Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9828
July 14, 1998


Warren Strobel, author, Late Breaking Foreign Policy

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

WARREN STROBEL: Pictures of starving children in Somalia and other sorts of tragedies
around the world may have had some role in prompting us to go places. But it was sort of like a
very narrow window in time. And now in the late 1990s those same pictures don’t have the same

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the role of the media in US foreign

JAMES RUBIN: When CNN or MSNBC or Fox News or some of the wire services call around on a
real-time basis, when something has just happened, and they find somebody on the found and that
person says something that they haven’t really thought through or hasn’t checked with the White
House or checked with the Defense Department, and then it takes another hour for our official
response to come, then journalists get to do what they love to do, which is say that there was an
inconsistency between what one spokesman or official said and what another said.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

Some people complain about a “CNN effect.” The fact that we have 24-hour news. Do you feel a
certain urgency to respond to world events solely because the pictures have appeared on

RUBIN: The short answer is yes, there is a greater urgency to respond. The harder question
is does it change your response.

PORTER: This is the Chief Spokesperson for the US State Department, James Rubin.

RUBIN: Does the fact that you have to respond quickly require a level of response or a
lack of ability to take into account all the factors before responding, and therefore put you in
a position you wouldn’t be in had you had, let’s say in the old days, all night to think about
it, or all day to think about it, when there was basically just newspapers. But the so-called CNN
effect is also a help. When you don’t have pictures and you don’t have real time information
about something that’s going on the world, it’s often much more difficult to convince people that
something matters. And the fact that—I guess a classic example would be the conflict in
Bosnia—the fact that the major newspapers and the magazines and the TV was telling the world
what was going on in Sarajevo, that made a difference. So to the extent that it makes, brings to
bear public opinion in a way that is activist, generally speaking that’s a good thing.

Now that doesn’t mean we need to go run off and fix every problem and immediately react to every
picture, but there are some upsides, as I described. The downside I would, on a personal level,
is that my phone rings all night long regardless of what time it is. But on a policy side, I
think we have to work very, very hard to make sure that people throughout the government who may
be on the other end of the phone when some of you call, that the response is considered. And what
we try to do is not make premature responses. It puts a premium on getting all of us saying the
same thing, very quickly.

PORTER: What about this so-called CNN effect? The fact that CNN speeds up diplomacy and
when diplomacy gets speeded up then policy decisions get speeded up. Is that true? Is there a
real CNN effect?

STROBEL: Yeah. I mean, the CNN Effect is a term that’s used in many different ways. And
that’s, what you just said is just said is just one definition of it. But yeah, I think that does

PORTER: This is Warren Strobel. He’s White House Correspondent for the Washington

STROBEL: Certainly it did during the Gulf War, where CNN was used as a sort of ping pong
diplomacy, it’s also been called, to send messages back and forth. And of course when that
happened so quickly you have to kind of formulate your policy and communicate it a lot faster. I
also found though that officials who at first were sort of surprised by this effect and didn’t
know what to do about it, a couple years down the line had learned to live with it a little
better. That’s not to say they don’t make mistakes, but they’ve learned to use it and to
understand how it affects their daily lives. And they sort of get on with business.

PORTER: Yeah, they sort of determine that like it or not it’s here to stay. I mean,
there’s nothing that you can do about the fact that it’s been speeded up except respond.

STROBEL: Exactly. And we all adjust to technology every day and that doesn’t necessarily
change the way we do things. And it’s not only a negative in terms of affecting them, but it’s
also a very powerful tool.

PORTER: Strobel has struggled with these questions about the role the media play in US
foreign policy and US military intervention. Recently he completed a fellowship with the US
Institute of Peace, where he wrote a book on the subject.

