CNN: Selling NATO's War Globally
( * Note: This document originally was published as Chapter 10 in Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, Eds., Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (
CNN: SELLING NATO'S WAR GLOBALLY
By Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
The Cable News Network (CNN) made a spectacular leap into prominence as a global news organization during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, with its veteran journalist Peter Arnett reporting live on-the-spot from
Even in 1990-1991, policy-makers and "influentials" watched CNN to learn about and transmit messages to the enemy as well as the public. The wide reach of its all-news format and ability to go "live" at any time with "breaking news" have made it easy for CNN to get policy-makers to cooperate with ready access, interviews, and even a scheduling of their daily events with an eye to gaining airtime on CNN.
CNN's importance from the Gulf War onward has even given rise to the notion of a "CNN effect" or "CNN factor"—the belief that CNN "has become part of the events it covers" and that with its seeming omnipresence CNN "has changed the way the world reacts to crisis." In this view, CNN's ability to focus an audience's attention can increase public pressure on political leaders, virtually forcing them to act. Viewed positively it would supposedly democratize policy-making, whereas for critics and policy-makers themselves it would hamper policy, forcing them to respond to a more volatile and uncontrolled public opinion.
But this notion of CNN leading policy not only fails to take into account the institutional constraints on CNN's policies and practices, it is also not consistent with the way in which CNN's agenda is formed, how it frames issues, and its presentation of specific details in reporting on something like the Kosovo crisis. The bulk of this chapter will be devoted to an analysis of the latter set of issues. However, we can say in advance that CNN's performance before, during, and after Operation Allied Force, NATO's war against
CNN's Institutional Constraints
Time-Warner, CNN's parent corporation and the world's largest media enterprise, makes no bones about the fact that its "foremost business objective is to create value for our shareholders," that its top managers see cultivating the affluent Baby Boomers as a business imperative, and that increasing their share of the advertising market is a major route to profitability. Neither Time-Warner, its major advertisers, nor the major cable systems it supplies with news would be pleased if CNN stepped far out of line by allowing dissenting voices much play.
Another major constraint for CNN is the imperative that it attract viewers and keep them watching. This impels the network to adopt "news-making" practices that stress action and visuals while avoiding both in-depth contextual reporting that may bore its audience and the presentation of unconventional points of view that may anger or alienate them. Superficiality and the conduiting of official propaganda also result from CNN's focus on "breaking news," where speed precludes accuracy checks, meaningful context and the encouragement of serious criticism and debate.
Maintaining good terms with U.S. Government officials is of paramount importance to CNN as it depends on the U.S. Government for commercial and diplomatic support as it expands abroad, and because much of its news comes from government decisions, press releases and reports. This exceptional degree of source dependency and the symbiotic relationship that develops in its wake makes for an uncritical media consciously allied with, and readily managed by, the government. CNN's "professionalism" is largely reduced to making sure that the right news conferences are covered, that the handouts are real, and that the names of the speakers are spelled correctly.
CNN prides itself on being a "global," not a
The NATO-CNN Partnership
When U.S. Special Envoy for Yugoslavia Richard Holbrooke lauded the mainstream
If NATO said that the bombings were motivated by "humanitarianism," that was enough for CNN reporters, and CNN's Christiane Amanpour asserts that NATO's war was for "the first time...a war fought for human rights" (Oct. 6, 1999). That "only a fraction of 1 percent of the [NATO] bombs went astray" is gospel for Amanpour simply because that is what NATO says (Oct. 6). If NATO claimed that the Serb brutalities and expulsions that followed the bombing would have happened anyway, Amanpour takes this as unquestioned truth ("this has been an offensive that has, you know, been planned for a long time," April 3). That the Serbs were committing "genocide" (Tom Mintier, March 18; Miles O'Brien, June 26), whereas NATO's military operations were regretfully doing only what was necessary and proper, was a premise of CNN anchors and reporters. And that NATO patiently sought a negotiated peace while Milosevic was the "wild card" who "may be testing western resolve" and with whom the West was "fed up" (Brent Sadler, Jan. 27; Andrea Koppel and Joie Chen, Jan. 29), was standard CNN usage.
