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Lee Hamilton, president of the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations of the US stated: «What took us to Somalia in 1992 were the images of hungry kids and not political purposes. And the images of the Americas losses and not the implementation of our objectives were what got us out of Somalia.» [1] At first sight it seems that, consequently, there is a “CNN effect” based on which the public opinion, alerted in real time by the media, would exert pressure on the governments forcing them to adapt their foreign policy.

This point of view was defended by the former UN Secretary General, Egyptian Brutos Brutos-Ghali. For him: «The day the media focused on Somalia we started to get assistance from the member States. From that moment on, they decided to give us planes to transport and give more humanitarian assistance and forces to protect it.» [2] And this is how he got to his famous conclusion: “CNN is the 16th member of the Security Council.”

On his part, Ted Turner, the founder of the original TV channel in the city of Atlanta, announced on September 18, 1997 that, like the other more important member States of the UN, he would make a one thousand million dollars contribution to the organization.

This image of things satisfies everybody: the political leaders attribute their failures to the public opinion, CNN takes advantage of the enormous publicity and the UN funds are increased with Ted Turner’s donation. But, is it a real analysis?

To think that CNN informs the public opinion which, at the same time, exerts pressure on its national leaders who, consequently make political decisions, is a logical reasoning. But, this hasn’t been proved. First, because we ignore what the Department of State of the United States would have decided on the Somalia issue without the CNN images (1). The change of policy (disembarkment and future withdrawal) could be ascribable to the emotions provoked by the successive images but they would be more easily understood as the result of the political change between Bush father and Clinton.

Secondly, such reasoning is based on the supposition that the media, in general, and CNN, in particular, are independent actors of the public life. And this is completely false. In authoritarian regimes, the media is controlled by the State; in liberal systems, they are under the control of the owners.

This last word must be understood in its wider sense: those who have the capital and those with the knowledge to use the media, but above all, the clients, that is, the readers and the advertisers. The more investments the media demand, the easier it is to control it. From this point of view, a TV chain with global ambitions like CNN is also submitted to the control of its many investors and the numerous States in which it works. It would be surprising if the White House allow a private media act as the representative of the United States in the world.

Therefore, Brutos Brutos-Ghali’s reasoning could be reversed: the possibility of considering CNN not as the one who influenced on Washington’s decisions but as the entity used by the Bush father administration to prepare the public opinion for a new operation abroad should be analyzed, as well as the fact that it may have been used by the Clinton Administration to later question the operation in Somalia.

Thirdly, Ted Turner’s donation to the UN seemed quite generous but, coming from a millionaire, backing an intergovernmental organization is like doing a charitable act. Instead of being an act of support it is a way of diminishing the United Nations. A deeper analysis would lead us to see that such contribution will be gradually given in ten years; and new tax rules which seemed to have been especially implemented for the case exempt mister Turner and his anonymous society from the tax payment during this period. In other words, it is gift co-financed by Washington which, curiously, refuses to pay its official contribution to the UN.

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Ted Turner

Therefore, it seems CNN changed diplomacy. It is said, the impact of the images moves the public opinions who then force their governments to find a solution to the problems. Another widely spread idea is that a live-direct media leaves governments no time to think.

Regarding this, the US former Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, said: «We must understand how CNN has profoundly changed things. The audience knows about an event in real time, and the State Department hasn’t had time enough to reflect on it. Consequently, we react before having the proper time to analyze things. This is how foreign policy is being decided now, that is, following what the media reports.» [3]

If this were true, then the diplomatic corps which act as intermediaries would no longer be necessary. The former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated: «If the ministers of Foreign Relations and the embassies did not exist, there would be no reasons to invent them.» [4]

Such statements are more demagogic than real. They are aimed at making the public opinion believe it is taken into account, that it is the one with power; in short, that the US is a real democracy.

But foreign policy could only be managed in the long term. The diplomatic system of the nation-States is based on the principle, formulated by French Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), of constant and uninterrupted negotiations through permanent diplomatic missions. It is not a fantasy but the consequence of declarations of war and peace treaties. The nation-States are too slow to maneuver.

