Debate about how news coverage affects foreign policy swings between those who claim that the media have little impact on the policy-making process and others who argue that press influence is significant-sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. Each side has its partisans, but neither view is absolutely correct. Reality incorporates both.The press, as Walter Lippmann noted, has power partly because it can act as "the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision." Foreign-policy makers have to live with this fact, regardless of their belief that many elements of their craft are not suited to the searchlight's glare. At times, due to negligence, lack of skill or interest, or news-business priorities of the moment, the press will keep its searchlight away from foreign affairs-trained instead on a White House sex scandal, for example. But policymakers should still work under the assumption that their efforts may attract and be profoundly affected by journalists' attention. When the news media take notice, policy priorities can quickly change.
The political response to the situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq at the end of the Gulf War underscored the power of the media's influence on policy. Longtime victims of Saddam Hussein's persecution, the Kurds were unsuccessful in their attempts at insurrection and became refugees, pursued by the Iraqi army and pressed against the mountainous border with Turkey. Unwilling to be drawn into further military action, President Bush said the US-led coalition was not prepared "to settle all the internal affairs of Iraq." Administration policy was to let the Kurds fend for themselves.
But refugees make for good TV. Suddenly the Kurds no one had heard of were in America's living rooms. Secretary of State James Baker made a quick trip to the refugee encampments and witnessed their misery and vulnerability; administration policy shifted as a result. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr noted that opinion polls showed public support for helping the Kurds and wrote, "Within a two-week period, the President had been forced, under the impact of what Americans and Europeans were seeing on television, to reconsider his hasty withdrawal of troops from Iraq." Bush himself said at a news conference, "No one can see the pictures or hear the accounts of this human suffering and not be deeply moved." Schorr observed that television had spurred "an official plebiscite that force[d] a change in policy." The United States proceeded to provide humanitarian assistance to the Kurds and to create a safe haven to keep Saddam's forces away from the refugees.
This incident appears to have been a media triumph with good results: news coverage induced a change in policy and innocent people were saved. But New York Times television critic Walter Goodman has asked an important question: "Should American policy be driven by scenes that happen to be accessible to cameras and make the most impact on the screen?" This question has arisen repeatedly during the past decade, from Somalia to Kosovo. News coverage strikes at the somnolent American conscience, polls reflect the change in attitude, politicians take note, and ultimately policy shifts-incrementally or drastically. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Lee Hamilton remarked: "Televised images quickly become a central part of the foreign policy debate. They affect which crises we decide to pay attention to and which we ignore. They affect how we think about these crises, and I have little doubt these televised pictures ultimately affect what we do about these problems." Hamilton's words came to life in the coverage of Kosovo in 1999. Opinion polls showed national support for intervention rising when television networks displayed heart-wrenching pictures of fleeing Kosovar civilians.
Perhaps this is the new media-driven reality, but media influence will not necessarily produce wise public policy. George Kennan, commenting on the 1992 US intervention in Somalia, wrote, "If American policy from here on out, particularly policy involving the uses of our armed forces abroad, is to be controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry, then there is no place not only for myself, but for what have traditionally been regarded as the responsible deliberative organs of our government."
News coverage can produce a ripple effect on policy by shaping public expectations. Despite convenient mythology about journalists causing disarray through irresponsible reporting, much foreign-affairs coverage follows the lead of policymakers, who determine themselves what public expectations will be. During the Vietnam War, the press was accused of undermining public support for the war by inaccurately appraising the fighting, such as during the 1968 Tet offensive. Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary during the waning days of the Johnson administration, wrote in his memoirs that those who blamed the press were wrong: "Reporters and the antiwar movement did not defeat America in Vietnam. Our policy failed because it was based on false premises and false promises." The administration had incessantly claimed that the war was being won. Journalists reported those claims, and when they proved inflated, coverage reflected the truth on the ground as well as reporters' growing skepticism.
Reporters, however, are not always skeptical; skepticism of policy pronouncements takes time to build. During the Gulf War, coverage was largely uncritical (and uninformed), and the war ended before many journalists had time to get their bearings. Perhaps the coverage would have grown tougher and more sophisticated if the war had been longer and more costly. In war and other foreign-policy crises, the press is likely to give the government the benefit of the doubt, but only briefly. This underscores the importance of Colin Powell's thesis that if a war is to be fought, it should begin only when such decisive force is amassed that the fighting will be quickly successful. In this case, good military strategy is good media strategy.
