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Winng CNN Wars by Frank Stech
Winning CNN Wars
FRANK J. STECH
From Parameters, Autumn 1994, pp. 37-56
On the night the Gulf War air attack began, a senior officer in the Pentagon Command Center, watching the TV
transmissions from Baghdad, checked his watch and consulted those planning the air attack on the Iraqi central
telecommunications tower: "If the cruise missile is on target . . . the reporter will go off the air right about . . . (he counts
down the seconds) . . . Now!" ABC and NBC network reports from Baghdad, routed through the Iraqi communications
network, went dead. CNN reports continued, carried over a dedicated telephone circuit to Jordan installed before the air
For more than two weeks CNN provided the only American reporting from Iraq. CNN's coverage of the Gulf War was
unique and completely redefined live satellite television news. The Gulf War opened the possibility that new forms of
war and diplomacy were being born. "Television imagery transmitted by satellite," wrote one observer, "is irrevocably
altering the ways governments deal with each other, just as it makes traditional diplomacy all but obsolete in times of crisis.
. . . Instant access from the battlefield to the conference table and back again has enormous political implications both good
and bad." The TV coverage of the Gulf War created a phenomenon that has come to be termed "CNN war."
The unique experience of real-time feedback at war's outbreak from the opponent's national capital offers a useful place to
start thinking about conflict in the global TV age. Radio, invented near the turn of the 19th century, led to new arsenals of
electronic weaponry that radically changed military operations three decades later. Radio technology spawned new
approaches to strategy (propaganda, strategic bombing), operations (navigation, electronic warfare), and tactics (mobile
communications and improved command and control). Television, invented in the 1920s, began a similar cycle of
innovation and adaptation in military operations in the 1970s, leading to the weaponry of the 1990s and beyond. TV and
video are poised to change warfare as extensively and dramatically in the 21st century as radio changed conflict in this
century, for policymakers as well as for combatants. To think of video as exclusively the province of the media would be as
shortsighted today as thinking in 1930 that radio was merely for news broadcasts. The effects of TV, video, and global
communications on conflict management in the 21st century will extend far beyond the relationships of TV news and the
military. CNN war provides the first and clearest signs, however, of the implications of global TV for national policymaking
and military operations.
Real-time video on the battlefield and images of conflict transmitted by satellite to TVs around the world already have
altered government decisionmaking and military operations in several ways. TV news carries information directly and
immediately to top leaders, bypassing the entire apparatus of intelligence, diplomacy, and national security. "I learn more
from CNN than I do from the CIA," President Bush told other world leaders; his press secretary observed, "In most of these
kinds of international crises now, we virtually cut out the State Department and the desk officers. . . . Their reports are still
important, but they don't get here in time for the basic decisions to be made." Images of Patriot missiles intercepting
Scuds in the night skies of Tel Aviv helped dissuade the Israeli government from attacking Iraq and fracturing the Gulf War
coalition. Wrote one observer, "Patriot was given center stage on television for a significant part of the Gulf War, having a
magical effect on the public's perception of events."
TV viewers, including leaders, react emotionally and forcefully to images, and public pressure forces policymakers to
respond quickly; President Clinton's advisor George Stephanopoulis has noted, "In the White House . . . we have 24-hour
news cycles. . . . CNN assures that you are forced to react at any time, and that's going to happen throughout the time of the
Clinton presidency." Everything speeds up, and emotion competes with reason: "There's really no time to digest this
information," observed one senior advisor, "so the reaction tends to be from the gut, just like the reaction of the man on the
street. . . . High-level people are being forced essentially to act or to formulate responses or policy positions on the basis of
information that is of very uncertain reliability." The image of a single American helicopter pilot being dragged through
the streets of Mogadishu almost immediately caused the Clinton Administration to announce the withdrawal of US forces
from Somalia. Leaders communicate directly to each other through CNN and shape events through a dialogue of images:
"You end up hearing statements for the first time," President Bush said, "not in diplomatic notes, but because you see a
foreign minister on the screen. I really mean CNN. It has turned out to be a very important information source." The
House Foreign Affairs Committee recently held hearings on whether media coverage influences foreign policy and forces
hasty judgments and decisions.
