Whoppers of mass deception (WMD): Presidential rhetoric, moral panic and the war in Iraq

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Amie L. Nielsen - Committee Chair


This dissertation focuses on processes that may explain the influence of presidential rhetoric and the mass media on public opinion. I have examined a theoretical proposition that the war in Iraq was legitimized by an elite-engineered moral panic---that is, by the Bush administration and reinforced by the news media, which influenced public opinion on support for the invasion of Iraq. A moral panic is defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat. This study involved a content analysis of presidential administration (and key non-administration) sources of rhetoric concerning Iraq, pre- and post-9/11/2001, and an analysis of public opinion. By means of quantitative analyses (bivariate and multivariate logistic regression), I examined whether the volume and tone of administration and non-administration sources of rhetoric in The New York Times involving the regime of Saddam Hussein changed after 9/11, and whether public opinion (i.e., approving invasion of Iraq in Gallup Polls) followed such changes in rhetoric.The results of this study demonstrate that presidential rhetoric influences public opinion regarding key issues; in this instance, public opinion concerning invasion of a sovereign nation. Specifically, the results indicate that the volume of Bush administration rhetoric regarding Iraq increased after 9/11, and the tone of such rhetoric became more punitive and communitarian after 9/11, as expected. Also, increased volume of rhetoric from administrative sources (particularly President Bush) preceding Gallup Polls increased the likelihood of public support of invading Iraq. Certain rhetorically powerful words such as "evil" were shown to increase support of invasion.The findings of this study are consistent with the elite-engineered model of moral panic, and they support an integrated theoretic paradigm proposed herein to help explain the elite-engineered model. The results generally support my hypotheses by demonstrating that even public support for invading a sovereign nation can be elite-engineered. It is reasonable to conclude from these results that the war in Iraq was legitimized by a moral panic engineered by the Bush administration, and fueled by the news media, over an allegedly imminent threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein.


Political Science, General; Sociology, General; Sociology, Criminology and Penology; Language, Rhetoric and Composition; Mass Communications

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