Who Owns the Camera?
War captures the public's attention, but many other aspects of foreign policy do not. In those instances, news coverage is less intense and has less effect on the public and on policymakers. Important global economic and environmental issues elicit yawns from much of the public unless political leaders and the news media display the leadership needed to help people realize their stake in such matters. American society's television dependency is a major culprit. Baghdad under missile attack makes for compelling video, but how does television find a moving picture of a balance of payments deficit or the ozone layer? Creative reporting and graphics can help, but stories about environmental and economic topics are unlikely to win viewers' rapt attention. Low audience interest means diminished coverage, which means greater leeway for policymakers.
This is not to say that policymakers merely react to the news media's agenda. The government can do much to define that agenda and to shape public opinion. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has expended considerable effort on winning domestic political support for Clinton's foreign policy, with mixed results. During the 1999 bombing of Serbia, Albright appeared on ABC's Good Morning America, CBS's This Morning, and NBC's Today all on the same day to harshly criticize Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in order to rally public backing for NATO's air war. Television's tight format lends itself to ad hominem attacks that can be stated succinctly and are more easily delivered than fuller explanations of policy. If the public focuses on a Milosevic or a Saddam Hussein as an incarnation of evil, the news media and politicians-who fostered the demonizing in the first place-can take a similar tack and reduce complex issues to their simplest form.
Another factor in news organizations' decisions about what to cover is the presence or absence of political conflict. If there is evidence of bipartisan support for the policy initiative of the moment, journalists may be unable to find the conflict that unfailingly attracts critical press coverage. News stories are then likely to reflect the substance and tone of discourse among the political elite. This fact is an essential part of making the case that press influence on foreign affairs is overrated and that news follows policy, not vice versa. In Debating War and Peace, Jonathan Mermin writes that the major news organizations he studied "made no independent contribution (except at the margins) to foreign-policy debate in the United States. The spectrum of debate in Washington, instead, has determined the spectrum of debate in the news."
When they are able to take the lead in agenda-setting, government leaders use news coverage of foreign affairs, especially on television, for domestic political purposes. This can reap useful political benefits, but it does not always produce sound policy. Summit conferences, for instance, are convenient media events, but they often accomplish little except to win political points for the showcased leaders.
A more dangerous use of the media occurs if a president tries to distract the public from domestic political problems. Bill Clinton was accused of doing this during his impeachment process when he ordered air attacks in August 1998 on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden, and in December 1998 on Iraqi sites. Such manipulation has been dubbed the "Wag the Dog syndrome," after Barry Levinson's film in which a US president facing a sex scandal manufactures a fictional war. Whatever Clinton's true motivations for air strikes might have been, many news reports at least implied that his military decisions were grounded not in firm policy but in crass political maneuvering. Press skepticism, well- founded or not, put the administration's policymakers on the defensive, forcing yet another public-relations campaign to convince the public that the policy had been adopted in good faith. When the press puts a strong negative spin on a story, policymakers must respond promptly and convincingly or face rapid erosion of public support.
Profound changes in the relationship between news media and foreign-policy makers have emerged as byproducts of new, faster communications technology. News, once delivered at a stately pace on a firmly established schedule, can now be flashed around the world on live television or on the internet regardless of traditional news cycles and deadlines. Loosely known as "the CNN effect," the proliferation of live news coverage is informing large audiences at an incredible pace, but a price is often paid for speed. The deliberative process of corroborating and editing can be pushed aside to beat the competition by a few seconds. Context is sacrificed in favor of a stream of headlines, continually updated but always shallow.
This media cycle affects the machinery of diplomacy; governments now use CNN and other international networks as messengers. When the US president wants to reassure an ally or threaten an enemy, the most expeditious way to do so is not via diplomatic pouch but through Wolf Blitzer. On the other hand, rapid reporting of news can push a government, particularly one that is unprepared, into a rapid response. As people see a terrorist attack or a humanitarian disaster unfolding on their television sets or computer screens, they expect prompt political reaction. For journalists and policymakers alike, there is little opportunity for contemplation in the real-time world. State Department spokesman James Rubin told the New York Times that "the compression of the news cycle has put a greater premium on highly critical reporting." Because journalists analyze policy so quickly and skeptically, the State Department is forced to be defensive in dealing with the press, and that "harms our ability to get our policy across to the public."
