CNN: Selling NATO’s War Globally

( * 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 (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2000), pp. 111-122.)






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 Baghdad, its already extensive global network of affiliates and outlets in place, and its then-unique 24 hour-a-day news service all contributing to making CNN the news service of choice and maximum influence during the War. CNN has grown substantially since then. By 1999, Time Warner Inc., its parent company since 1996, proclaimed with some justification that "CNN is the foremost news brand in the world," with CNN International (CNNI) now reaching more than 150 million households in more than 212 countries and territories—"more viewers than all other cable news services combined."[1]


Even in 1990-1991, policy-makers and "influentials"[2] 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."[3] 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 Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, was well-geared to the demands of the leaders of CNN’s state.  There is perhaps no better symbol of the U.S.-CNN relationship than the fact that in the midst of the Kosovo crisis, James Rubin, the top public relations officer of the U.S. State Department, should marry Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s leading foreign correspondent.  In the mainstream U.S. media this was not seen as in any way problematic, either displaying probable bias on Amanpour’s part or creating a conflict of interest.


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.[4] 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 U.S., news network. It has pushed to "regionalize" its news operations around the world, and some half of its assignment desk personnel are not of U.S. nationality.[5] Nevertheless, ownership and control and its main office are in the United States and its dominant officials are U.S. citizens. Policy, especially when U.S. interests are at stake, flows from headquarters; and in cases such as Operation Allied Force, "CNNI piggybacks on the domestic network, pre-empting most of its regional programming for the same breaking coverage one sees in the U.S."[6] But this "breaking news" coverage was overwhelmingly a version of "press release journalism," based on "live" news conferences, leaks from government sources, and interviews with U.S. and NATO officials in Washington and Brussels passed along with minimal processing or presentation of relevant context.  Such bias is defended by CNN officials on the grounds that what NATO officials had to say was newsworthy and that "Viewers are intelligent and capable of making their own  judgments—be it propaganda or truth."[7]  But the difference between a propaganda agency and an independent news organization is supposed to be that the latter filters out untruths, provides meaningful oppositional facts and analyses, and is not itself an instrument of propaganda. CNN did not pass this test in the Kosovo war.



The NATO-CNN Partnership


When U.S. Special Envoy for Yugoslavia Richard Holbrooke lauded the mainstream U.S. media for providing "extraordinary and exemplary" coverage of the Kosovo war on April 22, 1999, he named CNN among the exemplars.[8]  And with good reason.  CNN’s anchors and reporters almost without exception took the justice of the NATO war as obvious and were completely unaware of or unconcerned with their violation of the first principle of objectivity—that you can’t take sides and serve as a virtual promoter of "your" side. The result was that in word usage, assumptions, and choice and treatment of issues and sources, CNN and its reporters on the Kosovo war followed NATO’s lead and served as a de facto public-information partner.  These journalists never questioned NATO’s motives, explored any hidden agendas, challenged NATO’s claims of fact, or followed investigatory leads that did not conform to NATO propaganda requirements.


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 Alliance legally justified,"[9] this was not true. Kofi Annan raised the question of legality of NATO’s action in a brief news conference that CNN carried live on March 24, but the thrust of his remarks was thereafter ignored, as was the question of the legality of NATO’s choice of targets to bomb. Contrary to King, there was no discussion of why humanitarian intervention, so called, takes place in Kosovo but not for example in nearby Turkey, itself a NATO member and with a terrible human rights record throughout the 1990s.


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.[10] 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[*]



Number of Appearances

Percentage of Appearances

NATO Bloc Officials






Other NATO



NATO Bloc Ex-Military



Other Current or Past
U.S.-U.K. Officials



Total NATO Bloc Representation



Non-NATO Bloc Excluding
Serbs and Albanians


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