Travel as Rhetoric

By Aaron Hess

As the 2008 elections loom and fragmentation persists between Congress and the Executive Branch, US officials have been traveling abroad to visit sensitive areas plagued with international conflict. Received with mixed reactions, these US delegations represent American interests, constituents, and policy. Recently, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), visited a marketplace in Baghdad leading a delegation of American officials, triggering local criticism of his presence. Local market vendors saw his visit as “propaganda,” and “only for the media.” One merchant noted that his visit had “abnormal” security measures including over one hundred additional troops in armored vehicles who accompanied the senator. From across the aisle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) defied the White House by visiting Syria, seeking dialogue with a country that remains on the terrorism watch list. She was well-received by the Syrian administration and believes that her trip was a success. Another Presidential candidate, Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM), has been sent to North Korea to recover the lost remains of soldiers from the Korean War.

In each of these cases, travel to sensitive areas of the world is framed in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the visit. McCain’s visit was met with disdain from local Iraqi vendors:

“They were just making fun of us and paid this visit just for their own interests,” he said. “Do they think that when they come and speak few [sic.] Arabic words in a very bad manner it will make us love them? This country and its society have been destroyed because of them and I hope that they realized that during this visit.”

“They were laughing and talking to people as if there was nothing going on in this country or at least they were pretending that they were tourists and were visiting the city’s old market and buying souvenirs,” he said. “To achieve this, they sealed off the area, put themselves in flak jackets and walked in the middle of tens of armed American soldiers.”

Given the global media saturated environment, it should come as no surprise that local voices are often heard responding to US delegations overseas, defying the intent and image of US officials traveling abroad. Speaker Pelosi’s trip was met with more domestic criticism than international, signaling the divide between party lines and branches of US government over international relations policy. However, even the Syrian ambassador to Washington indicated he was “wary of the sudden U.S. openness.”

Principles

The presence of official delegations in sensitive areas highlights three principles relative to globalized media. First, traveling abroad is not a static event, meaning that mediated events can be read from a variety of perspectives, many of which are simultaneously contradictory. Rather than having a single interpretation, travel is fluid and read with competing interests and interpretations. What may be intended as a simple fact-finding mission could be interpreted very differently under the global media spotlight. Local perceptual filters may depict the visiting officials in a variety of ways, reinforcing local interpretations of what their presence means. In other words, local people and media often reread the presence of prominent U.S. Americans through perspectives that are culturally unfamiliar and sometimes oppositional to US interests. The intent of the visitors, however benevolent and altruistic, may be irrelevant. McCain’s experience in Iraq, while touted as an attempt to get the “real” picture of Baghdad, has been reread through the eyes of local merchants who call the delegation insincere and propagandistic.

Communication scholar Robert Entman (1993) notes that:

Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation (p. 52, emphasis in original).

Because of the fluidity of local re-readings, traveling delegations can be framed and reframed, which alters the external and mediated perceptions of the original events. For example, Pelosi’s visit to Syria has been domestically framed as an affront to the Bush Administration’s reluctance to engage with a nation suspected of supporting terrorism. As such, the domestic frame selects and makes salient Pelosi’s opposition to the White House in order to set up Pelosi’s trip as a politically-motivated move away from Bush’s international policy, rather than as an act of diplomacy.

Analysis

The selection of particular details of overseas travel should give US officials pause. Given the extent of media surveillance and scrutiny, especially of presidential candidates, US officials should pay close attention to their actions overseas. Selection and salience are in the hands of media representatives in domestic, national, and international markets.

In the case of travel to sensitive areas, US officials should be aware of the possibility that their actions will be oppositionally framed. One member of McCain’s delegation, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) compared the Shorja marketplace to a “normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.” The comment was pounced upon by local and national media in the United States, calling McCain’s view of reality “skewed.” Despite Pence’s explanation for the comment, the damage has been done; frames set, perceptions fortified. According to Entman’s model of framing, the selection of the comment and reinforced salience of its representative power in regard to McCain’s policy have formed a frame of reference for the overall visit. Subsequent articles have bolstered the frame with further interviews of market vendors and local townspeople who denounce the visit as mere propaganda and photo opportunity.

In global mediated environments, messages transcend local, national, and international boundaries. As stated in a recent CSC white paper, single messages, designed for local audiences, reach beyond the scope of intention to unexpected, unfamiliar, and sometimes unfriendly sources. Recognizing the complex system of globalized media should be a first principle of traveling governmental representatives. Additionally, as recently proposed by the CSC, US officials should embrace pragmatic complexity, especially the recognition that, once they leave our hands and mouths, messages are out of our control.

Further Reading

· Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(1), 51-59.

· Entman, R. M. (2003). Projections of power: Framing news, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

· Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects: Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.