Although CNN official Will King asserted that CNN explored "issues from why wasn't Nato getting involved in other similar conflicts elsewhere in the world...and was the
CNN's journalists not only followed NATO's agenda and failed to ask critical questions, they also served as salespersons and promoters of the NATO war. Time and again they pressed NATO officials toward violent responses to claims of Serb brutalities and unwillingness to negotiate, with NATO allegations on these latter points taken at face value. CNN's Judy Woodruff repeatedly asked NATO officials about the threat to NATO's credibility in the absence of forceful action (Jan. 18, 1999); Wolf Blitzer pressed unrelentingly for an introduction of NATO ground troops, raising the matter a dozen times in a single program (April 4). Amanpour complained bitterly that General Wesley Clark "had to lobby hard to get his political masters to escalate the bombing" and that there were "19 different leaders who insisted on vetting the bombing" (Oct. 6), her last point a patent falsehood. When NATO bombing was constrained by bad weather, a CNN anchor expressed clear disappointment; and when delays were announced in the delivery of U.S. Apache helicopters, CNN's correspondents were dismayed. In short, CNN's personnel were rooting for the home team.
In its use of sources, also, the CNN pro-NATO tilt was immense. Based on a 38-day sample of CNN coverage of the Kosovo crisis and war, the accompanying table (see Table 1, below) shows that representation of NATO-bloc officials, past and present, was an overwhelming 61 percent, led by 257 U.S.-U.K. official appearances (35.3 percent) out of a 728 total. The U.S.-U.K. official representation exceeded that of the Serbs by a 3.4 to 1 ratio. But this greatly understates the difference in representation, for two reasons. One is that on average U.S.-U.K. spokespersons were given almost triple the time given the Serb officials to state their case, so that adjusting for this difference the ratio of representation jumps to 9 to 1.
Table 1 : Sources Tapped by CNN During the Kosovo War[*]
Number of Appearances
Percentage of Appearances
NATO Bloc Officials
NATO Bloc Ex-Military
Other Current or Past
Total NATO Bloc Representation
Non-NATO Bloc Excluding
15 Major Western Opponents
* Based on a sample of all CNN programs on the Kosovo war for 38
days, from March 14-31 and May 26-June 14.
** The fifteen opponents of the war that we checked were: Phyllis Bennis, Francis Boyle, David Chandler, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Majorie Cohn, Regis Debray, Robert Fisk, Robert Hayden, Diana Johnstone, George Kenney, Jan Oberg, John Pilger, Benjamin Schwarz, and Norman Solomon. Of these 15 people, only three, George Kenney (twice on March 25, once on March 27), Phyllis Bennis (June 3) and Ramsey Clark (June 7), turned up on CNN during the sample period.
But an equally important factor is the difference in CNN's treatment of NATO and Serb officials. The former are treated deferentially as spokespersons of a just cause, and the questions encourage them to elaborate on their plans and claims, without challenge (except for the previously mentioned suggestions that more forceful action may be necessary to establish credibility). In contrast, when Serb spokespersons make claims and charges, CNN treats them politely, but they are often challenged with counter-arguments, and the issues they raise are not explored.
This failure to explore issues and present evidence and analyses contrary to those of NATO was reinforced by CNN's unwillingness to tap oppositional sources in the NATO countries themselves. As the table shows, of 15 important dissident commentators, only three had brief appearances on CNN in the sample period. These dissident sources quite possibly would have had more credibility to CNN's audience than Serb (or Russian) spokespersons, making their virtual exclusion from CNN an important form of closure of oppositional voices.
CNN IN THE KOSOVO WAR: CASE STUDIES
How well or how poorly CNN, or any other "news" organization, carries out its purported mission is above all else an empirical question. So, how did CNN employ its considerable news-gathering tools in the Kosovo war? In what follows, we will present three short case studies, each of which suggests some unflattering conclusions.
The "Peace Process": Rambouillet
In late January, 1999, the six members of the Contact Group (the
But the truth was another matter. The actual "peace process" comprised an ultimatum by NATO that Belgrade either agree to NATO's military occupation of Kosovo and loss of effective sovereign rights there or accept the consequences. As State Department spokesman James Rubin explained to CNN on February 23: "[T]o put the proper pressure on President Milosevic, we understand quite well [what] was necessary. And what's necessary is the very real prospects about NATO strikes. And that can happen if, and only if, the Kosovar Albanians agree to the agreement." In the end, the leading NATO powers wanted to bomb
occupying rights throughout all of
As late as February 22, Serb negotiators had announced that they were ready to sign the "Political" section of the agreement as it then stood. What they adamantly refused to accept was the "Implementation" section's proviso that would have allowed NATO to occupy Kosovo. For their part, the Kosovar Albanian delegation had rejected the "Political" section precisely because it said nothing about a process that would lead to a referendum on the future status of Kosovo. But NATO had been counting on the Kosovar Albanians to sign on, openly conditioning any future attack on
Then over the night of February 22-23, NATO inserted new terms into the agreement that called for "a mechanism for a final settlement for Kosovo, on the basis of the will of the people," a last-second change that the Serbs interpreted to mean the eventual loss of Kosovo. The Serbs had agreed to the "Political" settlement in their prior form, but now rejected it because of the new terms. Then one month later, on March 23, a vote by the Serb National Assembly reaffirmed the basic conditions to which the Serb delegation had agreed all along: (a) a "political agreement on wide-ranging autonomy for Kosovo..., with a securing of a full equality of all citizens and ethnic communities and with respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia;" (b) a negotiated review of "the size and character of the international presence in [Kosovo] for carrying out the reached accord," without specification of what this might entail; but, crucially, (c) "no presence of foreign military troops in Kosovo," and certainly no troops under the command and control of NATO. This vote suggested the strong possibility that a negotiated settlement to the crisis was still within reach. NATO flatly rejected the principles affirmed by the National Assembly. One day later, the bombing began.
