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Reflections on the Politics of the Global ‘Rolling-News’ Television Genre

The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by the proliferation of culture and communication, the explosion of information technologies and channels, and the expansion of the cultural industries. These developments in communication have had significant socio-political impacts internationally. The recent advancements in satellite technologies with the accompanying expansion of activities in international television news markets have been among these developments. Specifically, the ability for instantaneous media coverage of events across the globe has brought to the fore the role media play in the conduct of foreign policy. Labels such as "the CNN effect" have become shorthand for explaining that role. In this article, I address international "rolling-news" (or "all-news") journalism as a specific television genre. In doing so I first address the concept of "the CNN effect." Second, I put the expansion of CNN in the larger context of the political economy of global television news. Third, I discuss some of the features of contemporary transnational television news and specific characteristics of the rolling-news format as a genre. In the concluding section, I discuss some of the political implications of the proliferation of international rolling-news television for democratic values and processes for a transnational civil society. While it is easy to paint an alarming picture of the rolling-news technology as a corporate- and technologically-driven global political agent, I want to point (cautiously) as well to its potential as a facilitating force in the emergence of a global democratic polity.

"The CNN Effect" Thesis 
The impact of communication technologies, designated as the CNN effect, may be discussed in three analytically distinct categories. Serving as a typology of CNN influence, these categories conceptualize the CNN effect as accelerant, as impediment, and as agenda-setting agency (Livingston, 1997).(1)

First, when the CNN effect is conceptualized as an accelerant, the assumption is that the latest global communication technologies deprive diplomats of the luxury of time for careful deliberation. Within the context of transnational satellite technologies, "real-time" journalism is the defining term that characterizes many journalistic practices subject to the principle of speed. This principle necessitates instant analysis and response. As Nicholas Burns, State Department spokesperson, states, "In our day, as events unfold half a world away, it is not unusual for CNN State Department correspondent Steve Hurst to ask me for a reaction before we've had a chance to receive a more detailed report from our embassy and consider carefully our options."(2) Second, when we conceptualize the CNN effect as an impediment to foreign policy, we attend to the dramatic and emotional impact of images. Here the concern is the public's emotional response to particular images (e.g., ghastly images of death and misery). The decision by the Clinton administration in 1993 to terminate the intervention in Somalia, some argue, was based on the public's reaction to such televised images (see Seib, 1997).

Finally, the most familiar way to conceptualize the CNN effect is to view it as an "agenda-setting" agency. Mohamed Sacirbey, Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations, once said: "If you look at how humanitarian relief is delivered in Bosnia you see that those areas where the TV cameras are most present are the ones that are the best fed, the ones that receive the most medicines. While on the other hand, many of our people have starved and died of disease and shelling where there are no TV cameras" (cited in Seib 1997, p. 90). It has been reported that the decision to intervene in Somalia in the first place was based on the press coverage of human misery. As Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press secretary, confessed about the Somalia policy decision: "After the election, the media had the free time [to cover Somalia] and that was when the pressure started building up. We heard it from every corner that something must be done. Finally, the pressure was too great. The president said, 'I just can't live with this for two months.' TV tipped us over the top at a time when the death rate [from starvation] was over a 100 a day" (quoted in Seib, 1997, p. 44). When the images of starvation, anarchy, and human misery appear on television screens, television becomes the de facto "must-do-something" framework for policy-makers.

Yet despite the obvious pressure of round-the-clock coverage as a complicating factor in the conduct of foreign policy, we cannot conclude that CNN's agenda-setting drives policy decisions. To take the case of "humanitarian crises" (e.g., Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda) for example, the evidence is contradictory at best. Livingston (1997) has demonstrated, for example, that the majority of humanitarian operations are conducted without much media attention. Livingston and Eachus (1995) have argued that the decision to intervene in Somalia was based more on diplomatic and bureaucratic operations than press coverage. These counter-examples suggest that in order to understand the political efficacy of CNN and the CNN effect thesis, we must examine the larger context of international global television news.

