A Neoinstitutionalist Analysis of Iraq War Coverage?

So, first off, I’m deep into the organizational theory literature, bouncing back and forth right now between Resource Dependence and New/Neo Institutionalism. Expect a couple posts on related themes.

For today, I’d like to talk about institutional isomorphism – that is, when different organizations doing the same sorts of things move towards having the same structure or behaviors for reasons other than obvious competitive advantage. Often, the reasons involve some notion of legitimacy, rather than efficiency. In particular, I want to talk about normative, coercive and mimetic processes (Dimaggio and Powell’s (1983) trinity of mechanisms that lead to institutional isomorphism). Then I’ll connect this to some recent revelations on the coverage of the lead up to the current war in Iraq from Salon. If you want to skip the org theory, just go read the story, it’s more important anyway.

Let me break that down. Coercive isomorphism comes when actors external to an organization (say, the government, or a major purchaser of your organization’s product) tell your organization how to conduct its business, either directly (Wal-Mart says to a supplier, switch to using this material or else we’ll cut your contract) or indirectly (a major foundation decides to only give grants to 501(c)3 non-profits, so if your org wants in on the money you better shape up).

Mimetic isomorphism occurs when an organization is uncertain on how to proceed, and looks to other similar (perhaps higher status) organizations for models. If my brother wants to found a new small private school to teach gifted children, he’ll most likely look at what other schools for the gifted have done and copy most of their actions – adopting a certain kind of board structure, a certain curriculum, etc. Similarly, if a new technology provides uncertain benefits, an organization might look to see if other orgs have adopted the technology and only choose to do so if most have.

Lastly, normative isomorphism occurs through processes of professionalization. If professional accountants are taught that new standards of accounting require a certain kind of bookkeeping, these accountants will go out into the organizational world and begin to implement those methods. Professionals learn both during their formative education and credentialing process and also through professional meetings, associations and trainings. When doctors go to conferences to share best practices which they then take back to their own hospitals and private offices, that’s normative isomorphism at work (and often, I would think, for the better in that case).

And this discussion of professionals and their role in isomorphism leads us straight into the coverage of the build up to the Iraq War (2002-2003) and some new insights from Salon, first quoting an interview with a CNN correspondent formerly working at other networks:

CNN/MSNBC reporter: Corporate executives forced pro-Bush, pro-war narrative – Glenn Greenwald – Salon.com:

Jessica Yellin, CNN Congressional Correspondent: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives — and I was not at this network at the time — but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.

So, here we have argument 1: Coercion from outside, with outside here consisting of public opinion. In particular, executives all felt pressure because of the balance of public opinion (on which the news media problematically depend for their viewership, but which the media also help to create) was in favor of the president. These executives in turn put pressure on reporters not to go against the public tide. A similar story might be told in resource dependence terms – the media relies on the public to watch its shows (or else advertisers will stop funding them), and thus the media is dependent on the public en masse.

But there’s more, a second argument from WaPo columnist David Ignatius quoted in the Salon story:

“In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it.”

And here we have a story of normative isomorphism. Journalists felt that a set of rules bound their conduct – they could report conflicts between legitimate actors** but they themselves could not create arguments***. The media’s role is seen here as reporting, and not so much investigating, at least not on an issue like this. Because these journalistic rules were commonly held, and interpreted in the same way, coverage of the build up to the war converged on a pro-administration, pro-war line for which many media orgs have since apologized.

One question we could now ask is – which was more important? The coercive pressure from outside, or the normative pressure from within? One way to look at this question would be to analyze the coverage of different journalists, the stories written by different reporters, etc. The two main explanatory factors might be first, how professionalized the journalist was – did they have a degree in Journalism? How much experience did they have as a professional journalist? (Compare, perhaps, Brokaw and Anderson Cooper or the like.) And second, what organization were they part of (acting on the assumption that different coercive forces would act at the level of the organization as a whole, while normative forces would act on the individual journalists). Of course, there might not be much variation in the background of most journalists – itself an interesting point, but one that would make this analysis a bit fruitless.

Anyway, the larger point I’ve been mostly avoiding since the beginning of this post: The media really screwed up in the build up to the Iraq War, and it seems like they knew it (at least a bit) but felt compelled not to act. The question then becomes, how can we fix that? How can we create and sustain legitimate media sources that do not interpret journalistic ethics they way they were interpreted in these periods, or do not experience external pressures in the same way? Can we? At what cost? Paid by whom?

* Ok, I’m butchering D&P a bit here, as their story of isomorphism is mostly about similarity in structure not practice. But the structure/practice distinction is a bit hazy to me anyway, so, well, be kind.
** Of course, the media also determines who is a legitimate actor, another problematic point of mutual causation here.
*** It’s worth noting that Salon points out as BS the argument that there were no legitimate actors speaking out against the war. In addition to massive protests, there were voices like Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean and Al Gore, not exactly outsiders. How actors are determined to be legitimate is itself a really interesting question I know not too much about.

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