STROBEL: I’ve sort of been interested in international affairs ever since I was, can
remember, having growing up overseas. And I spent five years for the Times covering the
State Department and some of the very interesting times. It was from 1989 to ’94, when, the day I
got to the State Department, just a few days afterward you had the fall of the Berlin Wall, the
Panama invasion, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and then the
Soviet Union, not to mention the Gulf War and the Middle East Peace Talks. And a fascinating time
to be State Department Correspondent. And also during that time I sort of became more and more
interested in what we in the news media do and how it affects the other side, the politicians and
the foreign policy makers. So I decided I wanted to kind of spread my wings and try and look at
that question a little bit more, and write about it.

PORTER: And you got this Fellowship from the USIP.

STROBEL: From USIP, which was a wonderful opportunity to take a year and sort of read
things like De Tocqueville and Machiavelli, and all sort of other things that—some more
modern books about the Vietnam War and the media.

PORTER: And in your day-to-day life as a White House correspondent you don’t get an
opportunity to read those things? [laughing]

STROBEL: No you don’t oddly enough. [laughing]

PORTER: Well, listen, your book…

STROBEL: You probably should, but…

PORTER: The book is called Late Breaking Foreign Policy and what’s the subtitle?

STROBEL: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operation.

PORTER: We know that the news media needs the military during military operations. I mean,
they need them for this conduit of information. But you talk about how the military needs the
news media. Tell us a little bit about that relationship. Why does the military need the news
media in those situations?

STROBEL: I think most Americans, when they think about this relationship, have, sort of
see it through the prism of the Gulf War, where, as you say, we in the media needed the military
just to get around, and to protect us, and to get us around the desert basically. But what’s
really happened in the last five or six years in places like Somalia and Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda,
many others, is that the relationship has been sort of turned on its head. And the military needs
us for a lot of reasons. First of all they’re trying to send a message home to the American
people about how this mission is going. The American people may not be immediately engaged
because it’s not a huge big thing like the Gulf War, where the whole country is sort of at risk.
So they need us to send back those pictures and those messages that, where the military is
helping save lives, delivering food to the starving, that sort of thing.

On the secondly it’s funnily enough, the military may not be as mobile, may not be able to move
around as much as we in the media. A situation like Somalia, there was a great concern, and even
more so after Somalia, a great concern about casualties and about American troops being killed.
So the troops tend to stay in their barracks. We in the media, who got there before the troops
were even there, can go all around a city like Mogadishu, a city like Port-au-Prince, and report
as freely as we want. And we see more and have more information than the military. A great
example of that I think is if you look at Mogadishu, the US military had a price on the head of
one of the warlords there, Mohammed Fara Aidid, the late Mohammed Fara Aidid. They didn’t know
where he was, they were trying to capture him. At the very same time CNN and other, British news
media, everybody, we could interview Mohammed Fara Aidid. We had access to him. Many Americans,
many of your listeners I’m sure remember the Captain Durant who was shot down in Somalia, was
briefly a prisoner of war. Again, we in the media had access to him. The American military did

Now those are just a couple of small examples where we have information, they depend on us,
almost as an intelligence resource. And it’s really quite different from the traditional
relationship for 150 years, where we’ve been, since the Civil War really.

PORTER: Well let’s go back in history a little bit here, and talk about some specific
cases. Let’s go back to Vietnam, because everyone talks about the relationship between the media
and the military during the Vietnam War. How would you characterize the media’s role during the
American War, at least, in Vietnam.

STROBEL: I should say that I haven’t done original research on this topic, but I kind of
view it through the research that I did on more modern things. But my reading of it is that, most
people don’t realize this, but for the most part between say 1962, 1963, certainly beginning with
the American military involvement in ’65, all the way through to ’68 or, yeah, about ’68, the
news media, and newspapers and television were a lot more supportive of the war than people
thought. We didn’t question the fact that the US should be, should have been in Vietnam, the fact
that fighting Communism in a far-off country was a legitimate thing for the United States to be
doing. And the coverage in the New York Times and on the networks was very, very—what’s
the word?—was just very supportive of the cause. Unquestioning really. And it was only in ’68,
’69, that that changed. Of course the famous Walter Cronkite trip to Vietnam after Tet and so
forth. But what you saw and if, the people who’ve studied this even more than I have, is the
newspapers especially, and also TV, reflected the mood of the country. And it wasn’t so much a
question of the news media turning the country against Vietnam. It was the fact that opinion
leaders in Washington and elsewhere: Senators, William Fulbright and others, some very prominent
pastors in this country, they began to question the war. And once they did it was legitimate for
the news media, for newspapers, The New York Times, and CBS, to question the war. And that
came afterward. I think you can almost argue, and some people would argue, that reporters failed,
with the exception of David Halberstam and a few others, failed to question early enough,
aggressively enough.