The concerns are many. CNN war leads publics and leaders to define political events in terms of the video clips and sound
bites that compose TV news images. Conflicts that fail to generate good video fail to be politically real: "What I'm
concerned about is what happens in the non-CNN wars," observed UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, mentioning crises
in Angola, Sudan, Mozambique, and Ngorno-Karabakh -- "Those are not on CNN. The question is how the international
community deals with that." Through CNN "everyone is seeing the same thing": publics see events when leaders and
elites see them, as they happen, and "for the first time in history, the rich and poor, literate and illiterate, city worker and
peasant farmer are linked together by shared images of global life," joined through "a hot line from self to self."
Spectators become participants while participants in televised events become spectators: soldiers in the Gulf War, watching
TV, saw the folks back home watching the soldiers, watching the folks, watching. . . .
In January 1994 Yassar Arafat addressed, via CNN, crowds of Palestinian demonstrators, who in turn conversed, through
the on-scene reporter, with Arafat, both sides watching themselves in dialogue. TV images become directly tied to political
mobilization because "satellites have no respect for political boundaries, they cannot be stopped by Berlin Walls, by tanks
in Tiananmen Square, or by dictators in Baghdad," and watching becomes participation. Political groups "capture"
images that serve their purposes and reuse them, creating new events to be televised. News media compete to broadcast
dramatic events, which are repeated and echoed from one news channel to others, until supplanted by newer images.
Consequently, the media emphasize event coverage, exclusiveness, and distribution of images rather than the quality, nuance,
substance, and interpretation of news content.
Given these concerns and the characteristics of real-time video, globally broadcast live from the battlefield, what can
policymakers and military leaders do to adapt their policies, strategies, campaign plans, and tactics to support their goals in
a CNN war? The remainder of this article examines the persuasiveness of video images, how leaders have employed images
to gain support for their goals, and recent perspectives on CNN war and Pentagon-media relations. It concludes by
suggesting ways to win CNN wars.
The Psychology and Sociology of Visual Persuasion
Modern scientific studies of persuasion began around the time of World War II, motivated in part by the widespread use of
propaganda by warring nations, subsequently reinforced by fears of "brainwashing," communist and otherwise. These early
studies focused on context: message and channel characteristics (for example, whether the message used emotional appeals,
or stressed one side or two sides of an issue) and the characteristics of the communicator and the audience (expertise of the
communicator, attitudes of the audience, similarity of the communicator to the audience). More recent studies of
persuasion examine the interpersonal dynamics of the communication relationship: reciprocity, commitment, deference,
Images and interactive dialogues, key elements of CNN war, have not been the focal points for the sociological and
psychological analysis of persuasion. Scientists cannot inform us how to dominate every political debate, make every TV
program a hit, or sell refrigerators to every Eskimo. They have no touchstone tactics for winning every CNN war. The
analysis of persuasion nevertheless provides some useful suggestions for our involvement in future CNN wars. Some
psychological guidelines for persuasive communication:
Two-sided messages are better than one-sided messages for persuading neutral or opposed audiences.
The rhetorical structure of persuasive messages affects their persuasiveness.
Vivid messages (e.g., video) are more convincing when the communicator has high credibility and the message is
Case studies or examples are more persuasive than statistical facts.
Communicators are perceived as credible if they seem safe (kind, friendly, and just), qualified (trained, experienced,
and informed), and dynamic (bold, active, and energetic).
Film (or video) messages are markedly effective (and preferred to less vivid media) in teaching factual knowledge, are
accepted as accurate, and are not perceived as propaganda.
Emotional (fear-inducing) appeals are persuasive when they are truly frightful, suggest effective actions to reduce the
fear-arousing threat, and the recipients believe that they are able to perform the suggested action.
Great leaders often have advised that compelling speeches generate vivid, emotion-laden images. Churchill's "iron
curtain" image galvanized America's response to the Soviet threat the British statesman pronounced in 1946.
