Breaking through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media.

Author:Doherty, Brendan J.
Position::Book review

Breaking Through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media. By Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Jeffrey S. Peake. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. 264 pp.

The question of what constitutes effective presidential leadership is as important as it is difficult to answer. In Breaking Through the Noise, Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Jeffrey Peake offer an innovative theory about presidential public leadership and test it with a wide range of empirical evidence. The result is a book full of insights about the complicated interrelationships among the president, the media, and the public that should be of value to scholars, students, and political practitioners alike.

The authors aim to bridge two literatures in political science--research on the president's efforts to lead the public and scholarship on presidential responsiveness to the will of the people. They argue that these separate areas of study are in fact related and offer a contingent theory of presidential leadership. Extensive research has demonstrated that in spite of increasingly frequent attempts by recent presidents to take their case to the people in order to move public opinion, they rarely succeed in doing so. Should we conclude that presidential efforts to go public are failures? The authors contend that to do so overlooks a critical element of presidential leadership: agenda setting.

Breaking Through the Noise offers a theory of indirect presidential leadership that hinges upon the role of the news media as the essential intermediary between the president and the American people. By influencing what the media cover, presidents can shape the public's awareness of, if not preferences about, the president's priorities. In doing so, they tackle the important but slippery dynamics of reciprocal causation. In addition to considering how a president shapes the media's coverage and the priorities of the public, they also analyze the ways in which the issues most important to the public and those most covered by the media affect the president's focus. While many would agree that these dynamics are connected, the authors find a way to test the nature and magnitude of these complex, multidirectional relationships.

Issue salience is at the heart of their theory. They contend that when the public places little emphasis upon a particular issue, the president has the greatest potential to exercise indirect public leadership by driving media coverage of an issue...

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