PORTER: Now from the military point of view, those last few years there were very bad. The
relationship they think went very badly and that the news media in fact was responsible for
turning the American public against the effort in Vietnam. Now how did that, we don’t necessarily
need to debate whether or not the military feels that way, but how did that perception at least,
influence the military-media relationship in post-Vietnam era?

STROBEL: First of all you’re right, they do feel that way. And I do a lot of speaking
between the, in front of audiences, military audiences, and there’s still less, but there’s still
a fair amount of that perception there. And it just, for a whole generation of American military
officers it fundamentally altered the way they look at the news media or the way they approach
it. I think you can argue though, that they, because of the Vietnam experience, they have gotten
very smart. They saw that from here on out, since Vietnam, the news media, reporters are
something they’re going to have to deal with and they decided they were going to study us to
death and get inside our heads and figure us out. And low and behold, they’ve done a better job
of that than civilian counterpart. They’re not all bad either. I think some of the more bright
ones have decided that the best policy is a more open policy. At least to some extent.

But if you go historically from Vietnam forward, first of all there were not a lot of American
conflicts between the end of the Vietnam War and say, Grenada. And we just didn’t send troops
overseas. The Grenada operation was one where the United States, Ronald Reagan was very close to
Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher had just completed a war in the Falkland Islands where she
kept the British media at bay, and Ronald Reagan not surprisingly kind of took a page out of
Margaret Thatcher’s book. And we in the news media, television cameras and so forth, didn’t even
get to the island until like 72 hours after the action was complete.

PORTER: Yeah, this was 1983, Grenada. And then 1989, Panama. There were similarities in
those two situations and the way they were covered?

STROBEL: Yeah. After Grenada a panel was set up to look at how this issue should be dealt
with because the media complaints were quite vociferous. It was decided a press pool, the
invention, not the invention, but the sort of the institution of the press pool came about. But
in Panama the press pool didn’t work the way it should have. The press pool was late, didn’t get
to the scene, to the actual combat as it should have. It was held in an air base in Panama and
actually watched part of the invasion on CNN while being treated to a dissertation on the history
of the Panama Canal Zone by an American diplomat.

That’s kind of what I write about in the book is that, I mean, that was the situation up to ’89.
Beginning of ’91, excuse me, beginning in ’93 with Somalia after the Gulf War, the whole thing
flips again and the media kind of takes over.

PORTER: We mentioned the Gulf War briefly. What was the situation there? I mean how much
control did the military have? How much access did the media have? During the Gulf War?

STROBEL: The Gulf War was of course the beginning of the CNN, not the beginning of CNN but
it was the sort of the ascension of CNN.

PORTER: Yeah, certainly a coming of age. I mean we remember…

STROBEL: That’s the best way to put it.

PORTER: …Bernard Shaw and who else was in the hotel room at the time of the….

STROBEL: John Holliman….

PORTER: John Holliman, exactly. And Bernard Shaw in the hotel room, the only live coverage
really of the start of the air war against Iraq.

STROBEL: Yeah, not only that but they had reporters in Jerusalem and London and Israel and
Pentagon and White House and just flipping from one to one. It was just incredible. And they did
a good job covering it. However, I mean the military control, I was in a situation where I wasn’t
on the battlefield I should say, I was covering the diplomacy, Baker’s diplomacy and so forth,
and what was happening in Washington. But for those reporters on the ground I mean the complaints
are just enormous that they were controlled. And the problem was that for better or worse,
whatever you think of this, the American people pretty much supported the war. Saddam, such an
easy guy to hate.


