Academic journal article Parameters

The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk?

Academic journal article Parameters

The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk?

Article excerpt

The process by which warfighters assemble information, analyze it, make decisions, and direct their units has challenged commanders since the beginning of warfare. Starting with the Vietnam War, they faced a new challenge--commanding their units before a television camera. Today, commanders at all levels can count on operating "24/7" (1) on a global stage before a live camera that never blinks. This changed environment has a profound effect on how strategic leaders make their decisions and how warfighters direct their commands.

The impact of this kind of media coverage has been dubbed "the CNN effect," referring to the widely available round-the-clock broadcasts of the Cable News Network. The term was born in controversy. In 1992 President Bush's decision to place troops in Somalia after viewing media coverage of starving refugees was sharply questioned. Were American interests really at stake? Was CNN deciding where the military goes next? Less than a year later, President Clinton's decision to withdraw US troops after scenes were televised of a dead American serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu seemed to confirm the power of CNN. Today, with the proliferation of 24/7 news networks, the impact of CNN alone may have diminished, but the collective presence of round-the-clock news coverage has continued to grow. In this article, the term "the CNN effect" represents the collective impact of all real-time news coverage--indeed, that is what the term has come to mean generally.

The advent of real-time news coverage has led to immediate public awareness and scrutiny of strategic decisions and military operations as they unfold. Is this a net gain or loss for strategic leaders and warfighters? The military welcomes the awareness but is leery of the scrutiny. The fourth estate's vast resources offer commanders exceptional opportunities. Yet the press--including both print and electronic news media--still receives mixed reviews from the military. Many in the military view the media's intrusion as a potential operational risk and, perhaps, a career risk. But the military needs the media to keep Americans informed and engaged in order to garner public support for its operations. The CNN effect thus is a double-edged sword--a strategic enabler and a potential operational risk.

This article begins with an analysis of the evolution of the military-media relationship in the television age. That analysis will provide the basis for some insights on why the military and the media have such a tenuous, distrustful relationship. In spite of their mutual suspicions, this article will argue that the military needs the media now more than ever. Thus, strategic leaders and senior warfighters should explore how they can best work with the media as an enabler while mitigating potential operational risks.

Military-Media Relations: A Look Back

General Andrew J. Goodpaster (USA Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, succinctly summarized the relationship between the military and the media:

While there is--or should be--a natural convergence of interests in providing to the public accurate information about our armed forces and what they do, there is at the same time an inherent clash of interests (especially acute when men are fighting and dying) between military leaders responsible for success in battle and for the lives of their commands, and a media intensely competitive in providing readers and viewers with quick and vivid "news" and opinion. (2)

If one views the media as representing the people in Clausewitz's trinity (generally, if somewhat inaccurately, characterized as the people, the military, and the government), the first half of General Goodpaster's statement regarding a "natural convergence of interests" rings true. In a perfect world, with the media serving as the lens for the American people, the nation needs the media to ensure equilibrium among the people, its elected officials, and its subordinate military. …

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