Communicators who depart from a prepared text and speak "from the heart" are perceived as more committed and
persuasive, and extemporaneous speech is often recommended by orators for rhetorical effect. Coretta Scott King
described how her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech in 1963 on the steps of
the Lincoln Memorial:
Abandoning his written speech, forgetting time, he spoke from his heart, his voice soaring magnificently out over
that great crowd and to all the world. It seemed to all of us there that day that his words flowed from some higher
place, through Martin, to the weary people before him.
People like pictures, and the believability of video makes pictures more convincing than words: moving pictures "seem
utterly real" wrote Walter Lippmann in 1922. People tend to believe what they see on video as positive proof. To make
pictures more appealing, advertisers instruct, use familiar scenes with likable people showing favorable associations, and
avoid anything challenging strong moral conventions. The viewer should not feel a need to change much in the picture. The
viewer should perceive in the picture a promise that his or her desires will be fulfilled. The picture should contain, wrote
advertiser Stephen Baker, "a desirable model for the viewer to be." Alexis de Tocqueville never imagined television,
but his comments offer provocative ideas on crafting persuasive video images. He wrote that American cultural products
"substitute the representation of motion and sensation for that of sentiment and thought. . . . [The] style will frequently be
fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold."
Sociologists advise that compelling video messages must be crafted into the framework of the television news media.
The credible news frame defines the characteristics of believable news stories: reports must have subframes that are
personalized, dramatized, fragmented, and normalized. News media focus on a personalized actor subframe--individual
leaders, spokespersons, exemplars of the political actions. Media images convey a dramatized story subframe:
beginnings, action style, plot lines and sub-plots, settings and scenery, rising and falling action, major and minor actors with
major and minor motives, climax and anti-climax, and endings that close with a chorus (journalists, politicians, experts, the
public, or all four) interpreting the moral lessons of the drama. News images are episodic, isolated in time and space
from each other, and unable to represent all aspects and all periods of events, falling inside a fragmented, latest
development subframe. Images and events speak for themselves in isolation, without context, absent trends or
progressions, often without causes to explain effects, lacking any reflection of connectivities and interdependencies. The
credible, objective news frame dictates a normalized, official sources subframe to provide the last, authoritative word on
interpretation of events.
When leaders are unable to sort out these subframes and fit political events and images into credible news frames (e.g., the
chaos of Marines intervening in Lebanon, the Islamic revolution in Iran, racial politics in South Africa), media coverage
loses its coherent story line, misidentifies actors, and scrambles the latest developments into perplexing, pointless mysteries.
The resulting media images show the darker sides of CNN war (a destroyed Marine barracks, American diplomats taken
hostage, race riots and terrorism), and reflect the bafflement of official sources lacking coherent frameworks for their actions
and policies. In time of war, the official sources subframe becomes even more dominant. Media deviation from official
sources might compromise security, provide aid and comfort to the enemy, divulge military secrets, or simply get the story
wrong. Because the military and the government are also jealous of their images and the justness of their cause, war shifts
the credible news frame much more toward the official sources subframe and generates persistent friction in the
The credible news frame and subframes describe in workable terms the circumstances that create believable content in
political news images. The requirements for creating or influencing media images, thus mediating political realities, become
fairly clear. No matter how logical the calculus that led to a policy, without a clear and coherent story frame for that policy,
there is little hope of building public understanding or support. "If an administration has thought its own foreign policy
through and is prepared and able to argue the merits and defend the consequences of that policy, television and all its new
technologies can be dealt with," one TV anchor advised the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Psychological guidelines
and sociological frames offer some tactical foundations for supporting policies in future CNN wars. Tactics are important,
as recent events show.
Somalia and CNN War Image Exploitation
Foreign policy experts were harsh in their assessments of President Clinton's quick shift of US Somalia policy after the
broadcast of images from the Rangers' fight in Mogadishu. Clinton's willingness to negotiate, rather than continue efforts to
capture the warlord Aidid, was criticized as weakness, sending the wrong signals. "We have no interest in denying anybody
access to playing a role in Somalia's political future," the President was quoted the week after the attack on the Rangers.
