( * Note: This document originally was published as Chapter 10 in Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Eds., Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (
CNN: SELLING NATO’S WAR GLOBALLY
By Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
The Cable News Network (CNN) made a spectacular leap into prominence as a global news organization during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, with its veteran journalist Peter Arnett reporting live on-the-spot from
Even in 1990-1991, policy-makers and "influentials" watched CNN to learn about and transmit messages to the enemy as well as the public. The wide reach of its all-news format and ability to go "live" at any time with "breaking news" have made it easy for CNN to get policy-makers to cooperate with ready access, interviews, and even a scheduling of their daily events with an eye to gaining airtime on CNN.
CNN’s importance from the Gulf War onward has even given rise to the notion of a "CNN effect" or "CNN factor"—the belief that CNN "has become part of the events it covers" and that with its seeming omnipresence CNN "has changed the way the world reacts to crisis." In this view, CNN’s ability to focus an audience’s attention can increase public pressure on political leaders, virtually forcing them to act. Viewed positively it would supposedly democratize policy-making, whereas for critics and policy-makers themselves it would hamper policy, forcing them to respond to a more volatile and uncontrolled public opinion.
But this notion of CNN leading policy not only fails to take into account the institutional constraints on CNN’s policies and practices, it is also not consistent with the way in which CNN’s agenda is formed, how it frames issues, and its presentation of specific details in reporting on something like the Kosovo crisis. The bulk of this chapter will be devoted to an analysis of the latter set of issues. However, we can say in advance that CNN’s performance before, during, and after Operation Allied Force, NATO’s war against
CNN’s Institutional Constraints
Time-Warner, CNN’s parent corporation and the world’s largest media enterprise, makes no bones about the fact that its "foremost business objective is to create value for our shareholders," that its top managers see cultivating the affluent Baby Boomers as a business imperative, and that increasing their share of the advertising market is a major route to profitability. Neither Time-Warner, its major advertisers, nor the major cable systems it supplies with news would be pleased if CNN stepped far out of line by allowing dissenting voices much play.
Another major constraint for CNN is the imperative that it attract viewers and keep them watching. This impels the network to adopt "news-making" practices that stress action and visuals while avoiding both in-depth contextual reporting that may bore its audience and the presentation of unconventional points of view that may anger or alienate them. Superficiality and the conduiting of official propaganda also result from CNN’s focus on "breaking news," where speed precludes accuracy checks, meaningful context and the encouragement of serious criticism and debate.
Maintaining good terms with U.S. Government officials is of paramount importance to CNN as it depends on the U.S. Government for commercial and diplomatic support as it expands abroad, and because much of its news comes from government decisions, press releases and reports. This exceptional degree of source dependency and the symbiotic relationship that develops in its wake makes for an uncritical media consciously allied with, and readily managed by, the government. CNN’s "professionalism" is largely reduced to making sure that the right news conferences are covered, that the handouts are real, and that the names of the speakers are spelled correctly.
CNN prides itself on being a "global," not a
The NATO-CNN Partnership
When U.S. Special Envoy for Yugoslavia Richard Holbrooke lauded the mainstream
If NATO said that the bombings were motivated by "humanitarianism," that was enough for CNN reporters, and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asserts that NATO’s war was for "the first time…a war fought for human rights" (Oct. 6, 1999). That "only a fraction of 1 percent of the [NATO] bombs went astray" is gospel for Amanpour simply because that is what NATO says (Oct. 6). If NATO claimed that the Serb brutalities and expulsions that followed the bombing would have happened anyway, Amanpour takes this as unquestioned truth ("this has been an offensive that has, you know, been planned for a long time," April 3). That the Serbs were committing "genocide" (Tom Mintier, March 18; Miles O’Brien, June 26), whereas NATO’s military operations were regretfully doing only what was necessary and proper, was a premise of CNN anchors and reporters. And that NATO patiently sought a negotiated peace while Milosevic was the "wild card" who "may be testing western resolve" and with whom the West was "fed up" (Brent Sadler, Jan. 27; Andrea Koppel and Joie Chen, Jan. 29), was standard CNN usage.
Although CNN official Will King asserted that CNN explored "issues from why wasn’t Nato getting involved in other similar conflicts elsewhere in the world…and was the
CNN’s journalists not only followed NATO’s agenda and failed to ask critical questions, they also served as salespersons and promoters of the NATO war. Time and again they pressed NATO officials toward violent responses to claims of Serb brutalities and unwillingness to negotiate, with NATO allegations on these latter points taken at face value. CNN’s Judy Woodruff repeatedly asked NATO officials about the threat to NATO’s credibility in the absence of forceful action (Jan. 18, 1999); Wolf Blitzer pressed unrelentingly for an introduction of NATO ground troops, raising the matter a dozen times in a single program (April 4). Amanpour complained bitterly that General Wesley Clark "had to lobby hard to get his political masters to escalate the bombing" and that there were "19 different leaders who insisted on vetting the bombing" (Oct. 6), her last point a patent falsehood. When NATO bombing was constrained by bad weather, a CNN anchor expressed clear disappointment; and when delays were announced in the delivery of U.S. Apache helicopters, CNN’s correspondents were dismayed. In short, CNN’s personnel were rooting for the home team.
In its use of sources, also, the CNN pro-NATO tilt was immense. Based on a 38-day sample of CNN coverage of the Kosovo crisis and war, the accompanying table (see Table 1, below) shows that representation of NATO-bloc officials, past and present, was an overwhelming 61 percent, led by 257 U.S.-U.K. official appearances (35.3 percent) out of a 728 total. The U.S.-U.K. official representation exceeded that of the Serbs by a 3.4 to 1 ratio. But this greatly understates the difference in representation, for two reasons. One is that on average U.S.-U.K. spokespersons were given almost triple the time given the Serb officials to state their case, so that adjusting for this difference the ratio of representation jumps to 9 to 1.
Table 1 : Sources Tapped by CNN During the Kosovo War[*]