STROBEL: He didn’t complicate the situation at all with offers of peace and stuff. He just
made the American policy maker’s job easier in terms of selling the war. And the American people
were behind the war. You had these video postcards from home. You had, I was driving with my wife
one month during the crisis through Pennsylvania, rural Pennsylvania, and it seemed like every
other tree or post box had a yellow ribbon around it. And when I saw that I just sort of said to
myself, “You know, Saddam’s in a lot of trouble. This is really something the American people
care about.” And not only did they support the war, they supported controls on the news media.
And for that reason, I think, and because it was a, what you would call a traditional war,
full-scale kind of conflict, it was very easy for the media to—excuse me—very easy for the
military to control us in the media.

PORTER: Did you see the Saturday Night Live skit they did of the military briefing,
the press conference, where some of the questions were things like “Can you tell us exactly where
the military is going to strike?”, or another question I remember was, “What would be the most
damaging piece of information that Saddam Hussein could find out about the US military?”

STROBEL: And will you tell it to us now?

PORTER: Yeah, and tell it to us now, yeah.

STROBEL: It was one of those comic things that really, I mean it struck to the heart of
the matter, because that was the view that the American people had of the media, that we were
just, you know, getting in the way of the war effort, being irresponsible and silly. And that’s
also I think what the military wanted to project. So again there was a lot of gut-wrenching,
soul-searching kind of stuff after the war took place. And everybody for a year or so sort of
thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be sort of the motif for media-military relations for the
coming CNN age.” But it turned out to be very, what’s the word, misleading.

PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Warren Strobel, the
White House Correspondent for the Washington Times. Strobel is author of the book,
Late Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations. Printed
transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast
for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.

STROBEL: You had the same technology in the Gulf War, ’90, ’91, as you do in Somalia a
couple of years later. There’s no huge technological developments between those two time frames.
But the relationship between the media and military is so different, that at least in my analysis
it tells me that it’s not the nature of the technology so much, it’s the nature of the mission.
And also how well the policy makers sell or explain, communicate the mission to the American
people. So when you get to Somalia, a very interesting situation. Most of the media are already
there. By the time the American troops arrive you’ve got a situation where there’s a civil war,
beginning with the collapse of the Siad Barre Regime, and American reporters, most of them based
in Africa, in Nairobi, had been in Somalia or at least in and out of Somalia, for a long time.
They knew the ground very well. And you know, over the horizon come these American troops who,
the first thing they do when they get to Mogadishu is start issuing orders and telling reporters
where to go and what the rules are going to be, and you know, at least a couple of the reporters
I talked to are like, “No, I’ve been here. You’re the new kid in town.” And again, they know the
ground, and the people and the political situation better than many of the soldiers and it gives
them an upper hand.

PORTER: We all remember the pictures of the landing, the US military coming ashore and the
TV cameras and the TV lights are there, and the military was roundly—excuse me—the media was
roundly criticized immediately following that event. Tell us what really happened there.

STROBEL: It’s funny, I think a lot of people in the news media who studied this know this
but the perception still exists that that was a really huge, irresponsible moment by the news
media, one of our worst moments in you know, the last decade or so. But the fact is, reporters
were told exactly where and when to be to cover that event. They were, the US Navy in Washington,
the American general in Mogadishu, Pakistani peace keepers in Mogadishu who had been there for
some time, told reporters and the TV cameras and Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw and everyone else
where to be. Because they wanted us to cover the event. As is so often the case what looks like
the media being irresponsible or using someone else is actually the case of us being used by
somebody else.

PORTER: Yeah, yeah.

STROBEL: And not only that I think, I’m not for a moment saying it was the right thing to
do, to turn on the television lights and blind the soldiers. That’s what happened. Many of the
soldiers coming over the beach had these night vision goggles that magnify whatever little light
is out there and all of a sudden, boom, they have these Klieg lights and it could have been a
dangerous situation. But nobody asked the reporters not to—or the television crews—not to have
their lights on.


