Monday, April 4

The 24-hour news cycle making you crazy? Take two readings of the CNN Effect and call me in the morning.

Heeerrreee comes the Six O'Clock News

Aside: It's not fair to CNN to keep calling it the 'CNN Effect; given that it's no longer limited to CNN or even television. But until someone thinks up a better term to codify hasty reactions by decision-makers in response to news generated by the instaneous globalized 24/7 news cycle, which manifests today on thousands of satellite and cable TV outlets and millions of internet outlets that are now available on teeny portable electronic devices, this post will stick with the original term.

I do not know, and I am pretty sure I do not want to know, exactly why Richard Goldstone took it into his head at this time to write an op-ed The Washington Post, in which he attempts to straddle the controversy about the Goldstone Report, which was controversial even before it was written. What is certain is that Goldstone's muddled, waffling attempt to retract a key finding of the Goldstone Report has created almost as much controversy as the report.

All the muddle, waffling and controversy could have been avoided if, at the start, the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza War hadn't caved to public pressure and instead taken reasonable time to investigate an event of vast magnitude and complexity. I'm willing to bet there's still an investigation open in some forgotten department into incidents during the Boer War. Yet under pressure to quickly deliver, the UN mission concluded its investigation after only six months.

Now Mr Goldstone and the officials who rushed to support the Goldstone Report are having to live with the consequences of hasty judgment. This says nothing about the Israelis who've had to live with the report's flawed findings.

Nor do I know or particularly want to know who shot off his mouth in Afghanistan about the burning of a copy of the Koran in Florida. At this point I don't think anyone knows, although there are rumors it was Hamid Karzai trying to head off controversy about rumors that a Koran had been burned in Florida.

What is known is that within about 15 minutes of the announcement a murder rampage arose in Mazar-i-Sharif in reaction to news about the burning of the Koran, and that about 15 minutes later every world leader and high-profile politician not to mention General David Petraeus had issued a condemnation of the Koran burning.

The global uproars connected with the Goldstone op-ed and the Koran burning are illustrations of the CNN Effect, which is threatening to drive the entire freakin' planet bonkers. Even now, the CNN Effect dominates every nation excepting North Korea.

At this rate it could turn out that North Koreans, the world's most oppressed people, end up the world's only sane people. So I'm not sure it's a joke to predict that such a turn of events could open up a huge revenue stream and source of foreign exchange for North Korea, if people around the world clamor to get someplace where they can have a meditation retreat without hearing tinkletinkletinkle every time someone's Twitter account flashes a message to a cellphone.

Another illustration of the CNN Effect is found in the chorus of demands that President Barack Obama hurry up and lead the Free World's response to the crisis in Libya at a time when nobody on Earth had the slightest inkling of what was actually going on Libya.

Obama caved to the public pressure, or it could be that he caved to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bitten hardest by the CNN Effect bug on the matter of Libya. The upshot is that the very same Americans who cried loudest on media outlets for a quick response from Obama are now donning sackcloth and casting ashes about the poorly-conceived U.S. intervention in Libya.

To put the cherry on top, sophisticated players have learned to manipulate the CNN Effect to their advantage, with ratings-hungry TV news outlets such as al Jazeera and CNN playing willing dupes and hordes of Tweeters playing useful idiots. Thusly, the Arab Spring hoax (which I'll make a stab at summarizing in the next post), which has unleashed such chaos across Arab lands that Iran's mullacrats are predicting the end of the world is well-nigh upon us.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia has a nice introductory article, which I quote from here with the advice that national leaders write on the backs of their hands in indelible ink Margaret Tutwiler's observation about the CNN Effect, then wave the backs of their hands at TV reporters every time the crisis du jour erupts:
The CNN effect is a theory in political science and media studies that postulates that the development of the popular 24-hour international television news channel known as Cable News Network, or CNN, had a major impact on the conduct of states' foreign policy in the late Cold War period and that CNN and its subsequent industry competitors have had a similar impact in the post-Cold War era.