How well did CNN handle this period of nominal diplomacy? As it postulated NATO justice and confrontation with evil, CNN portrayed the entire process as one of a reasonable NATO trying to get an evasive Milosevic to agree to a reasonable ultimatum. Is he "getting the message?" (Gene Randall, Jan. 30, 1999). "Can Milosevic be trusted" to carry out it out even if he agrees? (Bill Press, June 3). CNN wasn't interested in the subtleties of negotiating positions; they were even quite aware that NATO was trying to get the Albanians signed up to allow it to bomb
CNN completely missed the story of NATO's insertion of "Appendix B" in the Interim Agreement, guaranteeing no further negotiations and assuring that NATO could bomb. The one accurate mention on CNN of what from the Serb point of view was objectionable about "Appendix B" did not occur until June 6, in a brief appearance by Radmilla Milentijevic, a former Information Minister of
Altogether, in the weeks and months leading up to the bombing, CNN's reporting was closely geared to NATO's propaganda needs. First, the legality of NATO's threats to bomb and occupy
The Racak Massacre
The story of the "Racak massacre," which first surfaced on January 16, 1999, was a key episode in the buildup toward the NATO bombing. It "provoked an international outcry," according to a subsequent report by the OSCE, "and altered the perspective of the international community towards the [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbian authorities in Belgrade." The day before, a mixture of forces from the Yugoslav Army (VJ), the Ministry of the Interior (MUP), Special Police Units (PJP) and paramilitaries carried out what they termed a "police" action in and around four villages south of the capital, Pristina (Racak, Petrovo, Malopoljce, and Belince). The purpose of their mission was to "arrest members of the terrorist group that last Sunday [January 10] attacked a police patrol, killing one policeman," the
The next morning, local Kosovar Albanians took journalists and OSCE observers to a gully near Racak that contained a number of dead bodies, all wearing civilian clothes. William Walker, the head of the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission, arrived at the scene and indignantly denounced the alleged massacre and mutilation of civilians. "It looks like executions," he said. "From what I personally saw, I do not hesitate to describe the event as a massacre—obviously a crime very much against humanity." (Note that this is the same William Walker who, while serving as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in 1989, down-played the November 1989 murders by "death squad" of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter by stating that "Management control problems exist in a situation like this. And it's not a management control problem that would lend itself to a
This story, as it was handled by the Western media, including CNN, provided a public relations coup for NATO. CNN reported the story intensively but uncritically. It never mentioned that the Serb action was carried out with TV and OSCE observers invited and present, who along with a French journalist were in and around the villages for many hours, but said nothing about a massacre before the presentation of the corpses in a gully the following day. The account of the incident by the two Associated Press TV reporters who filmed the operation, cited in both Le Monde and Le Figaro, contradicted the conclusions of William Walker and the KLA, but was never picked up by CNN. CNN's one reporter who had the chance to see the bodies reported that they had been deliberately mutilated (Bill Neely, ITN Correspondent, January 16). But forensic tests by a Finnish investigating team as well as by Serb and Belorussian experts denied this and explained the damage as a result of animal bites (probably from packs of hungry stray dogs, numerous in Kosovo), contradictory evidence that went unreported by CNN. The Finnish experts were very cagey about releasing their report, and stories abound regarding the political pressure that was put on these experts right up through the date on which they announced their findings. "The Americans in particular...were hoping that [the Finnish experts] would accuse the Yugoslav authorities of a massacre to back up an initial judgment by the American head of the Western monitoring mission in Kosovo, William Walker," London's Daily Telegraph noted. But this never happened. As Belgrade forensic expert Branimir Aleksandric claims, the Serb, Belorussian, and Finnish studies found that each of the dead bodies recovered from the villages had been killed by firearms used at a distance, adding that 37 of them had gunpowder residues on their hands, indicating that they were KLA fighters rather than civilians as claimed. CNN, which initially followed William Walker and the KLA in asserting that all the victims "appeared to have been shot at close ranges" (Juliette Terzieff, Jan. 16), never reported the conflicting findings by the forensic experts.
