GLOBAL REACH AND PICTURE POWER

The dramatic increase in live television reporting of international crises began just five years ago with the satellite coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. CNN pioneered such real time coverage and other broadcasters adjusted rapidly upon seeing its power. Print journalism also modified its style to intensify emotional and on-the-spot depictions, often at the expense of analysis. These capabilities of modern media to be immediate, sensational and pervasive are unsettling the conduct of foreign affairs. This would be so were the Cold War still underway, but in the shapeless aftermath of a clear-cut superpower rivalry the impact of media’s immediacy is magnified. The technology that makes possible real-time, global coverage is truly revolutionary. Today’s correspondents employ lap-top computers, wireless telephones that transmit directly to satellites and mobile satellite dishes to broadcast vivid pictures and commentary from the scenes of tragedy and disorder without the transmission delays, political obstructions or military censorship of old.

For policy makers, the nonstop coverage of CNN (also coming in the future from the BBC and others) presents opportunities to constantly monitor news events and disseminate timely diplomatic information. Despite these benefits, politicians are more concerned than elated by global, real-time broadcasting. They worry about a "loss of control" and decry the absence of quiet time to deliberate choices, reach private agreements and mold the public’s understanding. They point with nostalgia to how those opportunities helped President John F. Kennedy respond safely to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. In an era when satellite intrusiveness was still a government monopoly, Kennedy was able to sustain secrecy for six days of crucial negotiations. Television in 1962 was sufficiently underdeveloped that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did not turn on a television set during the two weeks of the crisis.

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. Yet friend and foe have come to expect signals instantly, and any vacuum will be filled quickly by something. Former Secretary of State George Shultz suggests the dilemma in his observation that live television "puts everybody on real time, because everyone is seeing the same thing."

The new norm of responding to crises with immediate statements results in anxious scrambles like that of the U.S. government upon learning of President Boris Yeltsin’s closure of the Russian parliament last October. Alerted early in the day to the crackdown, the State Department’s upper echelon suspended normal business to focus on what the Secretary of State and the President should say on television by 4 p.m. In another era, the diplomatic norm would have been "the less said the better" until far more was known.

THE RIGHT LESSONS

The difficulties of adjusting to this new age, however, are compounded when all manner of problems, with separate causes, are attributed to media pervasiveness. Key among these are an absence of perceivable government strategy and changes in the composition of America. In hindsight, the Cold War provided a gauge for determining the importance of events by how much they affected America’s security versus that of its superpower rival. The parameters of press coverage tended to be those of the country’s foreign policy, the containment of communism and Soviet expansionism. The press was often critical, but of the execution of policy more than the aims.

With the old gauge lost, policymakers and the media alike are struggling to understand the new international order of risks and opportunities. They are doing so with a less attentive audience. The eyes of the American public are focused on domestic problems more than on the dismaying unruliness that so quickly succeeded the euphoria at the end of the Cold War. Surveys such as those done by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press document strong public sentiment that the nation earned the right to address its societal ills by having borne the expense of containment for so long.

For policymakers, adjusting to media pervasiveness must start by drawing the right lessons from the chaos of recent years. If policymakers want to set the agenda and not leave it to the media, they must have an agenda. The existence of policy that can command public support against emotional swings stirred up by television imagery is key. In the absence of persuasive government strategy, the media will be catalytic. This is the process we have witnessed repeatedly of late, when a crisis erupts and, in the absence of any clear statement of interests and threats, the press raises humanitarianism above more concrete national interests as an exclusive justification for action and intervention. The resulting annoyance of policy makers was pointedly expressed in British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd’s jab at foreign correspondents during a speech last September: "...They are founding members of the ‘something must be done’ club."

The power of pictures has been repeatedly demonstrated in several post-Cold War incidents. In April a hitherto impotent NATO swiftly imposed a limited ultimatum in the Bosnian conflict after a mortar shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace caused horrifying civilian casualties. Observers on the scene questioned why this particular loss of life, no greater than others occurring in Bosnia, led to action against the Serbian siege. In good part, the answer was television. A CNN crew happened to be out and about the city that Saturday morning. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake’s "enlargement" speech of last September identified the problem and the antidote: "Public pressure for our humanitarian engagement increasingly may be driven by televised images, which can depend in turn on such considerations as where CNN sends its camera crews. But we must bring other considerations to bear as well: cost; feasibility; the permanence of the improvement our assistance will bring; the willingness of regional and international bodies to do their part; and the likelihood that our actions will generate broader security benefits for the people of the region in question."

