The CNN Effect
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The CNN Effect

The Myth of News, Foreign Policy and Intervention

Piers Robinson

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eBook - ePub

The CNN Effect

The Myth of News, Foreign Policy and Intervention

Piers Robinson

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The CNN Effect examines the relationship between the state and its media, and considers the role played by the news reporting in a series of 'humanitarian' interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda. Piers Robinson challenges traditional views of media subservience and argues that sympathetic news coverage at key moments in foreign crises can influence the response of Western governments.

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Informazioni

Editore
Routledge
Anno
2005
ISBN
9781134513130

1
THE CNN EFFECT CONSIDERED

Media power and world politics

During the 1980s the proliferation of new technologies transformed the potential of the news media to provide a constant flow of global real-time news. Tiananmen Square and the collapse of communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, became major media events communicated to Western audiences instantaneously via TV news media. By the end of the decade the question being asked was to what extent had this ‘media pervasiveness’ (Hoge 1994: 136–44) impacted upon government – particularly the process of foreign policy-making. New technologies appeared to reduce the scope for calm deliberation over policy, forcing policy-makers to respond to whatever issue journalists focused on (Beschloss 1993; McNulty 1993). This perception was in turn reinforced by the end of the bipolar order and what many viewed as the collapse of the old anti-communist consensus which, it was argued, had led to the creation of an ideological bond, uniting policy-makers and journalists. Released from the ‘prism of the Cold War’ (Williams 1993: 315) journalists were, it was presumed, freer not just to cover the stories they wanted but to criticise US foreign policy as well. For radical technological optimists these developments suggested the realisation of a genuine ‘global village’ (McLuhan 1964) in which the news media were helping to erode people’s identification with the state and instead ‘mold a cosmopolitan global consciousness’ (Carruthers 2000: 201).