STROBEL: And if they had I’m, there’s no doubt in my mind that rather than being charged
with being unpatriotic or endangering American lives we would have turned them off. But the fact
is again that Collin Powell and Bob Oakley, who was the American, lead American diplomat on the
scene, they wanted to send a message and they wanted to use the news media to do it. And there
were two messages they were trying to send. One was a message back to the American people that
this is a very new kind of mission, sending our troops in to help the starving, in the post-Cold
War era. And I think Collin Powell wanted to send a message back that everything was okay. Here
are these heroic soldiers coming over the beach to do a, you know, an altruistic kind of mission.

The other mission—the other message that I think Oakley wanted to send was that here are some
pretty tough looking guys…


STROBEL: …with a lot of weapons…

PORTER: This is an awesome force.

STROBEL: This is an awesome force. And to Mohammed Fara Aidid and others who might have
thought of making trouble: Don’t.

PORTER: Yeah, don’t even think about it.

STROBEL: Yeah. I mean, when you go into a situation the first thing you want to do is
secure the ground; it’s the first day or two, is the most important. And that was done fairly
successfully. There was no trouble until much later. So I guess, you know, to look at these sorts
of situations in the future you have to be I think a little more discriminating in how you view
the relationship.

PORTER: There are some new media access rules right, for combat operations? What are those
rules and have they been tested? And do they work?

STROBEL: I just, you know, there’s a lot of talking about, the rules were set up during
the Gulf War. There was never any agreement about the one issue of prior review. That’s the main
contention in dispute. The military wanted, during the Gulf War, to be able to look at the
dispatches, pool’s reports, and so forth, that were sent back to the Joint Information Bureau and
on to the United States, and review them for security matters. That indeed was done. That was
something that the news media could not accept. I think at this point rules are sort of silly,
frankly. I mean there are some outstanding rules about how the Defense Department wants to
conduct its relationship with the news media, but every situation is so different, so fluid, and
the news media, the reporters, have such an edge right now that I think it’s you know, it’s sort
of a moot point.

Unless you get to a situation where we fight another conflict in the Persian Gulf or there’s a
major conflict on the Korean Peninsula, or you know, this probably wouldn’t happen, but some sort
of conflict in Europe again. Where you have a traditional kind of battlefield situation with
large numbers of troops and a defined goal and all that, then they’re going to put down some
rules for the huge, huge, numbers of press that want to go cover it. But any sort of “not war
situations,” as they’ve been called, which is where our forces are and are going to continue to
be, I just think it’s almost a case of making it up as you go along. It’s a new territory,

PORTER: Let’s move into a sort of a larger policy arena. We talked about those troops
coming into Somalia. Why were they going to Somalia? And there’s this, there’s this feeling out
there among a lot of people that the news media has great sway over policy. That our decisions
whether or not to go into a place like Somalia are in large part made by the media images that we
see. What did you find about the role the media plays in swaying policy makers?

STROBEL: I found that there’s a grain of truth to that, but that’s about it. I mean, I
think my book shows to a great extent those views, and that view of policy making is exaggerated.
And in fact wrong, really. I think you can argue in the early 1990s there was a hug vacuum left
by the end of the Cold War and what was America’s role in the world? What was, what sort of
missions were our military going to be undertaking? And in that sort of vacuum pictures of
starving children in Somalia and other sorts of tragedies around the world may have had some role
in prompting us to go places. But it was sort of like a very narrow window in time. And now in
the late 1990s those same pictures don’t have the same impact. Partly because we learned from
Somalia. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as we think just to go and kind of, you know, being
Americans we want to go and solve the situation and come home. And it’s not that easy.

Furthermore I think on the humanitarian side there’s little doubt that pictures, what we cover in
the news media, can have influence on our decisions to provide humanitarian aide. Whether it be
cholera shots, food for the starving, shelter and so forth, but news media images do not—repeat
do not—get us involved in a more serious kind of way.