That shift was exactly wrong, commented former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who argued that failing to strike back
virtually guaranteed that the wrong lesson would be learned. The world's other mischief-makers will have no fear, Kissinger
warned, unless the United States reduces Aidid's "power base so that it's apparent that when you tackle the US in the brutal
way in which it has been done there is a penalty." Kissinger offered a realpolitik perspective on the tactics of
"mischief-makers." Futurist Chuck de Caro offered a media-oriented perspective--the Somalia crisis, amplified through
global TV imagery, enabled other "mischief-makers" to create TV news images for their own purposes:
A tenth-rate tin-pot Haitian dictator using global TV as a C3I mechanism judges the likely reaction of the United
States in the wake of . . . the video of Rangers being killed and mutilated in Somalia. He optimizes his mil-pol
moves to retard US intervention by having a handful of rabble go to a dock [and] mug-angrily-on-cue for global
TV. He thus turns away a US warship (albeit on a UN mission) with nothing more than the video of an alleged
angry mob that generates the perception of imminent bloodshed that is projected and amplified by TV. Matters are
made worse by the perception of the US LST retreating from the scene.
US policymakers and military leaders failed to convey to the public the reasons for shifting US goals and missions in
Somalia, or the possible consequences of the changing relations with the UN and with the warlords. There had been
insufficient warnings to foreshadow the growing Somali hostility to the UN, or the buildup to events of this magnitude.
Media stories failed to link the complexities of US-UN disagreements, Somali warlord politics, tensions between military
peacekeepers and non-governmental aid organizations (many vigorously pacifist), and shifting US missions. The
Administration offered no credible news frames for the secret operations of the Rangers, offered no immediate public
eulogies to redeem their losses, and failed to link the hunt for Aidid to the larger relief and stability operations. When
the Rangers' mission turned into open, bloody conflict with Aidid's Mogadishu militia, there was no public opinion
foundation for what happened or why. Rather than representing the gun battle as the climax of a policy that had gone astray,
but was now being put back on track, the Administration was left without a coherent explanation of the catastrophe and
seemed to have no clear policy goals in Somalia. The horror and seeming pointlessness of the Rangers' deaths challenged the
US Somali presence in the public's mind.
If the Clinton Administration was unprepared for the images of the debacle in Mogadishu's streets, it quickly used them to
restore some stability. "Penalties" and "reducing power bases," Kissinger's realpolitik levers of power, become less
significant than perceptions of these things. The critics of the Administration's response to the Somali CNN war were right
about its negative effects on US reactions. When events went bad, the Clinton Administration lacked credible news frames
for the images and perceptions. Faced with the darker side of CNN war, it was unready to defend policies and events which
formed no coherent story. The outcome of the Rangers' fight was militarily insignificant; the TV images and lack of a media
plan to explain Administration policies made the losses politically overwhelming.
Yet planning explanations of policies and actions using the guidelines for persuasive and credible news frames is not
enough. Events in CNN war do not unfold as monologues, but in dialogues, with allies, neutrals, and opponents. Preparing
for CNN wars requires a readiness to hear and respond to the voices and images of others, shaping messages into cogent
harmony with perceptions of these dialogues. Just as greatness in battle requires an instinctive eye for the interplay of terrain
and opposing forces, campaigns in CNN war require a coup d'oeil for the images juste, an instinctive ability to incorporate
compelling images in support of political and military goals. History and recent events offer suggestive examples of such
Signs, Symbols, and Presidential Semiotics
Leaders seek compelling signs and engaging symbols to tell the public the stories behind their policies and actions; they
practice the "semiotic" creation of reality. Signs are composed of sounds and images, and the concepts these images
represent. Images of things (e.g., a carefree Mickey Mouse) become the signs of something else (life in free societies), and
serve as "combat graphics" on the campaign maps of CNN war.
Presidents have long used audience involvement, cultural symbols, and images to their advantage in telling their stories.
During World War II President Roosevelt communicated the course of the fighting to the nation over the national radio
networks during his "fireside chats." He suggested that listeners buy maps in order to follow along with him the paths of the
advancing Allied forces, and he referred them to the images in newsreels, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Time, and the other
media of the day. Besides stoking the already voracious appetites for news of the war, his suggestions generated a national
flurry of map-buying, a significant increase in the geographic sophistication of the nation, and a personal feeling of
involvement in the course of the war. Roosevelt was adept at weaving semiographic signs from mass culture into his
persuasive political Weltanschauung. For example, when Colonel Jimmy Doolittle flew Army bombers off Navy aircraft
carriers against Tokyo, Roosevelt whimsically preserved security and added to the propaganda effect by identifying the
aviators' base as "Shangri-La," referring to the mythical locale in a popular novel and movie. Roosevelt also capitalized
on the timely appearance of the film Casablanca to reinforce his policies toward Vichy France and the Free French,
celebrate the North African landings as a victory, anchor public commitment to the war, and boost his own stature.
