By the early 1990s many people had concluded that television news possessed formidable powers to influence the U.S. government's foreign policy. The "CNN effect," as it is usually called, actually has several dimensions. The first is providing a new channel of diplomatic communication, one that allows governments to transmit proposals or engage in dialogue, sometimes with extraordinary speed. Officials in the Bush administration, for example, sometimes used TV to send messages to Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait, hoping that a public channel might increase the pressure on the Iraqi leader to accede to U.S. demands. Government leaders, however, have long used the news media as channels of diplomacy. Radio, for example, carried Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Point Address of 8 January 1918 to an international audience.
The second dimension of the "CNN effect" is setting the foreign policy agenda—giving certain issues urgency or importance through news reports that capture the interest of millions of viewers and elicit a strong response. The ability to provide live reports from almost anywhere in the world, to transmit dramatic, emotional images, and to show them repeatedly seems to provide television with powers that exceed the other news media to alter the priorities that the government gives to international issues. The third dimension is accelerating official action. Even before the advent of CNN and other twenty-four-hour news channels, Lloyd Cutler, a counsel to President Carter, found that TV news had led to "foreign policy on deadline," as White House officials hurried to take action—to make a statement, to announce a new initiative—before the next newscast.
The final—and most controversial—dimension of the "CNN effect" is forcing government action. George F. Kennan, the foreign service officer who was an architect of containment during the early Cold War, summarized this perspective in a diary entry about U.S. intervention in Somalia in December 1992. Kennan maintained that television pictures of starving Somali children had produced "an emotional reaction, not a thoughtful or deliberate one," but one strong enough to take control of foreign policy decisions from "the responsible deliberative organs of our government."
A closer look at U.S. involvement in Somalia, however, suggests different conclusions than Kennan's about the effects of televised images on government policy decisions. Quantitative studies show that extensive coverage of the famine and fighting in Somalia followed the policy initiatives of the Bush administration in 1992 rather than preceded them. Television coverage surely affected the views of administration officials and gave them confidence that what they thought would be a limited, low-risk humanitarian intervention would have considerable public support. But television pictures of suffering Somalis did not determine the president's decision to dispatch troops. Television had a more decisive effect on President William Jefferson Clinton's decision to terminate Operation Restore Hope when newscasts showed shocking tape in early October 1993 of a crowd in Mogadishu desecrating the corpse of a U.S. soldier who had been killed in a firefight. The U.S. casualties took the president by surprise, and he was not prepared to appeal to angry members of Congress for the continuation of a mission that had suddenly grown dangerous. Instead, Clinton announced that U.S. forces would come home by 31 March 1994.
Television showed the horrors of ethnic cleansing and civil war in Bosnia, and those reports were influential but not decisive in shaping U.S. government action. Scenes of Serb camps with emaciated Muslim and Croat prisoners in August 1992 produced condemnations from the Bush administration. Yet the president and his principal advisers were unwilling to take military action, as they believed that there was no clear exit strategy. Clinton, too, reacted intensely to graphic TV reports of atrocities, such as the casualties that occurred when a mortar shell exploded in a Sarajevo marketplace on 5 February 1994. But he followed no consistent policy. Not until mid-1995 did the Clinton administration approve strong measures, including continuing NATO air strikes, to bring the Bosnian war to an end. Available evidence suggests that the president acted to eliminate a major problem that burdened U.S. foreign policy and that threatened his political prospects. Almost four years later, in March 1999, the United States and its NATO allies again used military force in an air war against Yugoslavia to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. News reports, including many on TV, of brutality against Kosovars contributed to public support for this war. But concern about popular reaction to potential U.S. casualties led Clinton to rule out the use of ground troops, except for peacekeeping.
The "CNN effect" influenced U.S. interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. TV reports helped set the agenda; at times, officials of the Bush and Clinton administrations had to react—sometimes quickly—to events that dominated the newscasts. But the "CNN effect" was variable, and it was only one of many factors in the process of formulating foreign policy.