The 1990s and intervention during humanitarian crises

If the 1991 Gulf War reminded observers of the enormous power that governments had when it came to shaping media analysis (e.g. Baudrillard 1991; Philo and McLaughlin 1993; Bennett and Paletz 1994), events after this conflict appeared to confirm the opposite. According to Martin Shaw, emotive and often highly critical media coverage of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Saddam Hussein’s forces caused the ‘virtually unprecedented proposal for Kurdish safe havens’ (Shaw 1996: 88). Operation Restore Hope in Somalia quickly followed and, once again, it was believed that the ill-fated sortie into the Horn of Africa in 1992 had effectively been forced upon the United States by media pressure. The myth of the CNN effect had been born.
These interventions were all the more significant because, to many commentators, they represented a major development in world politics. Earlier Cold War UN peacekeeping operations were normally non-coercive in nature and involved the supervision of consenting parties and the reaffirmation of territorial borders and sovereignty. Intervention in northern Iraq and Somalia, however, appeared to represent the development of a norm of forcible humanitarian intervention in which state sovereignty could be violated in order to preserve and to protect basic human rights. International society, it was claimed, was undergoing a shift from a state-centric and noninterventionist value system toward a cosmopolitan one in which basic human rights were held to be superior to state sovereignty.1 It is important to make clear here the distinction between non-coercive involvement in another state, for example peacekeeping or humanitarian aid delivery, and the actual use of military force that occurs either without permission or in direct contravention to the wishes of a state. Many operations during the 1990s involved peacekeeping missions, for example the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia.2 These did not represent, however, intervention as defined traditionally3 because they occurred with the consent of the host state. Whilst the nature of many of these operations might signal a development in UN peacekeeping toward humanitarian aid relief (rather than policing peace deals and ceasefires) the key development of the 1990s was the willingness to use force in pursuit, purportedly, of humanitarian objectives. Most of these forceful operations occurred with Chapter VII authorisation from the UN Security Council that allowed the use of ‘all necessary means’.4 The focus of debate, and of this study, is on these coercive forms of intervention involving the use or threat of use of force during humanitarian crises.
Beyond the assumed importance of the media in driving these interventions, the question of precisely what underpinned the apparent new-found willingness of Western governments to fight ‘humanitarian’ wars has become a controversial issue. Before proceeding it is therefore necessary briefly to set out the key arguments pertaining to this issue and the approach toward ‘humanitarian’ intervention adopted in this study.
For many commentators, as noted above, recent post-Cold War interventions are indicative of a genuine moral development on the part of Western governments whereby military action in order to protect the basic rights of people in other countries has become, to an extent, legitimated. The assumption underpinning this perspective is that, to a significant extent, Western governments are acting with humanitarian motivation and intent. Many, although not all, who adhere to this perspective attribute a significant role to the news media in cajoling Western leaders to ‘do the right thing’. Western leaders who subscribe to this ‘ethical’ agenda offer a slightly more circumspect view of their motives but still claim a concern for the human rights of ‘other’ people. For example British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1999) merged national self-interest with the pursuit of global justice in his 1999 speech in Chicago:
Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end, values and interests merge. If we can establish the spread of values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interest.
An alternative and radical interpretation of Western interventionism is that it represents merely a continuation of traditional power politics in which the ‘humanitarian’ label is used to disguise the selfish pursuit of Western interests (Chomsky 1999; Hammond and Herman 2000a). Although some of these accounts leave unclear precisely how ‘humanitarian’ intervention serves Western self-interest, the interventionism of the 1990s is understood to be part of a broader hegemonic project aimed at securing Western interests on a global basis. For example Chomsky (1999: 14) paraphrases US National Security advisor Anthony Lake as an example of the agenda lying behind Western actions: ‘Throughout the Cold War we contained a global threat to market democracies, but now we can move on to consolidate the victory of democracy and open markets’. This radical perspective fundamentally challenges the assumption of ‘pro-interventionists’ that Western governments are acting as benign ‘Good Samaritans’ when intervening in a humanitarian crisis.
To a certain extent, the mainstream and radical interpretations of Western interventionism disagree only on the question of the legitimacy of Western values and actions. For example, Chomsky uses Lake’s statement as a critique of Western interventionism whilst Blair’s rather similar statement is used and understood as a defence of Western interventionism. Beyond the arguments of pro and anti interventionists there are, however, more immediate motivations that might explain Western intervention during humanitarian crises. For example, controversy surrounds the humanitarian credentials of French intervention in Rwanda in 1994 with some arguing it was motivated more by French geo-strategic goals in Africa than humanitarian concern. Also Howard Adelman (1992: 74) points out in ‘The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention’ that geo-strategic concerns over cross-border refugee flows might well be the primary motivation for recent so-called ‘humanitarian’ interventions. Clearly, the possible presence of such alternative factors makes problematic assumptions behind both mainstream and radical explanations of Western interventionism.
Further alternative explanations for Western action will be considered throughout this study. For now, and given the aforementioned controversies, it is important to set out my position and understanding of the term ‘humanitarian intervention” before proceeding. Throughout this study the term humanitarian intervention is understood to mean the use of military force (non-humanitarian means) in order to achieve humanitarian objectives; the interventions in Iraq in 1991 and Somalia in 1992 are commonly understood (although not necessarily accurately) to fit this definition. It should be noted however that, as Eric Herring argues, the term humanitarian intervention is problematic. It is often used in relation to any instance of intervention during a humanitarian crisis. As such the term can gloss over instances of humanitarian means being employed to achieve non-humanitarian ends, and intervention during a humanitarian crisis which is motivated and conducted according to non-humanitarian goals. In order to avoid falling into the trap of assuming humanitarian intent, and therefore prejudicing inquiry into the cause of recent interventions, I adhere both to Herring’s phrase ‘intervention during humanitarian crises’ (rather than humanitarian intervention) and the associated position that humanitarian motivations need to be argued for and demonstrated rather than assumed. Also, whether or not there exists humanitarian intent on the part of policymakers is not necessarily connected with whether or not the media motivates them to act, as the intention of policy-makers might be to respond to media criticism by intervening rather than to save lives per se. Media motivated intervention is not necessarily synonymous with humanitarian intent. To conclude, by avoiding such prejudgements, I hope to avoid making the assumptions implicit in both the mainstream and radical interpretations of the motivations lying behind Western interventionism.