PORTER: Do you think there’s a sort of a selective effect in that where the cameras show
us the starving people, we’re more likely to send aid there, whereas there might be other
starving people in the world, but we don’t see their pictures and therefore the clamor for aid
isn’t as great?

STROBEL: I think that’s true. I mean, it’s always been true that the media does have an
affect on agenda. Bernard Cohen was one of the kind of, original researchers, the original person
who studied the media and foreign policies in the 1960s. He wrote a book on the subject, he
talked to a lot of people at the State Department. It was really, you read it today and a lot of
it’s true. One of the famous things he said in that and other works is that the news media, the
newspapers, don’t tell people what to think but they do tell them what to think about. And that’s
still the case. Yeah, if we have cameras in Somalia but not in Angola, that’s going to affect the
public debate in Washington and so forth. But I still don’t think it necessarily tells you what
to do.

And to get back to the point about humanitarian versus other things, there was a lot of
footage—we tend to forget—but there’s a lot of footage of Rwanda and the horrible slaughter
that went on there in 1994. It didn’t have any impact, policy impact, because, for a lot of
reasons. It was post, right after the Somalia thing and because the United States just didn’t
want to get involved in a very unclear situation that would have meant a lot of risk to our
troops and was far away. But as soon as the nature of those images changed, in fact the nature of
the situation changed, the Tutsi army came in, took over Rwanda and there was this huge flood of
refugees, those pictures were on TV and it didn’t seem to be a situation of people killing each
other any longer, it was people in need. Then America acted. And we acted, you know, it’s been
criticized as a fairly cosmetic sort of way, and it probably was, but it was something we felt
and policy makers felt they could do. Which was to airlift large amounts of food and shelter and
other things. So that gives you a little sense of the, you know…

PORTER: I just have a couple more questions for you. One about change. The news media as
an industry is becoming more globalized, not unlike other industries, like automobiles or
insurance, what effect does that have on coverage? The fact that a particular news operation may
be owned by a conglomerate somewhere and you don’t even know where they’re based. It doesn’t even
matter where they’re based. Does this have an effect on coverage?

STROBEL: It does. One of the effects it has and it gets back to what we discussed earlier
regarding the media-military relationship, is that very few organizations have the sort of
national character that they used to. I guess the New York Times is still an American
newspaper and the Associated Press is still an American wire service, but you know, what is Fox?
What is, CNN doesn’t even allow the word foreign to be used in its broadcasts. Or in its shows,
because it’s such a global nature. It’s very hard now for an American general or a British
admiral to say, “You as a national news organization have a right, or have a responsibility, not
to publish X, Y and Z for patriotic reasons.” ‘Cause the corporate CEO may be in Hong Kong or
Berlin or what have you. So that’s really changed. The other thing that’s changed is a little bit
sad, and I’m not an expert on the economics of the industry, but it seems to me, and other people
like Marvin Kalb have talked about this even more, is that even though the technology is grown
and our reach has grown it seems like, at least in the United States, the amount of foreign
coverage and the depth is reduced. Part of that is the end of the Cold War and sort of
America’s—I don’t want to say we’re retreating, but there’s at least a pause, a pull-back in
terms of our interests in the world. And also it’s just, there’s less, there’s more stuff
available, but it seems like more and more it’s stringers, video stringers, who are using,
getting the material. And you see this more of sameness coming in. And it’s a shame because our
capabilities have grown.

PORTER: Even across the spectrum of papers you get the same AP story or the same Reuters
picture. And even on television you get the same video stringer. Yeah.

STROBEL: The same video clip. Yeah, yeah. And it’s, you only notice this almost when you
see something that’s extraordinarily good in the New York Times or on Public Radio or
occasionally the networks will do something good and different. And then you kind of notice that
the rest of it’s been so mediocre.

PORTER: That is Warren Strobel. He’s White House Correspondent for the Washington
, and author of the book, Late Breaking Foreign Policy. For Common Ground,
I’m Keith Porter.

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