The Gulf War duel between Saddam Hussein's Scud ballistic missiles and President Bush's Patriot missiles created an
interactive dialogue of images, which fitted precisely the credible news frame. First the dramatic initial panic: did the Scuds
carry chemical warheads? Then the diplomatic crisis: would Israel retaliate and split Bush's fragile, carefully crafted
Gulf coalition? "Saddam . . . had started a war of imagery: the gas masks, the rubble, the frantic reporters," a history of
the war summarized, and "the coalition countered with its own captivating imagery: the Patriot in action."[46
The world watched the TV debut of the "bullet that hits a bullet." One after another of Iraq's vaunted Scuds were visibly
destroyed by the spectacular Patriot interceptors: coalition high-tech dominating Saddam's crude terror weapon. President
Bush, televised at the Raytheon Patriot factory, claimed 41 out of 42 Patriots hit their targets. The Patriots helped keep the
Israeli war machine out of the Gulf War, and thus the coalition held together. Only a handful of Arab nations expressed any
support for Iraq's Scud campaign; most condemned Saddam's attacks on his Saudi brothers. Saddam lost the dialogue of
images. The political and psychological consequences of images of Patriot and Scud dueling in the desert night skies
provide a classic example of presidential semiotics and operational art in CNN war.
The use of images, cultural symbols, even fantasies (for example, myths about the founding fathers, or films about historic
events) to create or reinforce the realities that they signify has strong psychological roots as well as significant political
efficacy. These shorthand signifiers help us understand and conceptualize what might otherwise seem chaotic. French
President Mitterrand, filmed walking through the rubble of besieged Sarajevo, helped his countrymen understand why France
supplied most of Bosnia's UN peacekeepers. The heavily watched 1994 Winter Olympics TV coverage contrasted scenes of
Olympic- village-pristine Sarajevo in 1984 with contemporary scenes of war-ravaged Sarejevo's mangled bodies and
buildings; viewers saw Sarejevo's weary civilians watching themselves watching the televised contrasts. These compelling
images reinforced the shock effect of scenes of the marketplace casualties of a Serbian mortar attack; they could have helped
coalesce US support for tougher NATO and UN policies toward the Bosnian Serbs.
In the era of CNN wars, leaders and the public play out political fantasies on a stage of televised realities. Late-breaking
video news sustains our involvement and opportunities to interact with the images (if only vicariously) and thus maintains
our participation. We decide our loyalties and commitments against image backdrops of ongoing events: testimony of Iraqi
soldiers stealing incubators and leaving Kuwaiti babies to die, Patriot missiles destroying Scuds, Yeltsin atop a Soviet tank,
dead Ranger heroes being desecrated. We can fancy ourselves in our own TV versions of Casablanca, living amidst wars,
coups, and revolutions, and we decide to support (or not) real heroes, causes, and sides. To use the dialogue of images in the
operations of future CNN wars, then, is to lead with image-filled stories, shaped around the TV scenes we all see--to
provide compelling pictures formed with persuasive signs and symbols.
Perspectives on CNN War
Military analysts have foreshadowed many of the issues of CNN war. The implications and requirements of the
information age increasingly influence national military policy planning. The 1991 Bush Administration's National Security
Strategy of the United States noted:
Recent history has shown how much ideas count. The Cold War was, in its decisive aspect, a war of ideas. But
ideas count only when knowledge spreads. . . . In the face of the global explosion of information . . . ideas and
information will take on larger significance. . . . A truly global community is being formed.