From beginning to end, in reporting this story CNN allowed itself to be led by the nose by the Walker-NATO hook. CNN never mentioned Walker's background as long-time Reagan administration official in Central America and apologist for government crimes in that area; its reporters never questioned the appropriateness of his appointment as head of OSCE's observer mission, a fact that was resented by other OSCE officials and personnel; nor did they question the possibility that Walker was pursuing a war-preparation agenda. Prominent European newspapers—among them Le Figaro, Le Monde, Frankfurter Rundschau, and the Berliner Zeitung-—raised questions about Walker's qualifications and agenda, about the possibility that the Racak "massacre" was set-up to be exploited by the war-making clique within NATO, and the peculiar facts of the massacre scene itself, but CNN ignored them, choosing instead to play the game precisely according to the rules of William Walker and NATO.
The Bombing of Serb Broadcasting
NATO's threats to bomb Serb Radio and Television began in early April, when NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark accused them of being "an instrument of propaganda and repression" on behalf of the Milosevic government, hence, a legitimate "military" target. A series of attacks followed, most notably on April 21, 23 and 25—roughly the same period that NATO's 19 members gathered in Washington for its 50th Anniversary celebration.
Little noticed and completely suppressed by CNN was the fact that through April 20, just one day before the facilities were bombed, both CNN and other U.S. broadcast networks had also occupied and made use of the building housing Serb Radio and Television. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz reported that "CNN and the
Nor did CNN find newsworthy the ethical dilemma posed by its use of this knowledge to move its own employees out of harm's way, while failing to share this potentially life-saving information with their colleagues at Serb Radio and Television. In deciding to bomb Serb Radio and Television, NATO had clearly chosen to target a non-military facility occupied by civilians, with as many as 16 people killed in the strikes that followed. This is a violation of the rules of war that preclude deliberate attacks on non-military targets, which makes the attacks and deaths that followed a war crime. However, as NATO claimed that these were legitimate "military" targets, that was enough for CNN. The issue was never addressed, and CNN's definitions of "war crimes" were confined to those proclaimed by NATO and its war crimes Tribunal adjunct at
Overall, CNN served as NATO's de facto public information arm during Operation Allied Force. Its performance was highly partisan (i.e., pro-U.S. and pro-NATO); and despite its pretensions at being a "global" enterprise, its news-making was not significantly different from that of its
—— Endnotes ——
1. Time Warner 1999 Factbook, Turner Entertainment section, p. 4, Time Warner Inc., 1998 Annual Report, passim. These numbers reflect the global reach of the entire CNN News Group, within which there were 12 different divisions in 1999, including the flagship Cable News Network, CNN Headline News, and CNN International.
2. CNN's own research into audience demographics uses the term "influentials" to describe their target audience, and a CNN official has said that "there is no point in [determining viewership] in the bottom 50 percent of the socio-economic when they don't have access to CNN." Quoted in Don M. Flournoy and Robert K. Stewart, CNN: Making News in the Global Market (University of Luton Press: 1997), pp. 197-98.
3. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, speaking before the CNN-hosted Fourth World Report Contributors Conference in Atlanta, May 1993, quoted in Peter Brock, "Dateline Yugoslavia: The Partisan Press Coverage of the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Foreign Policy, Winter, 1993-1994.
4. 1998 Annual Report, pp. 5, 13, 37.
5. Will King, Untitled, in Peter Goff, Ed., The Kosovo News and Propaganda War (Vienna: International Press Institute, 1999), p. 121.
6.Nicholas Varchaver, "CNN Takes Over the World," Brill's Content, June, 1999.
7. King, Untitled, in Goff, Ed., The Kosovo News and Propaganda War, p. 123.
8. This statement was made by Holbrooke at the annual awards dinner of the Overseas Press Club, cited by Norman Solomon, "Media Toeing the Line," Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 9, 1999.