Political Economy of Global Television News 
It is clear that communication technologies in some cases have become implicated in the conduct of foreign policy. A good point of departure for reconsidering the larger context of global television news is the agent most visible in the "CNN effect" debates, the American Cable News Network (CNN) itself. Much of what is meant by "the CNN effect" is an effort to articulate media-driven foreign policy. The reason that CNN, "the world's news leader," gets singled out is its dominance in the global news market. Surpassing European competitors such as Sky News and BBC World, CNN reaches over 150 million television households in more than 212 countries and territories throughout the world. It is available to more than 800 million people all over the planet. CNN Group is hailed as one of the most profitable news and information operations (Thussu, 2000). CNN's expansion into multiple networks, with a wholesale news service (CNN Newsource) that sells video news to more than 600 broadcast entities around the world, has demonstrated the degree to which news business can be profitable. The CNN "family of networks" (Flournoy and Stewart 1997, p. 3) has become a major force in international news markets.

All News (maybe), All the Time (maybe): The Birth of a Genre 
CNN often refers to its coverage of the Persian Gulf War as "our defining moment." It was the around-the-clock coverage of this particular event that introduced CNN to the world. Its 11.7 prime-time rating (January 15-21, 1991) was ten times higher than its usual rating (Hallin and Gitlin, 1994). The recent restructuring and "personnel shake-up" at CNN (Kempner, 2000), however, illustrates that, in spite of its global reach and successful business ventures (e.g., wholesale news service), CNN is struggling to maintain a viable audience in a competitive and media-saturated environment. In the absence of international conflict, CNN's ratings and advertising revenue continue to fall. As Richard Kaplan of CNN puts it, "Our greatest strength, is our greatest weakness" (cited in Jensen, 1999). In this context, Hachten (1999) observes, "It can be argued that CNN is primarily a technological innovation in international news by reason of its ability to interconnect so many video sources, newsrooms, and foreign ministries to so many televisions sets in so many remote places in the world" (p. 49). Moreover, during peace time "the overwhelming interests of audiences everywhere are not about global news per se but, in a more focused way, about their own region and locality" (p. 50). "Yet when the next world crisis erupts," Hachten continues, "global television news will take center stage once again" (p. 50). Thus, we may conclude, truly "global" television news has to be either conflict-driven or it will cease to exist as such. I shall return to this argument in my discussion of the global politics of CNN but here, I want to reflect more carefully on the characterization of CNN as a "technological innovation."
Communication technologies have been implicated in the conduct of foreign policy since the invention of telegraph (Neuman, 1996).(3) What constitute new developments have to do with CNN as a "rolling-news" channel and the concept of "real time" journalism. In this sense we may speak of global news as a new genre in television. Two aspects of this new genre, "real time" reporting and "talk/speculation," are particularly striking and deserve reflection.

Truly "global" television news has to be conflict-driven or it will cease to exist as such

According to many observers one of the most troubling aspects of the current international communication technologies in the service of news is the idea of "real time" journalism. Rolling-news channels tend to thrive on the fact that they can be "on the spot" at a moment's notice. "Going live," as a distinct televisual advantage, becomes a guiding principle in journalism. In the language of a film theorist, if photography operates in the "that-has-been" mode, television's mode of operation is that of "this-is-going-on" mode, a perpetual "presentness" (Doane, 1990, p. 222).(4) Given television's claim to "presentness," rolling-news channels capitalize on television's primary mode of operation, the temporal dimension.The ability to "go live" has become, MacGregor (1997) argues, a "selling point" in a highly competitive world of broadcast journalism. He believes CNN makes a "fetish out of live reporting" (p. 184). MacGregor's book, with the suggestive title ("Live, Direct and Biased? Making Television News in the Satellite Age"), is a catalogue of the perils of technology-driven all-news international broadcast channels.(5) He argues that speedy attempts at being first on the spot leave no time for reflection, corroboration, and even news-gathering. One of the more well-known cases on his list is when John Holliman, one of the three CNN men reporting "live" from Baghdad during the early hours of the Persian Gulf War, asked Atlanta for news from the Pentagon and Saudi Arabia. "Intriguingly," comments MacGregor, "the man with seemingly the best seat in the house, the eyewitness to history reporting live on global television, is asking for information" (p. 6). In a section titled "Gas-mask Journalism," he argues that in the midst of all the frantic "coverage" no one from Atlanta, Tel Aviv, Washington, or from Jerusalem itself bothered to ask if the Iraqis would send missiles into what is after all a holy city for Muslims. "Knowledge, calm analysis, stop-a-minute-and-reflect journalism, might have saved CNN some embarrassment as they sought a second night of exclusive live broadcasting" (p. 8). The currency of labels such as rooftop journalism, helicopter journalism, and palm-tree journalism (reporters staying by the hotel poolside with high-tech equipment for live feed), reflects the routinization of such practices.