The antidote is more easily identified than applied, as illustrated by the response to those television images of the shelling in Sarajevo. Threatened NATO air strikes, while benefiting the city’s citizens, provoked major policy uncertainties and may point to the danger of media-driven initiatives. State and Defense Department officials disputed the further applicability of limited intervention. Subsequent air strikes against Serbian positions around the Muslim enclave at Gorazde resolved the question only briefly. For a time the Bosnian Serbs continued shelling and advancing their tanks on the United Nations "safe haven." Next steps, whether toward negotiations or further intervention, remained uncertain.

A similar absence of articulated policy contributed to the public’s harsh reaction against continued American involvement in Somalia after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. In his waning days as president, George Bush reacted to televised pictures of starving Somalians by committing U.S. armed forces to a limited and supposedly doable assignment of famine relief. When the assignment expanded in the early Clinton administration to include warlord hunting, it provoked a devastating firefight in the streets of Mogadishu. In truth the probability of hostilities was inherent from the beginning. While adversaries were still fighting, no humanitarian operation could remain free of the conflict. And the American public was unprepared to accept casualties where vital U.S. interests were not at stake.

The enduring impression on public attitudes was made by the violent suppression of student demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Images of students demanding free expression, of a lone protester facing down a tank, followed by reports of violent repression after the television cameras were barred from the area, drastically altered U.S. opinion, starting at the top. Bush administration press secretary Marlin Fitzwater fingered the media’s impact in this 1991 observation, recorded in the Chicago Tribune: "We were the first government to respond, labeling it an outrage and so forth, and it was based almost entirely on what we were seeing on television. We were getting reporting cables from Beijing, but they did not have the sting, the demand for a government response that the television pictures had."

Rapidly, American public and political support evaporated for acquiescence to China’s expected evolution from economic improvement to political liberalization. Congress, and then candidate Bill Clinton, reacted spasmodically and linked improvement in China’s human rights record to continued tariff preferences. One year into his presidency, Clinton realized the tight linkage of those issues threatened to damage a number of U.S. interests. Belatedly, he considered applying selective tariff penalties or uncoupling trade and human rights issues altogether. Differences of opinion remained evident within his administration. Such an environment hobbles the selling of policy and inordinately empowers television imagery.

THE WRONG LESSONS

With the passage of time, we are seeing the application of lessons learned by the military from America’s first televised war in Vietnam. Many of today’s officers subscribe to the belief that television coverage turned the public against the war, thus undermining the chances for victory. They cite images of bloodied GIs, body bags, indecisive battles and civilian casualties. These lessons, which are influencing the military’s media policy, are wrong in important ways.

The American public, in fact, supported the Vietnam war and its "containment" justification for a full five years. Attributing disenchantment to bloody televised images ignores findings that fewer than two percent of television presentations during the war showed any blood. The fact, not the image, of body bags was the important factor. University of Michigan researchers found a positive correlation between the decline of support in specific communities and the number of dead soldiers returned home. (Long before the television age, a similar correlation led to mounting protest in Great Britain against the Boer War.) Support for the Vietnam intervention fell below 50 percent only after President Lyndon Johnson implied in a March 1968 speech that he considered the war unwinnable.

From its understanding of Vietnam came the military’s subsequent emphasis on quick resolutions, limited media access and selective release of "smart" weapons imagery. The public, however, will not remain dazzled when interventions become difficult. As in Vietnam, public attitudes ultimately hinge on questions about the rightness, purpose and costs of policy, not television images.

AND ALL THE REST . . .

Media pervasiveness must be put in the context of other societal changes lest its contribution to the difficulties of making post-Cold War policy be overstated. Policymakers must adjust to these fundamental changes, but they cannot do so if they mistakenly blame those complicating effects to the power and practices of the media.

First, there is the much-discussed "inward turning" of the American people. Released from the "nuclear terror" factor, Americans feel free to concentrate on home and neighborhood. Their attention to external problems is hard to get and once obtained is hard to rally behind assertions of leadership. President Clinton, ruefully but not altogether seriously, has envied his predecessors’ use of the Cold War as a battle cry. More seriously, the president has consciously downplayed his involvement in foreign policy to focus "like a laser beam" on the domestic platform that won him the election. Public opinion surveys indeed do confirm a marked lapse in public support for foreign initiatives, except for economic ones that promise jobs. Clinton has paid heed. Trade and economics are the primary subjects around which he has attempted to forge an explicit international strategy.