9. King, Untitled, in Goff, Ed., The Kosovo News and Propaganda War, p. 123.
10. These last two cases are cited in Michael Massing, "The Media's Own Kosovo Crisis," The Nation, May 3, 1999.
11. We are of course referring to the Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-Government in Kosovo, "Appendix B: Status of Multi-National Military Implementation Force." Therein one finds the following item: "8. NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the [
12. George Kenney, "Rolling Thunder: the Rerun," The Nation, June 14, 1999; and Robert Fisk, "The Trojan horse that started a 79-day war," The Independent (
13. This particular term can be found at Chapter 7, Article VIII, "Operations and Authority of the KFOR," which is separate from and not identical with the terms of "Appendix B".
14. Andre Viollaz, "Albright snared in Kosovo trap," Agence France Presse, February 24, 1999.
15. The relevant clause can be found at Chapter 8, Article I, paragraph 3. According to Eric Rouleau, "
16. See "Decisions and conclusions of the National Assembly of the
17. We ran a search of the Nexis database for mentions of "Appendix B" and "Kosovo" in the same article or transcript for the dates February 6 - June 14, 1999. The very first mention of "Appendix B" did not occur until April 26, when a reporter asked Jamie Shea a specific (and accurate) question about it, during Shea's appearance at the National Press Club in
18. Our summary here and the details that follow partly draw upon Diana Johnstone, "Making the Punishment Fit the Crime," in Tariq Ali, ed., Masters of the Universe? NATO's Humanitarian Crusade (
19. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told. An analysis of the human rights findings of the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, October 1998 to June 1999, Ch. V, "Stimlje/Shtime."
20. "Heavy artillery fire in Kosovo," Agence France Presse, January 15, 1999; Melissa Eddy, "15 Reported Killed in Kosovo," AP Online, January 15, 1999; "At least 15 rebels killed in southern Kosovo," Agence France Presse, January 15, 1999.
21. We say "a number of dead bodies" because the estimates that were circulating at the time of the number of dead bodies found in the gully (40-46) were later shown to be inaccurate. The OSCE puts the number of bodies found in the gully that day at "more than 20;" the total number of dead in all the villages where fighting took place was between 40 and 45. The Finnish forensic team that performed autopsies on the remains claims the number of bodies recovered from the gully was 22. See OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told; and "Racak killings: report says victims were unarmed civilians," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, March 17, 1999.
22. Pierre Lhuillery, "Forty-five slain in Kosovo massacre," Agence France Presse, January 16, 1999.
23. Lee Hockstader, "Our Man in
24. Christophe Chatelet, "Les morts de Racak ont-ils vraiment ete massacre froidement?," Le Monde, January 21, 1999; and Renaud Giraud, "Kosovo: zones d'ombre sue un massacre," Le Fiagro, January 20, 1999.
25. Johnstone, "Das Racak-Massaker als Ausloser des Krieges," in Bitterman and Deichmann, Eds., p. 66.
26. Julius Strauss, "Kosovo killings inquiry verdict sparks outrage," Daily Telegraph, March 18, 1999. Strauss also reports that at the news conference where the findings of the Finnish team were finally released, "Mr. Walker and his aides shook their heads to show their disapproval as [the Finnish team] refused to answer any question that would support Mr. Walker's earlier claim that Racak amounted to a 'crime against humanity'."
27. Johnstone, "Das Racak-Massaker als Ausloser des Krieges," in Bitterman and Deichmann, Eds. 1999. See also "Yugoslav Forensic Experts Say 'No Massacre' in Kosovo," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, March 18, 1999; "Finnish autopsies on Racak massacre are inconclusive: report," Agence France Presse, March 17, 1999; "Prosecutor Says No Reason to Charge Police Involved in Attack in Kosovo," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, March 12, 1999; "Serb police escape legal action over Racak killings in Kosovo," Agence France Presse, March 10, 1999; "Forensic Institute Says No Evidence Kosovo Albanians Massacred," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts," February 18, 1999.
28. On the possibility that
29. Craig R. Whitney, "NATO's Generals and Civilians Clash Over Bombing TV," New York Times, April 9, 1999.
30. Howard Kurtz, "NATO Hit on TV Station Draws Journalists' Fire,"
31. We take this number from the "Provisional Assessment of Destruction and Damages Caused by the NATO Aggression on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," published by the Yugoslav Government July 1, 1999.
32. See Jan Øberg, Preventing Peace: Sixty Examples of Conflict Mismanagement in Former
33. See the OSCE report, Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told. Part II, which covers the period June 14-October 31, 1999; and Robert Fisk, "Serbs Murdered by the Hundreds Since 'Liberation'," The Independent (London), November 24, 1999. A more fitting title for this OSCE report would be The Triumph of Ethnic Hatred in Kosova. Under NATO's occupation, Kosovo has become virtually a monoethnic state.