Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era

By Jonathan Mermin | Go to book overview

Six
Television News and the Foreign-Policy Agenda

IT IS OFTEN argued that television news caused the United States to intervene in Somalia in 1992. Bernard C. Cohen writes that in the 1990s television

has demonstrated its power to move governments. By focusing daily on the starving children in Somalia, a pictorial story tailor-made for television, TV mobilized the conscience of the nation's public institutions, compelling the government into a policy of intervention for humanitarian reasons.1

In the view of Michael Mandelbaum, “televised pictures of starving people” in Somalia “created a political clamor to feed them, which propelled the U.S. military” into action.2 Adam Roberts characterizes U.S. intervention in Somalia as “Responding to the immediate pressure of media.”3 George F. Kennan describes American policy as “controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry.”4

Next to Vietnam, Somalia may be the most often cited case of media influence on American foreign policy. The argument that television contributed to the U.S. decision to intervene in Somalia is consistent with the chronology of events and news stories presented in this chapter. Somalia appeared on American television just before major changes in U.S. policy in August and November 1992, and these stories might well have influenced the decision of the Bush administration to act. What is not clear, however, is why Somalia appeared on television in the first place.

In the cases examined up to this point, it is easy to see why the events in question made the news. In the case of Somalia before the United States decided on military intervention, this is precisely what must be established. One possibility is that independent journalistic initiative put Soma

____________________
1
Bernard C. Cohen, “A View from the Academy,” in Bennett and Paletz, Taken by Storm, pp. 9–10.
2
Michael Mandelbaum, “The Reluctance to Intervene,” Foreign Policy 95 (summer 1994): 16.
3
Adam Roberts, “Humanitarian War: Military Intervention and Human Rights,” International Affairs 69 (July 1993): 446.
4
George F. Kennan, “Somalia, through a Glass Darkly,” New York Times, September 30, 1993, A25.

-120-

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