or was it simply used as a tool?  According to critical media theories, and in particular the political economy theory, the answer is no.  Although some media moguls such as Mortimer Zuckerman and Rupert Murdock have been criticized for pushing an editorial bias on the American public, the simple truth may be that the media was used as a tool.  According to Denis McQuail's mass communication theory, the media has become a demand-and-supply commodity that is trying to get the most dramatic and salable story out to market in the most effective and cost-efficient manner [13] . As a result, it has left itself vulnerable to manipulation.

John Stauber, editor of the quarterly investigative journal PR Watch and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, said that at least 50% of what the national and local television news reports is actually video news releases prepared by public-relations firms and given free to TV stations and networks [14] . These news releases usually come from private sector corporations seeking to create fantasy themes that consuming their products will bring happiness and pleasure. Increasingly, however, the United States Government has been issuing its own news releases, or inviting the media to report from “inside” the story by embedding reporters amongst government staff (including military personnel).

When the government gets involved in the PR business, the results can undermine democracy.  As an example, the U.S. government prepared a video news release showing the dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch, which appropriately occurred on April Fools Day.  The report, which was relayed to the world through the media as fact, portrayed Lynch as having suffered gunshot and knife wounds, and said she was interrogated and roughed up in her hospital bed. But according to an investigation conducted by the BBC, the entire episode was a fabrication: Lynch's care was good, her injuries did not include stab or bullet wounds and she was given blood transfusions donated to her by the medical staff. There were no Iraqi soldiers or police anywhere near the hospital when the U.S. soldiers arrived. The BBC called the story of the rescue "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived" [15] .

Despite this new information contradicting the Pentagon's official version of events regarding the Jessica Lynch story, NBC is proceeding with plans to produce and broadcast Saving Private Lynch, a TV movie based on the former POW’s April 1 rescue from the Iraqi army – thereby perpetuating the rhetorical vision [16] .


The aforementioned theories presuppose that an audience be passive in order to adopt a paradigm that has been spoon-fed to them through the media.  Indeed, this inference leads one to consider whether or not an audience is passive, and easily influence by the media, or is active, and makes choices about how to use the media.

Research suggests there is a combination of factors that determine the degree to which an individual is influenced by what he or she is exposed to through the media.  Joseph Klaper, for example, concluded from this research that an audience is indeed influenced by the media, but only as part of a complex web of other influences.  Other researchers, such as Raymond Bauer [17] and Philip Palmgreen, argue that the degree to which an individual is influenced depends for the most part on his or her attitudes, which are shaped by much more than the media.  In Palmgreen's expectancy value theory, [18] which is grounded in the "uses-and-gratification" approach to understanding the impact of media, he states that the gratifications one seeks from a particular media channel is dependent upon ones pre-existing attitudes towards that media.  Taking this assumption a step further, Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur developed their dependency theory, which proposes that audiences seek out specific media channels to fulfill specific needs and functions.  In other words, people become dependent on mass communication to assist them in receiving the information they need to make a variety of decisions concerning their everyday lives. These needs become more acute during times of social change and conflict, forcing audiences to turn to the media.  In his description of dependency theory, Stephen Littlejohn, in his book Theories of Human Communication, said that in times of conflict, such as in periods of war, "society as a whole tends to become more dependent on the media for a sense of stability…these special circumstances make viewers more dependent on the media to find out what is happening in society." [19]

Looking at these various theories, one may draw the conclusion that there are in fact three distinct audiences: one that is always active, another that is always passive and a third that is sometimes one or the other.  It is this third group that is probably the largest, and the one that meets the assumptions of the dependency theory. If we hold this theory to be true, then what influences the direction someone in this group would tend towards – passive or active?  Although this is an area that deserves more research, this author agrees with Littlejohn's view of dependency theory: that in times of perceived crisis, a large segment of the American audience rallies around the flag and absorbs word-for-word what is being fed to them through the media, especially when it comes from the government, thereby becoming entrenched on the passive side of the spectrum.  This impact is even more effective if the principles of symbolic convergence fall into place.  When these principles are lacking, or are called into question, the audience may quickly turn active, questioning its original assumptions.  Perhaps we are beginning to see the genesis of this shift in the questioning of the claims of weapons of mass destruction. 

As we have seen, the claimed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were an important part in the plot line for the rhetorical vision.  If the elements of the plot line continue to unravel, the sanctioning agent may be called into question and the rhetorical vision may dissipate.  If and when this happens, a paradigm shift in the minds of many Americans may occur, resulting in a reevaluation of the events of March 2003.


[1] Gallup International. End of Year Poll 2002. Retrieved June 8, 2003 from

[2] Kampfner, J. (2003, May 15).  The truth about Jessica. The Guardian. Retrieved June 7, 2003 from,3604,956127,00.html.

[3] Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago.

[4] ibid

[5] Asch, Solomon E. (1951). Group Forces in the Modification and Distortion of Judgments. Social Psychology, 450-473.

[6] Gallup International. End of Year Poll 2002. Retrieved June 8, 2003 from

[7] de Tocqueville, Alexis (1856). L'Ancien Regime et la Revolution [The old regime and the Revolution]. Paris: Folio.

[8] McLuhan, Marshall (1954). New Media as Political Forms.  Explorations, 3, 120-126.

[9] Gerbner, G., Gross L., Morgan M., & Signorielli, N. (1986) Living with Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process. Bryant and Zilmann, (eds.), Perspectives on Media Effects, pp.17-40. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[10] Littlejohn, Stephen W. (2002). Theories of Human Communication. Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth Group.

[11] Rogers, Adam (2003). The United Nations Security Council and the War in Iraq:

How a breakdown in communications lead to a slaughter of the innocents. Unpublished paper, University of Alberta, Canada.

[12] Gallup International. End of Year Poll 2002. Retrieved June 8, 2003 from

[13] McQuail, Denis (2000). McQuail's Mass Communication Theory (4th ed.) London: Sage Publications.

[14] Jensen, D. (1999, March). War on Truth: The Secret Battle for the American Mind --an Interview with John Stauber. The Sun Magazine. Retrieved June 7, 2003 from

[15] Kampfner, J. (2003, May 15).  The truth about Jessica. The Guardian. Retrieved June 7, 2003 from,3604,956127,00.html.

[16] Grossberg, J. (2003, June 2).  NBC Still "Saving Private Lynch". EOnline. Retrieved June 8, 2003 from ttp://,1,11899,00.html

[17] Bauer, Raymond (1964). The Obstinate Audience: The Influence Process from the Point of View of Social Communication. American Psychologist 19, 319-328.

[18] Littlejohn, Stephen W. (2002). Theories of Human Communication. Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth Group.

[19] Ball-Rokeach, S. & DeFleur, M. (1976). A Dependency Model of Mass-Media Effects. Communication Research 3, 3-21.