Television




Chester Pach

Under the cover of darkness on 9 December 1992, U.S. forces went ashore at Mogadishu, Somalia, and got an unexpected reception. The night suddenly turned bright, as television lights illuminated the landing area and temporarily blinded marines and navy SEALs equipped with night vision goggles. At the water's edge were hundreds of journalists who had been waiting to film the beginning of Operation Restore Hope, a humanitarian mission to distribute food and other vital supplies to starving Somalis. The news media had turned the beach into a kind of outdoor television studio, much to the distress of the troops.

The advance guard of Operation Restore Hope did not know that television journalists would complicate their landing. Yet the reporters were there because Pentagon officials had alerted them. Military officials hoped for favorable publicity from news stories about the beginning of a mission that they thought would win widespread approbation. But while they notified reporters, Pentagon authorities forgot to tell marine and navy commanders to expect a reception of lights and cameras.

This incident illustrates the complex relationship between the news media—and particularly television journalists—and those who plan and implement U.S. foreign policy. Journalists depend on government officials for information and access—to conferences, briefings, crisis areas, and war zones. Yet they often chafe under the restrictions that policymakers or military commanders impose. Those who formulate or carry out foreign policy depend on TV news to provide them with favorable publicity as well as information about international affairs or channels for building public support. Yet these officials also worry about the power of cameras and reporters to transform events as well as to frame issues, expose secrets, or challenge official policies. Cooperation and mutual dependence is the flip side of tension and conflicting interests.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, television has been closely connected to U.S. foreign policy. What makes TV important is that it is a visual medium that commands large audiences. Continuing technological improvements, including live broadcasting of international events as they take place, have made television a powerful instrument for conveying information, molding public attitudes, and influencing government policies. Yet it is easy to exaggerate or misunderstand the power of television to shape foreign policy. Beginning in the late twentieth century, the U.S. government had to deal with twenty-four-hour news cycles, "real-time" reporting of "breaking" news, and extensive coverage of international events with large significance, such as the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, or with dramatic appeal, such as whether Elián Gonzalez, the six-year-old refugee, should remain with relatives in Miami or return to his father in Cuba. Television has affected the ways that the U.S. government has made foreign policy and built public support for it. Yet presidents and other high officials with clear objectives and sophisticated strategies for dealing with the news media—for example, George H. W. Bush's administration during the Persian Gulf War and the international crisis that preceded it—have maintained control of foreign policy and commanded public backing for their international agenda.

Yet even before it had such immediacy or reach, television played a significant—and sometimes controversial—role in shaping government actions and popular understanding of international affairs. The Vietnam War was a critical event. It began, at least, as an American war, just when television had become the principal source of news for a majority of the U.S. public. It offered lessons—controversial, to be sure—about the role of TV in shaping public attitudes toward international affairs. And it occurred at a time of significant changes in journalism. Despite their devotion to objectivity, balance, and fairness, TV reporters would no longer insist, as Edward R. Murrow had in 1947, on a contract provision that limited his right to express opinion in his stories. Vietnam, in short, marked a major transition in the relationship between television and foreign policy.

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See also Dissent in Wars ; The National Interest ; The Press ; Public Opinion .

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