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Critical Studies in Media


Communication
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The CNN Effect Revisited


Piers Robinson
Published online: 20 Aug 2006.

To cite this article: Piers Robinson (2005) The CNN Effect Revisit ed, Crit ical St udies in Media
Communicat ion, 22:4, 344-349, DOI: 10.1080/ 07393180500288519
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Critical Studies in Media Communication


Vol. 22, No. 4, October 2005, pp. 344 /349

The CNN Effect Revisited

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Piers Robinson

For policy-makers and academics, the 1990s appeared to be an era of media


empowerment. The ending of the Cold War anti-communist consensus between
journalists and policy-makers and the spread of real-time news reporting technology
seemed to disrupt traditional patterns of media deference to foreign policy elites and
expand the power of the media. Interventions during humanitarian crises in northern
Iraq 1991, Somalia 1992, Bosnia 1995, and Kosovo 1999, often preceded and
accompanied by emotive media attention to human suffering, confirmed to some the
thesis that media was driving foreign policy formulation.
CNN, with its global reach, 24-hour news cycle, and foreign affairs agenda, came to
encapsulate the idea of a media-driven foreign policy, creating the so-called CNN
effect. In the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administrations war on terror, however,
the geopolitical landscape has been dramatically transformed. U.S. foreign policy has
come to be dominated by the perceived threat of global terrorism, rogue states, and
the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). In this essay I discuss the
impact of both 9/11 and the subsequent shifts in U.S. foreign policy upon the CNN
effect thesis. I start by assessing the extent to which foreign policy was indeed driven
by the CNN effect during the 1990s. I then discuss how developments since 9/11,
specifically the war on terror, a humanitarian war discourse inherited from the
1990s, and strengthened media management by government, have undermined the
CNN effect and ushered in a new era of media deference to government reminiscent
of the Cold War era.
The 1990s and Media-Inspired Humanitarianism?
Controversy has always surrounded the validity and scope of the CNN effect (for a
thorough review of the literature see Gilboa, 2005). But a number of studies have
found evidence for the effect in decisions to use force during humanitarian crises. For
example, both Nik Gowing (1994) and Royce Ammon (2001) argued that the U.S.
intervention in northern Iraq 1991 during the Kurdish crisis was in part a
consequence of the CNN effect. My own research (Robinson, 2002) found evidence
Piers Robinson is Lecturer in International Politics at Centre for International Politics, University of Manchester.
Correspondence: piersgr@liverpool.ac.uk. The author thanks Stefanie Haueis for feedback on earlier drafts.
ISSN 0739-3180 (print)/ISSN 1479-5809 (online) # 2005 National Communication Association
DOI: 10.1080/07393180500288519

Critical Forum: CNN

of media influence during decisions both to threaten and to use force during the
1992 1995 war in Bosnia.
A frequently cited cause of the CNN effect was policy uncertainty. Many scholars
(Entman, 2004; Gowing, 1994; Minear, Scott, & Weiss, 1997; Robinson, 2002; Shaw,
1996, Strobel, 1997) agree that as policy certainty decreases, news media influence
increases and that, conversely, as policy becomes more certain, the influence of news
media coverage is reduced. During the 1990s policy uncertainty manifested itself at
the micro-level, when shocking images from conflicts such as Bosnia caught policymakers off-guard or in a state of panic (see in particular Gowing, 1994). At the
macro-level, U.S. foreign policy was characterised by a loss of direction following the
end of the Cold War (Shaw, 1996).
At the same time, most researchers agreed that initial estimates of the CNN effect
overstated its importance (Gowing, 1994; Robinson, 2002). This was, at least in part,
because focus on media tended to obscure other, more self-interested, motivations
underpinning Western humanitarianism. For example, Livingston (1997) pointed out
that the intervention in northern Iraq was driven in part by geo-strategic concerns
over Kurdish refugees threatening the interests of Turkey, a key U.S. ally. Moreover,
the selective nature of media-inspired humanitarianism was highlighted by the dismal
performance of the international community when it withdrew UN forces during the
1994 genocide in Rwanda, where up to one million civilians were subsequently
murdered. This non-response was accompanied by an equally dismal performance
on the part of Western media who presented the genocide as a cease-fire breakdown
and simply another round of unstoppable tribal blood-letting (Livingston & Eachus
1999; Myers, Klak, & Koehl, 1996; Robinson, 2002). These events stood in stark
contrast to optimistic debates surrounding the power of media to promote
humanitarian concern amongst Western foreign policy elites and publics.
Placing these sceptical points to one side, the idea of humanitarian intervention
did appear to gain ground among foreign policy elites during the course of the 1990s.
In the U.S., early realist concerns over the loss of elite control over foreign policy gave
way to a foreign policy community more amenable to humanitarian intervention. In
part, this reflected the internationalist and Wilsonian temperament of many U.S.
Democrats. In the U.K., the Labour government proclaimed the arrival of an ethical
foreign policy and, in his 1999 speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, British
Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly advocated humanitarian intervention, albeit in
circumstances where the national interest would also be served. By 1999, the NATO
air campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis appeared to be the culmination
of a decade in which humanitarian intervention had become firmly established on
both media and foreign policy agendas.1 In 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
called on the international community to forge a consensus regarding when and how
the right of humanitarian intervention should be exercised and, in response, the
Canadian government instigated the International Commission on Intervention and
State Sovereignty (ICISS).
/

