• Stephanie Elie-Martin

Agenda Setting & The Spiral of Silence in Buying the War

The war in Iraq is the war many Americans can remember and for others the Vietnam War a painful memory. This framework coupled with the unprecedented tragedy on American soil created an atmosphere ripe with heightened emotions and passionate engagement. What the terrorists took in lives the country exponentially produced in seemingly universal patriotism. While patriotism in and of itself is not a negative act when properly manipulated can result in widespread blindness to scrutiny of fact. In the film Buying the War we are able to see the role Agenda Setting and the Spiral of Silence played in the Bush administration’s ability to coerce both the media and the public into suspending discernment and following the Pied Piper into war.

The hypothesis of Agenda Setting is that the mass media have the ability to transfer the salience of issues on the news agenda to the public agenda (Griffin, et al 375). Maxwell McCombs extends this to introduce framing wherein the mass media also provides context and suggests how the issue be discussed (Griffin et al., p. 379-80). The film Buying the War provides the perfect context through which to view this theory. Perhaps the most striking example of this can be seen in Walter Isaacson’s memo to balance reporting of civilian casualty with reminders of 9/11 (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007). This admonishment shows the implicit power of the mass media to frame our perception of actual events. The shock and horror of civilian deaths is placated by the patriotic fever induced by 9/11. While the facts may be there the viewer is being led, through framing, to view these tragedies as the consequence of our own national tragedy.

Pushing further the film states that from September, 2002 through February, 2003 NBC, ABC, CBS and the Nightly News aired 414 stories about the Iraq war and almost all sources could be traced back to the White House, Pentagon and State Department (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007). The film did not provide an exact number or percentage of these; however, other more precise figures given during the film give credibility to this generalization. This statement links directly with a question Bill Moyers posed not much prior: “How do you explain that the further you get away from official Washington the closer you get to reality?” This poignant question coupled with the aforementioned numerical data coincides with Funkhouse’s study proving Lippman’s theory that the picture in our head is different than the actual environment (Griffin et al., p. 377).

The Spiral of Silence theory presents the idea that individuals who believe they hold the minority viewport will remain silent in the face of a vocal perceived majority in order to avoid isolation. Furthermore, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann believed that individuals have a quasi-statistical organ that tallies up information about what society in general is thinking and feeling (Griffin, E., 2008, p. 372). In Buying the War Dan Rather elucidates this when he discusses the fear of dissention and says “no one has to send a memo to tell you that’s the case; you just know” (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007). Phil Donahue echoed this in discussing the cancellation of this show when he stated: “dissent is not only unpatriotic; it’s bad for business” (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007).

Noelle-Neumann states that the only dissidents are those accustomed to amenable to isolation. She describes these groups as either hard-core non-conformists or avante-garde reformers (Griffin, E., 2008, p. 379). A business can afford to be neither of these. Norman Solomon ties this together when he states: “journalists and certainly the top ranked media outlets they work for really want to be ahead of the curve and not out on a limb” (Ganguzza & Hughes, 2007). Journalists cannot afford the isolation of non-conformists; the isolation would eliminate the cash flow that provides for their existence. Similarly, the government cannot exist without the support of the people. This dependence creates the fundamental requisite for moving from simply presenting the news stories to presenting to how we think about them. It is plainly survival.

It is through these theories and the film that we can see the cyclical nature of the government and media’s role in the public’s perception of the war on the Iraq. The initial presentation of events triggered newscasters quasi-statistical sense driving them and the organizations they work for down the Spiral of SIlence and prompting the creation of secondary framing influencing how the nation interpreted the War on Iraq. The government manipulated this mechanism by self referencing articles and creating their own secondary framework for the media. This self contained cycle allowed for reality to greatly diverge from the pictures in people’s heads. The players involved in initiating the War on Iraq truly demonstrated, on a profound level, society’s need for non-conformists and avant-garde reformers.


Mark Ganguzza (Director), Kathleen Hughes (Director), & Gail Ablow (Producer). (Aired April 25, 2007). Buying the War [Documentary, News]. United States: Bill Moyer’s Journal. Public Broadcasting Network.

Griffin, E. Ledbetter, A., Sparks, G. (2015). A first look at Communication Theory (9th edition). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, p. 40 – 48; 267 – 279; 375 - 387.

Griffen, E., (2008). A First Look at Communication Theory (7th edition). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. From archived chapter and endnotes.

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