What is particularly relevant to our argument is that such a development is to a large extent the result of the insatiable appetite rolling-news television channels have for content. Indeed MacGregor (1997) sees the shift in function from newsgathering to reporting live as a response to "the relentless demand of rolling-news" (p. 88). Such a demand is met in other ways as well, the consideration of which leads us to the second striking characteristic of the rolling-news genre. Apart from repetition by way of recaps and summaries, rolling-news channels tend to fill their schedule with "talk" and "speculation" (opinion, analysis, debate, talk shows, etc.). Here talk/speculation takes on an entertainment function. The boundless commentary on a sex scandal (e.g., Monica Lewinsky affair) has been characterized as "tabloid" ("sensational") journalism. The standard argument in such a context is that entertainment is creeping into the news. But if we follow our argument to its logical conclusion we have to turn the argument around. That is to say, we have to conclude that the news industry is taking over the entertainment division of the networks. "The intrusion of the real," Mellencamp (1990) argues, "is also the taking over of entertainment by the news division" (p. 57).

Let us briefly use the concepts of "real-time journalism" and "talk/speculation" to reflect on the genre's defining moment, the Persian Gulf War (the Persian Gulf War as CNN's "defining moment" is effectively the birth of the genre). We may use Baudrillard's (1995) argument to reflect on the intersection of "real-time" journalism and "talk/speculation" as the most significant characteristics of global rolling-news genre. Baudrillard makes a distinction between the event (e.g., the Gulf War) and the televisual simulacrum that purports to represent it (the spectacle of war on CNN). That is to say, real events lose their identity once they are "encrusted" with "information" as real-time media events (p. 48). Put another way, the event (the Gulf War) disappears in the endless speculation and interpretation by experts, analysts, and commentators (the media event). Gerbner (1992) offers a similar argument in an essay titled "Persian Gulf War, the Movie" (the "Movie" is what Baudrillard calls the simulacrum). Gerbner argues, "Instant history is made when access to video-satellite-computer systems blankets the world in real time with selected images that provoke immediate reactions, influence the outcome, and then quick-freeze into received history" (p. 244). Making instant history "requires a total environment of actuality, images, talk shows, slogans, and other creative manifestations"(p. 248). In this context, talk/speculation and real-time technologies, as two significant characteristics of global rolling-news television, are the main ingredients of instant history.

In short, the tragic conflicts around the world, the latest communication technologies ("real-time" journalism), a medium with a relentless appetite for content ("talk/speculation"), and an industry eager to increase its profit margin by exploiting those conflicts (the commercial structure of the transnational broadcasting industry), are the structural ingredients that made possible the emergence of the global rolling-news television genre. In the next section of this article, I discuss the international political implications of the emergence of this genre.

Reflections on the Political and the Televisual 
In this concluding section I address the international rolling-news broadcasting operations in terms of the international public sphere framework. I want to reflect on the political dangers and potentials of international rolling-news broadcasting in terms of this framework.

Some of the more significant political implications of global television news may be examined by way of reflection on the idea of "global." I should start by pointing out that some find the term "global" ideologically suspect insofar as it tends to elide the tensions inherent in a term like inter-national (see Tomlinson, 1991). Moreover, it tends to avoid the state (as in nation-state) and its role in a more contentious political realm. Even a term such as "international community" is ideologically charged. Sorting out who belongs to this "community" and who is excluded from it (e.g., that notorious concept of "rogue nations") is essentially political analysis. Yet, the international media, and those whose interests they represent, always strive to construct "the global community" in their address. In this attempt to construct the "global community" lies the political dimension of the international media.

In his research on the television coverage of the Reagan-Gorbachev Summits as global "media events," Hallin (1994) addresses the construction of "global community" by the international media. The framework he finds most appropriate for applying to a divided and conflictual world is that of the public sphere. His analysis examines the possibility of the constitution of an "international public sphere." He defines the public sphere as "the arena of civic discourse, in which citizens enter into an ongoing dialogue about the concerns of the society." The idea of the public sphere "involves a conception of community centered around participation in a common conversation rather than sharing of common values" (p. 161, emphasis original). In this context, he wants to know if such global media events opened up an international public sphere. To the extent that the two "superpowers" engaged each other before the "court of world opinion," and engaged in a conversation with the world press, and to the extent that the journalists from both countries entered into a dialogue with each other, the "summits opened a semblance of an international public sphere" (p. 161). The notion of the international public sphere, however, has its limitations. In order to address these limitations, Hallin breaks down the notion of global community into two views: the civil (the people as the citizens of the of the world) and the statist (the states as the citizens of the world). He concludes that at the statist level, the participation in the "global dialogue" was "extremely uneven" given the fact that the views of many states were excluded from the dialogue. At the civic level, however, the media played a different role. "Because it invokes the standpoint of humanity as a whole, for example, and because it humanizes political leadership, the summit as media event can be seen as pushing toward the civil voice" (p. 163).