To attitudinal shifts and presidential disinterest must be added the effects of America’s changed economic makeup. Making national foreign policy is complicated by the increasingly specialized stakes in the global economy of the country’s regions. Further complexity comes from the pursuit by local and state governments of their parochial and often competing overseas interests. On this intricate economic map must be overlaid changes in the nation’s demography. Immigration and birthrate patterns are creating a more pluralistic population. As groups enlarge and prosper, they exert more political pressure on U.S. foreign policy leaders to pay attention to their places of origin. Each issue-based constituency develops well-endowed interest groups to compete for government and media attention.

VOX POPULI

To properly weigh the potential of media pervasiveness for harmful versus constructive effects requires factoring in how the public responds to the media. Image-provoked bursts of public compassion or anger can induce government paralysis or overreaction. It need not be so. Television images usually have a short shelf life, and their emotional effects can be tempered by reason. But that requires political leadership that constructs supportable policy, explains it and knows when to stand fast behind it.

A common bias of informed elites is that the general public’s disinterest in world affairs makes it vulnerable to sensationalized media. It is true that the public is inattentive to the fluxes and flows of international affairs when there is no direct security threat. But a sometimes overlooked aspect of media pervasiveness is its ability to quickly inform an audience swollen large in times of crisis. At such moments the massive flow of information will contain the sound and the unsound, the responsible and the irresponsible. In an information-rich society, the public develops intuitive skills for parsing information and its sources. Readers and viewers weigh some, but not all, of it seriously and will listen to leadership skilled in the art of persuasion.

It is an imperfect process and hard for policymakers to manage, particularly when technology is augmenting media capabilities. Citizens and leaders adjust by steps, sorting out and familiarizing themselves with the new. The process has occurred with every major change in communications capability such as photography in the Civil War, the telegraph, telephone, radio and most recently television. Media pervasiveness is disruptive. But, over time it can democratize information, thereby giving the public a greater voice in policy debates.

How much and how well are the media informing the public about international affairs? The trends are mixed. During the recent recessionary years, media executives acted on declining public interest to cut back foreign news. Newspapers trimmed space allocated for foreign news and closed or left overseas bureaus vacant. Of late, there are noticeable shifts. Some newspapers are expanding their foreign coverage. The Associated Press, although filing shorter stories for tighter news holes, now has 90 overseas bureaus, and CNN has 20. For both services, these represent the biggest such commitments in their histories. The three main television networks, which still command the largest audiences, also show signs of reconsideration. But it comes after an eight-year period in which the new corporate owners of all three networks drastically reduced the number of full-time overseas correspondents and camera crews. As never before, network news divisions rely on freelance video footage and commentary from foreign stringers, some of whom have dubious connections. When regular correspondents are used, too often they are "parachuted" into the latest strife to air knowing reports via satellite within hours.

While the means of covering international news are being revolutionized, journalistic practices hew to tradition. The unusual and the violent remain the staples of news. Discord draws attention, while peacefulness goes unrecorded. Issues and places engaging America’s interests are covered the most. Newspapers, no longer able to be first with news, still report the "what" of events but the elite ones incorporate the "why" as well. Television showcases violence with inadequate attention to context, giving those who rely on the medium a limited, distorted and unremittingly threatening picture of the world.

SETTING THE AGENDA

In the American system of governance, it is the president who sets foreign policy, with rare exceptions. For the most part, secretaries of State and Defense and security advisors counsel and implement. The news media may influence but mostly follows the politicians’ agenda. To sell policy to Congress and the public, a president and his aides must employ the forum of their time. In the world of today and tomorrow that puts a premium on adjusting to media pervasiveness, with all its pitfalls and potential, thorough preparation, considered statements in place of off-the-cuff remarks (a Clinton propensity) and communications training are essential tools of office.

Even then, mistakes or contradictory signals will be aired and immediately assessed by allies and adversaries, all of whom have instant access to globe-straddling media. But public miscues generate a recognition of necessary corrections more quickly than the private errors of traditional diplomacy. Openness might occasionally let secrets out; it will as often make mistakes plain. While buffering sensitive negotiations is more difficult than in J.F.K.’s time, it is still possible.

The problem today is that the management of crises and the attempts at agenda-setting appear confused, uncertain and too reliant on overnight polling results. Remedy can come only from the top, from presidential leadership that clarifies and convinces. Then the odds will improve that the constructive potential of media pervasiveness will outweigh its harmful effects.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now