While the free press has, in its role as the "Fourth Estate", always had an influence on policy-making in representative democracies, proponents of the CNN effect argue that "the extent, depth, and speed of the new global media have created a new species of effects" qualitatively different from those which preceded them historically.[1]

The term's coinage reflects the pioneering role played by the network CNN in the field, whose "saturation coverage" of events like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the fall of Communism in eastern Europe, the first Gulf War, and the Battle of Mogadishu was viewed as being strongly influential in bringing images and issues to the immediate forefront of American political consciousness and beyond. Despite these origins, the term as used generally refers to a broad range of real-time modern media, and is not exclusive to CNN or even 24-hour broadcast cable news.
Former Secretary of State James Baker said of the CNN effect "The one thing it does is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don't have time to reflect."

Baker's former press secretary, Margaret Tutwiler, mirrors his sentiment: "Time for reaction is compressed. Analysis and intelligence gathering is out." [1]
I hasten to add that sanity still reigns in some quarters. John Batchelor, whose job is to analyze big breaking news stories, peppers his radio broadcasts with reminders that the first three reports in war are wrong, a story is only in the developing stage, a report hasn't been confirmed, etc.

And at the outset of the crisis in Egypt, Mark Safranski as much said on his ZenPundit blog that he wasn't going make a damn fool of himself by holding forth on a topic he knew virtually nothing about.

Pundita, who takes a more sporting approach to surviving life in a madhouse, published posts about the history of beer while her creator crammed on Egypt's military and political situation before plopping out with an opinion on the crisis.

There are other bloggers who make a studied attempt to avoid falling prey to the CNN Effect, Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye among them. But the blogosphere, in the effort to keep up with the frantic pace of the Twittersphere, is in danger of losing its greatest value as a citizen-journalist enterprise: to dig up facts and provide thought-out analysis that the mainstream news media overlooks in its haste to make deadlines.

Digging and rumination take time, of course -- in a news environment that considers a week ago ancient history.

Just as troubling, the CNN Effect has received little public attention since social media and the proliferation of satellite TV channels greatly exacerbated its consequences and spread them outside the confines of public policy-making and defense issues. The reference Wikipedia provides for the quotes I featured is for a report that was published in 1997. And the latest reference Wikipedia provides is from 2005. Yet to glance through the titles and authorship of the reports Wikipedia cites is to immediately recognize the gravity of the CNN Effect (see Wikipedia for hyperlinks to the reports):
1. Livingston, Steven. Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention(PDF). John F. Kennedy School of Government's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. 1997.

2. Belknap, Margaret H. The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk? (PDF). U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project. 2001.

3. Shah, Anup. Media and Natural Disasters. 23 Oct. 2005. [...] External links: "CNN effect" is Not Clear-Cut, essay by Indiana University School of Law professor Fred H. Cate, in Humanitarian Affairs Review. 2002.
"The CNN Effect": How 24-Hour News Coverage Affects Government Decisions and Public Opinion, Brookings Institute/Harvard University forum transcript. 2002.

The "CNN Effect:" TV and Foreign Policy, Center for Defense Information America's Defense Monitor transcript. 1995.
The lack of recent public discussion about the CNN Effect has left publics around the world with the perception that they're beset with one crisis after another -- crises that their political leaders seem chronically unable to effectively address.

The nearest the issue has come to public discussion in recent years, in the United States at least, has been in vitriolic arguments between partisans about alleged political biases of television news outlets, such as CNN and FNC (Fox News Cable). The unrelenting war of words has added to the American public's sense that the world is threatening to spin off its axis. And yet the war has obscured a problem far greater than political bias, one that is rooted in psychology, not politics.

Down through history the leader who says, 'I'll have to think about that' three times in a row is the leader who finds himself out of a job. And yet in today's world the almost universal availability of lightning-fast communication technology makes fools of leaders who try to form important decisions without adequate time to gather sufficient data and reflect.

Perhaps discussion of the CNN Effect doesn't receive enough airing outside academic and military circles because the media consider it a dry subject. As I hope this post indicates the topic is anything but dry, and it is arguably one of the most important issues civilization faces at this time.

1 comment:

Madhu said...

That is why I spent the weekend watching Mildred Pierce.

Okay, I've been commenting on my usual blogs but I am taking a bit of a break.

Twitter drives me insane although I like blogs.

Ugh, information overload!