Besides, taking into account the importance of the results, who would believe that such decisions are made based on the influence of a collective thrust with no opposition at all?

Following this reasoning, we can consider that the main function of the real time media is not to suggest a show but to reinforce the illusion of democracy making the TV viewer believe he is the actor.

In the revolutionary periods, the media is multiplied, the People are mobilized according to the information it has and immediately it says its will to its representatives. It becomes the sovereign. The CNN viewer sees himself in the middle of the History that is taking place in front of his eyes; he is a direct witness and thinks he can modify it.

The CNN made itself globally known in 1989 during the massacre of the Tiananmen Square. Washington pretended it heard about the event through television, as if the CIA were not present in China. Secretary of State James Baker III wrote: «The terrible tragedy of the Tiananmen Square (in Beijing) was the classic evidence of a new and powerful phenomenon: the capacity of the global communication to steer politics.» [5] The same thing was said when the coup d’état took place in Moscow in 1991. «The American embassy in Moscow, which did not have CNN yet, was not even a place where you could leave a message. The president and his main advisers acted based on what they got from CNN and the other media and not on the reports the diplomats wrote about the events,» said journalist Michael O’Neill. [6] So, we’d have to conclude that a retired person who has more time to watch CNN knows more about the political situation of the world than the president of the United States who would be too busy reading the hundreds of empty reports his services send.

The truth is quite different. CNN is an instrument to justify a policy defined among the elite. By the end of 1989, the based-in-Atlanta channel showed the cruelty of the tyrant of the Carpathians, witnessed that the repression of Ceausescu (former president of Romania) took more than 10 000 lives and it didn’t take long to show the images of the dead in Timisoara as the evidence to prove it. In 1989, CNN continuously used the most incredible slogans of the Bush Administration about the so called fourth army of the world: the Iraqi. As a request made by General Colin L. Powell, it installed its cameras aboard the US Air Force bombers and maintained a team in Baghdad to give the impression that civilians had no reasons to fear the “surgical bombings.”

In 1999, CNN was no longer satisfied with doing what the US General Staff wanted and installed the experts of the 4th Psychological Operations Group of the American army in its editorial department. [7] Members of this same unit set, on April 9, 2003, the demolition of Saddam Hussein statue in Fedays Square, Baghdad, broadcasted live on APTN and CNN with comments made by George W. Bush to complete this “information masterpiece.” [8]

Here, we only mentioned some examples for an exhaustive list would be too long and tiresome.

Then, is the Somalia case enough to talk about a “CNN effect”? The former National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, admitted it was all decided before the images of the American soldier’s body dragged around the capital were broadcasted.«The CNN images helped us to recognize the military situation in Mogadiscio had deteriorated in a way we had not admitted frankly.» [9] Regarding the intervention as such, it was a show set up by the general staff: the CNN cameras and the lights were carefully installed at the beach and the disembarkment was scheduled for the time of maximum audience.

[1] Hearings in the House of Representatives, April 26, 1994

[2] Quoted by Philip Seib in: Headline Diplomacy: How News Coverage Affects Foreign Policy, Praeger Publ., 1997

[3] Quoted in: “Wary Partners: Diplomats and the Medias” by David D. Pearce, Congressional Quarterly, 1995

[4] Quoted in: The Practice of Diplomacy: Its Evolution, Theory and Administration, by Keith Hamilton and Richard Langhorne, Routledge

[5] The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, by James Baker III, Putnam’s Sons, 1995

[6] The Roar of the Crowd: How Television and People Power Are Changing the World, by Michael J. O’Neill, Times Books, 1993

[7] Intelligence (Paris), February 17, 2000, Trown (Amsterdam), February 21 to 25, 2000 and Why Were Government Propaganda Experts Working On News At CNN?, FAIR, March 27, 2000

[8] «La fin de quelle guerre?» by Jack Naffair, Voltaire, April 15, 2003

[9] Quoted in: The News Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action, by Larry Minear, Colin Scott and Thomas G. Weiss, Lynne Rienner Pub.,1996