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345

346 P. Robinson

9 11 and the Death of the CNN Effect?

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The events of 9/11, however, marked a major turning point for the direction of U.S.
foreign policy as President Bush declared a war on terrorism and fought two wars
in quick succession against Afghanistan and Iraq. With respect to the CNN effect
thesis, three developments have occurred, all of which tend to reduce the likelihood of
its occurrence.
First and foremost, the war on terror has pushed humanitarian concerns down,
if not off altogether, the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Indeed, former advisor to the
British government David Clark argued in 2003 that the Iraq war has wrecked the
case for humanitarian wars by making it unlikely an international consensus
regarding humanitarian intervention could be achieved due to the mistrust caused by
U.S. unilateralism. Certainly, the question of humanitarian intervention has been
subservient to U.S. objectives aimed at containing and eliminating the al-Qaeda
network.
More important is the impact of policy certainty within the current U.S.
administration. If the 1990s were marked by a lack of policy certainty, events since
9/11 have witnessed a U.S. administration determinedly promoting and pursuing a
foreign policy underpinned by the idea of a war on terror. In this situation of policy
certainty, the Bush administration has sought to lead both media and public opinion.
Indeed, Bushs speechwriter Michael Gerson believed 9/11 provided the Bush
administration with a plastic, teachable moment (Woodward, 2004, p. 84).
Not only does this mean that the CNN effect is unlikely to occur, but also that
media coverage has become far more deferential and constrained, thereby reducing
the chances of an adversarial or oppositional media that might influence policy.
Certainly, the war on terror frame provides journalists with a template with which
to understand global events and policy-makers with a powerful rhetorical tool with
which to justify a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy agenda (Domke,
2004; Jackson, 2005).
For example, David Domkes recent work, God Willing? Political Fundamentalism
in the White House, The War on Terror and the Echoing Press, provides empirical
support for the existence of the ideological constraints now active in U.S. journalism.
He argues that the Bush administration imposed a hegemonic discourse on the
American public sphere between September 2001 and the end of major combat
operations in Iraq in 2003. The central feature of this discourse was its
fundamentalist nature, created by a conjunction of nation-challenging crisis,
religiously-conservative political leadership skilled in strategic communication, and
media tending to reproduce the views of the leadership. According to Domke, the
Bush administrations fundamentalism is characterised by binary discourses opposing
good and evil and security and peril (see also Jackson, 2005). Overall, it is reasonable
to conclude that the war on terror has helped create an ideological bond between
journalists and policy-makers akin to that of anti-communism during the Cold War
era.

