CNN and its impact on government decisions took center stage Wednesday morning at the Brookings Institution. GW political communication professor Steven Livingston joined government officials and journalists to discuss the effect of round-the-clock news coverage on the public and policymakers.
Joined by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, CNN Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff and Claus Kleber of German television, Livingston cited the 1992-93 U.S. intervention in Somalia as an example of the “CNN effect.”
“At various points and times, the media takes the lead in influencing our foreign agenda,” Livingston said to a standing room-only audience of more than 100 students and journalists. Brookings Senior Fellow Stephen Hess and Harvard University Professor Marvin Kalb hosted the nationally televised forum.
Livingston said CNN and the 24-hour news cycle serve a number of functions including accelerating government decisions, impeding policy and possibly setting political agendas.
Eagleburger agreed, recounting his experience as secretary of state during the first George Bush administration as it made its decision whether to intervene in Somalia and Bosnia. He called television images of famine and war in both countries “equally compelling,” and said the administration hoped that intervening in Somalia would take public pressure off entering Bosnia.
Livingston noted that CNN played a crucial role in all phases of the U.S. intervention as some government officials initially pushed CNN to cover events in that nation to force a public outrage. Eventually images of American defeats and soldiers being dragged through the streets a year later pushed the government to pull out of Somalia, he said.
“We live in a democracy and America’s affected by media and public opinion . you can’t ignore it,” Eagleburger said.
Kleber disagreed with Eagleburger’s rationale.
“I don’t think (the American government) reacted to television images, they reacted to the events on the ground,” Kleber said.
Eagleburger responded to Kleber noting that the U.S. had “closed its eyes” to images of Bosnian and African tragedies and that the CNN effect does not always hold true. He warned against overestimating the power of television over the majority of the population.
Woodruff said she acknowledged the possible effects CNN and constant news coverage can have on public opinion.
“When there is a vacuum of policy, we can help provide information and an outline of what we should do,” she said.
Woodruff also discussed the dilemma American journalists faced on Sept. 11 as they were advised not to use “we” when speaking to officials.
“After September 11, we knew the world was watching us,” she said. “We are U.S. citizens and were just as outraged as to what happened but at the same time, we are independent journalists.”
Government censorship was also touched upon by the panelists as they criticized U.S. government secrecy about Afghan detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Almost never should the administration get in the business of telling the media what to do,” Eagleburger said, noting that he had “learned a lesson.”
Human rights groups and the European press have accused the U.S. of mistreating the prisoners.
“Its little surprise that criticism came from Europe,” Klaus said responding to his colleagues across the Atlantic. “(The U.S.) should allow video cameras in to tape everything.”
Klaus also criticized U.S. media for not investing time and reporters in international coverage citing that his German network spent more time covering former President Bill Clinton’s trip to Africa than American stations did.
“News has fallen into the hands of G.E. and the Mickey Mouse network,” he said referring to Disney’s ownership of ABC. He cited the failed U.S. intervention in Somalia as an example of American ignorance of a conflict because of the lack of prior news coverage.
Eagleburger said the U.S. erred in Somalia but accused Europeans of expecting the U.S. to solve all of the worlds’ conflicts and always criticizing America if it made mistakes.
“This all reflects on the inability on our part to successfully involve allies in conflict,” he said.
Kalb closed by questioning whether promises by the American media after Sept. 11 that it would pay more attention to foreign news held true.
“International affairs news is essentially still of U.S. involved places,” Livingston said. “If CNN sees international news through a war on terrorism lens, coverage will be less rich.”