Since the Gulf War, television's live-coverage capabilities have expanded. New technology makes real-time coverage of combat feasible. The ethical issues this raises for news organizations are important; they include security concerns and the impact on the families of military personnel who can be seen fighting and perhaps being wounded or killed on live TV. Policymakers must consider how the public will react if news organizations deliver the unedited reality of combat into the nation's living rooms as it is happening.
The world of new media is also increasingly diverse. Not only have established news organizations created supplemental identities, like cable channels and online versions of newspapers, but new and influential voices have made themselves heard. In an unlikely de facto alliance in 1993, Rush Limbaugh ripped apart Ross Perot's anti-NAFTA arguments on his talk show, winning valuable public support for the Clinton administration's position. Vice President Gore debated Perot about NAFTA on Larry King's interview show on CNN, also boosting support for the trade agreement. On the internet, Matt Drudge attracts more than a million visitors a day to his website, which dishes out political "news" that is often unsubstantiated and wrong. The political jokes of Don Imus, Jay Leno, and other radio and television entertainers are considered good information by some who do not partake of traditional news sources. The proliferation of new media opinions creates a cacophonous din. Responding to every talk show and website is impossible, but policymakers who ignore the noise do so at their peril. Limbaugh, King, Drudge, and their new media kin have followers who vote.
The internet presents unprecedented challenges to news organizations and policymakers. No one can monopolize information. No one can hope that only one side of a story will reach the public. During the fighting in Kosovo in 1999, someone looking for news could start at a major news website, such as CNN.com, read its reports, then follow internet links to NATO, the Serbian Ministry of Information, Albanian guerrillas, and even web-savvy teenagers living in the war zone. After leaving the principal news site to follow links, the news consumer also left journalism behind. Some of the information was objective, some was biased; some was accurate, some was not.
Public reliance on journalists' traditional role as gatekeepers, verifying and screening information before delivering it as "news," has changed because so much information is directly accessible on the internet. This is "unmediated media," and the public will decide for itself which sites to visit and which sources to believe. Website proprietors will become increasingly shrewd and skilled in making the information they provide seem dependable. Policymakers can anticipate being challenged: "I read what you said in the Times and heard you say it on CBS, but I found a website that tells me you are wrong." Dealing with the media has never been easy, but at least the universe of news organizations and journalists was finite in the past. No more. With approximately half of US households accessing the internet and the rate of World Wide Web use growing rapidly, cybernews is already an important medium that trumps the "CNN effect" and all-news television in general because of the unlimited variety of sites and links it can feature.
Journalists will try to establish their place in this new world of information. As the most recent war in the Balkans showed, the amount of easily available news grows steadily. Somewhere in the midst of all that news is truth. Journalists still have a role in finding it.
In 1898, the war cries of William Randolph Hearst and other publishers roused the American public and pushed a reluctant William McKinley toward war with Spain. That kind of press impact on foreign policy is not seen today for a variety of reasons. Media power is too diffuse and the current generation of policymakers is too skilled in dealing with journalists. Government pushes the media at least as often as the media pressure the government. Those who make policy use leaks, media events, and other sophisticated tactics to influence news coverage and thus public opinion.
Post-Cold War debate about the national interest has yet to produce a consistent definition of priorities. Journalists are likewise uncertain about what events around the world are newsworthy. Coverage of foreign affairs has shrunk since the Cold War ended, a decision driven by changing news-business economics and a perceived lack of public interest. This may prove to be a serious lapse of professional responsibility. So is leaving agenda-setting solely to the government. If those who make foreign policy determine that genocide in Rwanda is not a threat to US interests and therefore does not require US involvement, does that mean the story is not worth covering? A case can be made that news organizations should make more independent judgments about the scope of their coverage, leading public opinion rather than trotting along behind the government. The world is filled with ugly wars and unnoticed humanitarian catastrophes. Decisions to cover these events need not depend solely on political decisions made at the White House and the State Department.
If the news media accept this moral mandate, those who govern will groan that journalists simply do not understand the world's complexities and that news audiences are becoming agitated about issues that need not concern them. Journalists, however, will simply be doing their job. The resulting tension between press and policymakers will be healthy.