The final National Security Strategy produced by that Administration carried the point further: "Our influence will
increasingly be defined more by the quality of our ideas, values, and leadership . . . than by the predominance of our military
capabilities." Clinton-era defense planning embodies the demands of CNN war in its assumptions:
In this era of almost instant communication, the demands on US military forces seem almost endless, as the
pictures of human misery from around the globe compete for air-time. . . . America must pursue political,
economic, and military engagement internationally. . . . Around the world, America's power, authority, and
example provide unparalleled opportunities to lead.
The need for new ways to conduct military operations in the age of video and information has begun to appear in think-tank
studies. The authors of The Military Technical Revolution call on US military forces to be prepared to "fight a CNN war."
They write of this requirement:
US forces must be capable of responding to media demands for instantaneous information, and of using the rapid
transmission of data to its advantage. This magnifies the importance of tending to image considerations. . . . But
it also suggests the need for greater information dominance and for some thought about how modern, real-time
news reporting can be used to US advantage in future military operations.
Despite the attentions of the White House, the assumptions of the Pentagon, and the insights of the think-tanks, military
theorists seem remarkably slow in addressing the implications of CNN war for military operations. Although the service
war colleges have launched research programs and symposia on the subject of "the media and the military," the focus is
largely on the relationships between these institutions, rather than the challenge to explore ways in which "image
considerations" and "real-time news reporting" might be used to advantage in future military operations. The war college
analyses seem to reflect a "glass half-empty" view of media effects on military operations; at best the media represent a
necessary evil for commanders to deal with, rather than an opportunity to gain military advantages. Even those analysts
who recognize the potential interplay of video news reporting and military psychological operations seem to favor a
coercive rather than a cooperative approach. It is also remarkable that so few lessons in the use of media assets seem to
have been drawn from the internal overthrow of the communist regimes of east Europe or the dissolution of the Soviet
The Pentagon and the Media
While many writers have addressed media-military relations in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War, these analysts have not
addressed the issues of CNN war. To date this commentary has emphasized the standoff between the press, demanding
openness from the military authorities, and the Pentagon, requiring control over the press (and getting it to a great extent,
along with public approval). Several observers have faulted the Pentagon's media strategy during the Gulf War. One writes
that the White House and the Pentagon followed a deliberate policy of blocking negative and unflattering news from reaching
the US public lest it weaken support for the war. This account notes that other observers argued that press restrictions went
beyond security concerns and appeared to be aimed at preventing damaging disclosures by US soldiers, thus shielding the
American public from the brutality of war.
Another commentator, discussing Pentagon-media relations at an October 1991 MIT symposium on "Reporting the Gulf
War," noted the consistent bias of Army officers against the media. The speaker pointed out how Army censors delayed
releasing news stories they feared would generate adverse publicity, which got the stories spiked by deadline-driven
editors, but consequently generated bad feelings between the Army and press reporters. In so doing, the Army allegedly
missed a tremendous opportunity to use the press to show the American public how well the Army performed in the desert
war. In contrast, the speaker noted, Marines in the Gulf, headed by a former Public Affairs Officer, Lieutenant General
Walter Boomer, went out of their way to be open and to assist the press, which contributed to extremely positive press
coverage. Further, the Marines seemed to have fully incorporated the press in their Gulf War campaign of information
dominance. A Marine Corps representative, speaking at the MIT Symposium, argued that the press coverage acted as a
Marine Corps "force multiplier" by keeping Marines motivated and keeping US and world opinion firmly behind the
Marines. As a result, noted MIT's Trevor Thrall: "The Marine Corps, and not the Army, received a disproportionate share of
good PR from the war, even though it was the Army which was responsible for the bulk of the fighting, including the critical
`Hail Mary' [General Schwarzkopf's flanking of Iraqi forces in the western desert]."
A recent Air University thesis argues that "media spin" has become a new principle of war. Media spin is defined as
"paying close attention to public relations, recognizing that public support is an essential ingredient of combat success." The
military must not take media coverage of combat operations for granted, and should avoid operations that will alienate
public support, while ensuring maximum media coverage of success stories: "In an age where 24-hour instantaneous
battlefield news coverage is a fact of life," the thesis argues, "paying attention to media spin is of paramount importance; for
a combat commander, anything less would be irresponsible." That writer, like many military observers, sees a clash
between the media and the military as a zero-sum game, where the military wins by keeping secrets, and the media wins by
revealing them. Public relations concerns do affect military decisions, but the "media spin" approach to the public and the
press defines manipulative, adversarial relations. Other military analysts see the military-media relationship in more
cooperative and collaborative perspectives.