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Critical Forum: CNN

347

A second reason for the fading of any CNN effect: In addition to the war on
terror framework, the humanitarian war discourse of the 1990s has functioned as a
further legitimating device employed by both British and U.S. political elites when
justifying military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. In particular, the British Prime
Minister Tony Blair advocated war against Iraq on grounds both of national security
due to a perceived threat from WMD and of the claim that regime change could be
justified in humanitarian terms in order to save the Iraqi people from Saddam
Hussein. Importantly, however, as David Clark (2003) pointed out, such a claim is
spurious because the situation in Iraq did not meet the criteria by which
humanitarian war is justified* i.e., large-scale human suffering that cannot be
averted by other means (for more on humanitarian war and intervention see
Ramsbotham & Woodhouse, 1996). As has recently been disclosed, the British
Attorney General Lord Goldsmith also made clear that war in Iraq could not be
justified in humanitarian terms.
In short, if the 1990s witnessed a more influential media that helped persuade
policy-makers to engage in humanitarian intervention, post 9/11 has seen the concept
of humanitarian intervention used as a policy tool that Western leaders employ in
order to justify interventions driven by national interest and not altruistic concern for
the humanitarian needs of other people.
The third development mitigating the CNN effect concerns the accelerated
attempts by government to manage the information environment. Since the Kosovo
conflict, U.S. and U.K. military operations have been accompanied by a transnational media management operation that seeks to co-ordinate national information activities. These techniques explicitly draw on war room models developed
during domestic election campaigns (Brown, 2002) and use publicity rather than
censorship to shape coverage.
Taking advantage of the limited capacity of news agendas, political administrations
encourage coverage of particular issues through the provision of information and
access. These techniques are explicitly designed to influence media agendas by
promoting coverage of some issues over others and to influence the framing of stories
in ways that support official policy. For example, during the 2003 Iraq war, key
themes promoted by the coalition included frequent reiteration of the official
justifications for war, including the threat of WMD, the argument for regime change,
and the broader war on terror narrative. In addition, the coalition sought to
promote its agenda on a daily basis by highlighting humanitarian activities (such as
the delivery of drinking water), identifying potential WMD sites uncovered by
advancing coalition forces, and stressing the past brutality of Saddams regime. The
coalition also sought to minimise the impact of bad news, involving civilian casualties
and military setbacks, by accenting such Iraqi tactics as the use of human shields
while emphasising the precision targeting employed by coalition forces and
promoting upbeat prognoses regarding the likelihood of rapid victory.2
Overall, it appears that, at least during the 2003 Iraq war, these attempts at media
management were generally quite successful. For example, a recent, comprehensive
study by Sean Adey, Steve Livingston, and Maeve Herbert (2005) concluded that
/

348 P. Robinson

none of the networks ran many stories about or pictures of US or civilian casualties.
FNC and CNNs Lou Dobbs Show ran virtually none. In addition, all of the American
networks largely ignored any antiwar sentiment (p. 17).

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Conclusion
Viewed from the post-9/11 perspective, the CNN effect debate of the 1990s and
associated interventions during humanitarian crises appear as an aberration, during
an era in which greater media autonomy and a loss of policy direction following the
Cold War led to greater potential for media to shape politics. Today, there are strong
grounds for concluding that the threat of communism, which helped create an
ideological bond between journalists and policy-makers during the Cold War, has
been replaced by the war on terror, pursued with determination by the Bush
administration and forging a new consensus between journalists and policy-making
elites.
In addition, the discourse of humanitarian warfare and contemporary approaches
to media management have strengthened the ability of foreign policy elites to
influence media. In these circumstances of policy certainty, debate within mainstream
media is likely to remain bounded within the terms set by the U.S. government and,
moreover, the chance of it having an impact upon the substance of U.S. foreign policy
formulation is remote. Put simply, the conditions under which the CNN effect
occurred during the 1990s are not present at this point in time.
The danger for U.S. journalism in these circumstances is that, by following and
replicating elite debate, it ends up helping manufacture consent (Herman &
Chomsky, 1988) for the Bush administrations war on terror. Free and open
discussion about the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy, terrorism in all its forms,
and the wisdom of different approaches to dealing with terrorism is unlikely to
surface widely in mainstream media debate. The dominant foreign affairs issue will be
derived from the administration: the perceived threat from al-Qaeda and the need for
U.S. to respond through various forms of military action. For political alternatives
and fresh perspectives, U.S. citizens will have to look beyond mainstream media.
Notes
[1]

[2]

In fact, the air campaign against Serbia was intended as an act of coercive diplomacy that had
the consequence of exacerbating a humanitarian crisis, even though it was promoted and
justified to Western publics as a humanitarian war (for further details see Robinson, 2002).
Based on initial research for a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council
(ESRC) entitled Media Wars: News Media Performance and Media Management During the
2003 Iraq War (award reference RES-000-23-0551).

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