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The politics of distraction | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal

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Via VOX EU

It is often suspected that pDo politicians strategically time controversial announcementspolicies to avoid public scrutiny.? We presentThe column uses  evidence from a systematic analysis of the timing of executive orders issued by US presidents to showthat this suspicion, in this case, is correct.  and its relationship with the news cycle. We find that Ppresidents tend to issue executive orders,  – especially those that are more likely to generate negative publicity, at the same time as  – in coincidence with other important events that distract the media and the public.

On 25 August 2017, one day before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, President Trump pardoned a former sheriff accused of racial profiling and issued a ban against transgender soldiers in the military. On 14 June 2018, the day of the inauguration of the 2018 FIFA World Cup that Russian was hosting, the Russian government announced a rise in the official retirement age and an increase in value added tax. On 13 July 1994, the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi passed an emergency decree that freed hundreds of politicians with pending corruption charges – on the day Italy qualified for the final of the FIFA World Cup. 

These anecdotes raise our suspicion: could these apparent coincidences be strategic behaviour? In other words, do politicians intentionally time their controversial policies to coincide with important events that distract the media and the public, and so minimise negative publicity? Corporate announcements (DellaVigna and Pollet 2009) and military operations (Durante and Zhuravskaya 2018) employ strategic timing, but, so far, we do not know whether politicians are using the same tactics.

Evidence of strategic timing

We have been examining this question by studying the timing of executive orders (EOs) issued by US presidents over the past 40 years (Djourelova and Durante 2019). They provide an ideal opportunity to study strategic behaviour, because the executive has complete discretion over timing and content. 

EOs do not require the approval of the US Congress and have often been used by presidents to push measures that Congress opposed. Because of this executive orders potentially generate controversy, with the president being accused of overstepping his constitutional prerogatives. Studies have shown that voters agree with this criticism, reducing the president’s popularity (Chritsienson and Kriner 2017, Reeves and Rogowkski 2018). 

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The political cost of EOs is therefore determined by how much media attention they attract. In turn, depends on what other important events happen at the same time, and compete with EOs for news time (Eisensee and Strömberg 2007). So, a president planning to issue a controversial EO has an incentive to make it coincide with ‘distracting’ events.

Relating news pressure and EOs

To test whether EOs are strategically timed to the news cycle, we examined the relationship between the probability that at least one EO is signed on a given day, and a daily measure of ‘news pressure’. This measures the time devoted to the top three stories in the prime-time newscasts of US TV networks (Eisensee and Strömberg 2007, Durante and Zhuravskaya 2018), and captures the presence of important stories unrelated to an EO or its substance that can crowd out the news coverage of that EO. 

We found that EOs were more likely to be signed on the eve of days when the news was dominated by other events. In Figure 1 we plot the frequency of EOs against next-day news pressure, and the non-parametric relationship between the two. This finding applies only to periods of divided government – when the president and Congress belong to opposite parties. In these times, unilateral presidential action would be more likely to attract criticism from hostile politicians.

Figure 1 Frequency of EOs by quintile of next-day news pressure (top) and non-parametric regression of signing of EO on next-day news pressure for periods of divided government in US 

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Source: Djourelova and Durante (2019).

We also explored what types of EOs, and what type of news, drove this relationship. If this concurrence is strategic, the effect would be more pronounced for EOs that were ex ante more likely to make the news and generate controversy, creating a stronger incentive to ‘conceal’. We found that the effect is statistically significant (Figure 2) only for: 

  • EOs on topics other than routine government operations, arguably the least contentious and newsworthy category
  • EOs important enough to be covered by the Associated Press newswire
  • EOs on issues over which the president and Congress have disagreed the most in the preceding months. 

We found no evidence of strategic timing for EOs announced to the press in advance, which the administration clearly would have no interest in concealing.

Figure 2 Heterogeneity by type of EO

Source: Djourelova and Durante (2019).

If there was a deliberate forward-looking strategy to time EOs, then EOs should coincide only with news events that could have been anticipated (political or sporting events, for example), but not with those that could not (earthquakes or terrorist attacks). We applied text analysis to the content of each news segment to distinguish between news containing more words associated with anticipation, and those containing more words associated with surprise. Figure 3 shows clouds of the most frequent words in each category. 

Figure 3 Words associated with surprise (left) and anticipation (right) in news segments

Source: Djourelova and Durante (2019).

The positive relationship between the timing of EOs and news pressure was entirely driven by news associated with anticipation. There was no correlation with surprising news. We used a placebo test to exploit actual unexpected events: earthquakes, terror attacks, and mass shootings. Despite attracting significant attention in the news, they were unrelated to the timing of EOs.

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But why are EOs timed to news on the following, rather than the same, day? That is what is it about next-day coverage that may be harmful for the president? Video analysis of hundreds of news reports of EOs shows that next-day news reports were more likely to feature the reactions of Congress – which, during periods of divided government was aligned with the president. On average, these reactions were more critical of the president’s conduct.

Limiting the media’s role

A well-functioning media informs citizens about what the government is doing, and holds policymakers accountable. But public attention is limited, and sophisticated politicians can reduce scrutiny by timing announcements when the press and public are distracted. Our evidence suggests that politicians at the highest level are doing this, and we were able to when this would be more likely to happen. Even if the media is not politically biased, the strategic behaviour of politicians limits its role as a watchdog. Ultimately, this undermines political accountability.

References

Christenson, D P and D L Kriner (2017), “Mobilizing the public against the president: Congress and the political costs of unilateral action”, American Journal of Political Science 61(4): 769-785.

DellaVigna, S and J Pollet (2009), “Investor inattention and Friday earnings announcements”, The Journal of Finance 64(2): 709-749.

Djourelova, M and R Durante (2019), “Media Attention and Strategic Timing in Politics: Evidence from US Presidential Executive Orders”, CEPR discussion paper 13961.

Durante, R and E Zhuravskaya (2018), “Attack when the world is not watching? US media and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, Journal of Political Economy 126(3): 1085-1133.

Eisensee, T and D Strömberg (2007), “News droughts, news floods, and US disaster relief”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(2): 693-728.

Reeves, A and J C Rogowski (2018), “The public cost of unilateral action”, American Journal of Political Science 62(2): 424-440.


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