Earlier, I observed that "global" television is conflict-driven. The centrality of conflict tends to involve global television news in a statist view of the global community. If we take the case of the Persian Gulf War (CNN's "defining moment") for example, the global media can hardly take any credit for contributing to a global dialogue or the constitution of an international public sphere. Quite the contrary, the research shows not only a lack of dialogue, but it also paints the global media as instrument of war and propaganda in the hands of those with the means to deploy them (e.g., Denton 1993, Mowlana 1992, Gerbner 1992, Manheim 1994, Cumings 1992). The conflict in Kosovo, to take another example, follows the same path in privileging the views of a few (e.g., Taylor 2000, Thussu 2000, Vincent 2000). This trend has been present in the post-Vietnam "low-intensity conflicts" in the Falklands, Grenada, and Panama as well. These cases alarmingly question the status of the press as instruments of dialogue and civic discourse and their role in a democratic transnational civil society.

At the same there are some optimistic signs as well. There are occasions when the international rolling-news television contributes to a civil view of the global community and in doing so it contributes to the constitution of an international public sphere. The continued international coverage of disasters and catastrophes (e.g., earthquakes, famines, accidents, etc.), as well as other public ceremonies (e.g., Olympics, royal weddings, summits, etc.) does contribute to a conception of a single humanity and a single international (civil) society. Additionally, in the absence of conflict and disasters, through the insatiable demand for content, albeit in the form of talk and speculation, the international rolling-news television cultivates interest in participation in matters of public concern. The televisualization of foreign policy issues and policy-making processes (e.g., public affairs programming, current affair talk shows, etc.) amounts to a politicization of those processes.(6) Such a development promises democratic potential by fostering accountability to the public in publicizing those processes.

In this article I have focused on some of the issues raised by the debate on "the CNN effect." I have addressed those issues in terms of the emergence of a new television genre. If a medium with a relentless appetite for content has the technological means to reach a truly global audience, then we have reasons for both optimistic and pessimistic views of the future. The transnational broadcasting technologies may be used to promote the views and the interests of the powerful. Alternatively, they could be used to bring to the global audiences matters of international concern to promote dialogue. It is not the communication technologies but their deployment that can foster or shun democratic values.


Notes and References

(1) Needless to say, one may further differentiate effects. Livingston (1992) discusses the media as impediment category as (a) an "emotional inhibitor" and (b) a "threat to operational security." My purpose in this article, however, is larger in scope and such distinctions will be subsumed in the larger context of my arguments.

(2) Quoted in Livingston (1997, p. 294). For other statements and examples attesting to this issue see Neuman (1996), Seib (1997), and Livingston (1997).

(3) For a full explanation of the history of communication technologies and their relationship to foreign policy see Neuman (1996).

(4) In the sense that the obscuring of temporal dimensions of information ("always" there), crisis (conflict with "duration"), and catastrophe ("instantaneous") constitutes the specificity of television's operation (Doane, 1990), we might say that the rolling-news channel is a realization of the principle of operation of television as such.

(5) MacGregor's book is particularly valuable since it is rich with data, from interviews with practitioners and detailed analyses of newsgathering technologies, procedures, and rituals.

(6) One such program was broadcast around the world on February 1998. As the United States prepared a military strike against Iraq for failing to meet the demands of the UN's weapon inspection team, CNN, at the request of the White House, organized a "town hall meeting." Titled "Showdown With Iraq: An International Town Meeting," the program was to drum up support for taking military actions. Contrary to the White House's expectations, the audience of this "talk show" refused to ask polite questions and embarrassed the administration. While the program was deemed a "public relations fiasco," it was seen as a "bonanza" for CNN (Bennet, 1998). The public participation in this case, while accidental, is nevertheless a democratic byproduct of the televisualization of foreign policy decision-making processes.

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