The US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute recently conducted an analysis of the effects of the media's
technological advances on policymaking, military planning, and strategic decisions. The study noted, "There is no longer
a question of whether the news media will cover military operations; journalists will likely precede the force into the area
of operation, and they will transmit images of events as they happen, perhaps from both sides of any conflict." The author of
this study, in contrast to the "media spin" approach, saw the need for (and the benefits of) a proactive, "well resourced and
responsive" military infrastructure to work with the media and assist their news-gathering, without impairing military
operations. This study clearly reflects the most serious consequences of CNN wars, when media coverage of military
operations directly influences higher levels of policy and decisionmaking:
Under the scrutiny of a very responsive, high technology world news media, given the volatile, unstable, and
ambiguous environment in which armed forces can find themselves, the actions of field forces have a greater
chance than ever before of affecting subsequent strategic decisions made at higher levels. The pressure on field
commanders to "get it right the first time" is demonstrably greater than ever.
Clearly, the military must help the political leadership by ensuring that the rationale and justification for military operations
are completely consistent with policy objectives, and by helping policymakers explain to the public and press the
connections between operations and policy.
To Win CNN Wars
Advice on CNN war has focused more on "coping" than on "winning" and tends to echo a warning by Winston Churchill:
"Nothing is more dangerous in wartime than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one's
pulse and taking one's temperature." There is a growing chorus blaming bad US foreign policy on CNN images: when
the images get to us emotionally (and through us, to our leaders), these critics argue, we make mistakes, intervening
militarily where our vital national interests are not involved. Episodes like Somalia or the intervention in Lebanon, the
chorus argues, occur because shocking images got under our skin and overruled rational national reasoning. "Foreign policy
by CNN," one critic warns, "may be psychologically satisfying, but it is very dangerous. Our record of interventions
provoked by guilt-inducing pictures is an unhappy one." "The eye, fastened to CNN," writes another:
makes a valuable witness. But it has a tendency to stir people to bursts of indignation that flare briefly,
spectacularly and ineffectually, like a fire splashed with a cup of gasoline. An advertent and sustained foreign
policy uses a different part of the brain from the one engaged by horrifying images.
Foreign policy success, these critics reason, occurs because our leaders make cold, dispassionate assessments of
geopolitical national interests: "The Persian Gulf War was not provoked by pictures. . . . We were galvanized not by
emotion but by cold calculation." The solution these critics offer is to ignore the pictures and equate US vital interests
with classic realpolitik realities: oil, military power balance, narrow economic and political self-interests. The "cold
calculation" view seemingly rejects American causes based on law, justice, or humanitarianism. Historically, the critics'
logic is wholly hindsightful. Sending Marines into Lebanon or Somalia, at the outset, rested on US influence and leadership,
just as did sending the Marines into monsoon-ravaged Bangladesh (Operation Sea Angel), sending the Green Berets into
Iraqi Kurdistan (Provide Comfort), or even sending forces to take back Kuwait. When body bags came back, however, some
critics professed to see a lack of national interests, and feckless policies prompted by images.
The observation that focusing policy through the filter of the news sometimes courts disaster provides no fresh insight.
Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 classic Public Opinion, wrote:
The press . . . is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another
out of darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by
episodes, incidents, and eruptions. . . . News and truth are not the same. . . . The function of news is to signalize an
event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a
picture of reality on which men can act. When we expect [news] to supply . . . truth . . . we misunderstand the
limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit,
and all-round competence.
Lippmann saw remedies in a social organization based on "analysis and record" (boring though it may be), decentralization
of decisions, "abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent," coordination among decisionmakers, and a "running audit"
of situations to prevent governance by episode. He recognized that the resultant errors of setting policy on a news
foundation, of acting "without a reliable picture of the world," could be offset only by "inventing, creating, and organizing a
machinery of knowledge." A more contemporary critic believes the solution lies in "leadership and a strength of resolve that
allows principle and conviction to ride over the often ill-formed media criticism and the snapshot reporting."