The CNN effect debate takes off

The two interventions – in northern Iraq and Somalia – triggered a major debate within academic and government circles. Foreign policy ‘experts’ in particular were dismayed by what they saw as unwarranted intrusion by the Fourth Estate into the policy process. George Kennan argued that media coverage of suffering people in Somalia had usurped traditional policy-making channels, triggering an ill-thought-out intervention (Kennan 1993). In other words, Kennan feared that elite control of foreign policy-making had been lost to the media. Other commentators followed Kennan in expressing concern at the dangers of media-dictated foreign policy.5 James Hoge, for example, observed that ‘today’s pervasive media increases the pressure on politicians to respond promptly to news accounts that by their very immediacy are incomplete, without context and sometimes wrong’ (Hoge 1994). Working from a realist perspective, critics generally decried the CNN effect and stressed the need for elite control of foreign policy. However, whilst early debate was characterised by realist sentiments, the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as US President helped mould a foreign policy community more sensitive to the notion of humanitarian intervention. This in turn reflected the internationalist and Wilsonian temperament of many US Democrats. A similar effect can be observed within the British foreign policy-making community as it has reacted to the proclamations of an ethical foreign policy by the Blair government. As a result of these developments there has been greater appreciation amongst many policy-makers and advisers as to the beneficial role of the news media in promoting Western intervention. For example US Balkans diplomat Richard Holbrooke (1999: 20–1) praised the news media for helping draw attention to the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, whilst former National Security advisor Anthony Lake welcomed the apparent ability of the media to highlight humanitarian crises around the world.6 Notwithstanding this development, the prevalent tone within foreign policy circles tends to revolve around concern over the harmful impact of coverage on ‘rational’ policy-making.
Within humanitarian circles there was also a good deal of debate about the apparent power of the news media to cause intervention. Indeed, ever since the 1984 Ethiopian famine, there has been much discussion about the purported impact the media have on crises in the Third World.7 Amongst the most significant works in this genre were the 1995 Crosslines Global Report, Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond, edited by Edward Girardet and From Massacres to Genocide (1996), edited by Robert Rotberg and Thomas Weiss. Both took a decidedly different approach to that of either Kennan or Hoge, and writing from a broadly ‘world society’ approach applauded the role played by non-state actors in expanding policy debate beyond the narrow corridors of political power. Furthermore, instead of attacking the irresponsible part played by the media, these writer-advocates actually praised the new activism and sought to harness the perceived potential of the media to encourage humanitarian intervention.
To a significant extent the CNN effect debate has persisted throughout the 1990s. For example, members of the policy-making establishment have reasserted their belief in the power of the news media to drive Western responses to humanitarian crises. For example, in his speech during the 1999 air war against Serbia, British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1999) claimed that politicians were still ‘fending off the danger of letting wherever CNN roves be the cattle prod to take a global conflict seriously’, implying that, if left unchecked, the news media have the power to compel governments to intervene.8
Lawrence Freedman (2000) and Nicholas Wheeler (2000) have revisited the CNN effect debate and offered useful insights into the possible scope of media impact. These writers draw upon research into the CNN effect (to be reviewed later in this chapter) and, whilst offering a more cautious assessment of media power, still point to the media playing an important role with regard to intervention during humanitarian crises. For example, Freedman (2000: 339) notes that whilst media power might have been exaggerated during earlier phases of the CNN effect debate, policy-makers have in fact come to believe in the power of the media. Freedman (2000: 339) asserts that US intervention in Kosovo was in part caused by the belief that, if left unchecked, the crisis would generate negative media attention and calls for something to be done.9
In his study of humanitarian intervention, Saving Strangers, Wheeler (2000: 300) argues that there exist clear limits to the CNN effect, in particular in relation to the deployment of ground troops. He also argues that media coverage does not cause or force policy-makers to intervene but rather enables policy-makers to intervene by building public support. The implication here is that policy-makers are motivated to intervene for non-media related reasons but require dramatic media coverage to help gain domestic support.10 In short, whilst qualifying straightforward assertions of the media causation which dominate much of the CNN effect debate, these writers still maintain that the media play an important role in facilitating intervention during humanitarian crises. As such their commentaries11 on media effects fit in with a familiar set of claims regarding the influential role of the media. Notwithstanding the work of Freedman (2000) and Wheeler (2000), rarely during the CNN effect debate was there a critical assessment of the claim that news media influence intervention. More often than not the CNN effect has been asserted rather than demonstrated. The result is continued uncertainty over the scope and significance of the CNN effect, as well as the persistence of an unjustified and widespread assumption that the news media have the power to ‘move and shake’ (Cohen 1994: 9) governments. In short the CNN effect has become an untested and unsubstantiated ‘fact’ for many in foreign policy and humanitarian circles.

Manufacturing consent and theories of media–state relations

The undemonstrated assertions within the CNN effect debate sit uneasily with a wealth of critical literature written over the last 25 years in which the political and economic positioning of major news media institutions is seen to lead to a situation in which news accounts tend to support dominant perspectives. More specifically, the ‘manufacturing consent’ literature emphasises the ability of governments to influence the output of journalists and the tendency of journalists to both self-censor and perceive global events through the cultural and political prisms of their respective political and social elites. Whilst totalising arguments about manufacturing consent (see in particular Herman and Chomsky 1988) are controversial, the thesis that news media coverage of ‘foreign’ affairs is ‘indexed’ (Bennett 1990) to the frames of reference of foreign policy elites receives substantial empirical support.12 Accordingly, the use of the term ‘manufacturing consent’ throughout this study should be understood as referring to the complete range of arguments that emphasise the power of government to set news media agendas. Whether or not the term ‘manufacturing consent’ is also taken to mean that all citizens receive and internalise the ideological messages carried in media texts or that journalists serve merely as propaganda agents for the state is irrelevant to my use of the term here.13 The label is us...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Tables
  5. Introduction
  6. 1: The CNN Effect Considered
  7. 2: Developing a Theory of Media Influence
  8. 3: The CNN Effect Myth
  9. 4: The CNN Effect In Action
  10. 5: The Limits of the CNN Effect
  11. 6: The CNN Effect Reconsidered
  12. Appendix A: Policy Uncertainty
  13. Appendix B: Framing
  14. Appendix C: Testing the Policy–Media Interaction Model
  15. Appendix D: Case Selection
  16. Notes
  17. Bibliography and Further Reading