If the critics of CNN-driven policy sometimes have trouble recollecting the sources of national interests, they are right about
the potentially dangerous consequences of policy development and military operations in reaction to images and snapshot
reporting, without analysis, planning, or readiness. Among the dilemmas of CNN war is this: the government machinery
(e.g., the intelligence and policy staffs) suggested by Lippmann's advice tends to be bypassed and ignored; we should not be
surprised if this machinery fails to help leaders fight and win CNN wars. One approach taken by the managers of that
government machinery has been to become more like CNN. The Central Intelligence Agency technical staff, under Director
Robert Gates, was working on "advanced delivery systems" to get to policymakers DIA products "that combine . . databased
information, graphics, even video." Similarly, the Defense Intelligence Agency consulted with CNN on how to coordinate
and integrate reports into coherent and interactive communications with their clients.
What these CNN imitators must remember is that simply knowing something, and helping policymakers and commanders to
become aware, is not enough. Leadership needs more than advice and information. Providing leaders "a reliable picture of
the world" helps only if they are able to use that picture persuasively to communicate their vision of outcomes. The
"government knowledge machinery" that supports the leadership must be ready to prepare both information and compelling
communications as quickly, readily, and flexibly as CNN provides news video and analysis. Providing this level of support
to leaders presents significant organizational, technical, and intellectual challenges. The biggest obstacle, however, is
philosophical: the sentiment that the solution to the problems of CNN wars is to "turn out the lights"; to get the CNN
spotlights pointed elsewhere, dimmed, switched off. Or, if you are a policymaker, to turn your back on them.
The "cold calculation" critics, who argue that US foreign policy is too motivated by CNN, crassly imply that shocking
images are the only motivations for "do-good" policies. "True national interests," according to the realpolitik perspective,
reflect unemotional, geopolitical realities. If these critics are right, US national interests may be very difficult to defend in
future CNN wars: they would reflect a cold, calculated, negative image of US self-interest. As noted previously, the Bush
Administration got it right when it emphasized "the quality of our ideas, values, and leadership" rather than our undoubtedly
dominant military capabilities. Future CNN wars, like the Persian Gulf War, will require US policymakers to see that
the quality of our ideas and values is given proper weight in developing policy. Those wars will require military leaders to
reflect the human ideas and values of our national interests in our operations. If our policies fail to reflect a human face, if
the cold calculations of our leaders envision no compelling stories of human values, then in a world of CNN war the force of
public support and the favor of public opinion for those policies will be questionable at best. The human face of our
policies becomes part of our arsenal, and the force of the stories of our ideas and values becomes the core of US power.
When political leaders have sent the military into harm's way, it does not matter to those in the conflict if our policies are
rooted in the programmed political intentions of a cold calculus of realpolitik, or if they are compelled by humane values in
response to CNN images. Once the commitment is made and the soldiers go, the minicams will be there, and we must
prepare the troops for the roll (and the role) of the CNN video. If policymakers and military leaders hold no vision of the
human face of our commitments, if they tell no stories from the heart of the how and why of our military actions, then others
will do it for them, and the results may not be to their liking.
There is, however, one lesson at this early phase of discovery about CNN war that policymakers and military commanders,
and those who would advise and inform them, should learn. They must communicate the goals of policies and the objectives
of military operations clearly and simply enough so that the widest of audiences can envision the ways and the means being
used to reach those goals. This understanding needs to extend from the President down to the average citizen and the most
junior soldier. The operational ways and means must be clear and simple--how the operation is happening--so individuals
can understand how they personally are being affected. The policy goals and motives for the operation need to be equally
clear and simple, but also compelling, so that citizens and allies alike will want to be a part of these operations, while our
adversaries will feel powerless to escape the inevitable outcome if they oppose our goals. If policymakers and military
leaders draw these pictures and convey this strategic understanding, they should have little fear of video on the battlefields
of future CNN wars. The operations, tactics, and images of future CNN wars will follow from these visions. Soldiers,
civilians, even enemies, will know why and how we do what we must. We can let them tell the story. And that is how to win
NOTES are in a separate file