AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1993

When Pictures Drive Foreign Policy   

Somalia raises serious questions about media influence.

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf.     

The images horrified the nation. Americans were stunned as television news programs aired footage of jeering Somalis dragging the body of a dead U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu. Viewers also saw U.S. Army pilot Michael Durant nervously answering questions from his Somali captors, his eyes flicking toward them as he tried to gauge their reactions.

Those who missed the evening news saw the images in their local newspapers, many of which ran photos of the dead and captured Americans on their front pages.

After seeing the pictures, which were first shown on October 4 and 5, thousands of Americans called Capitol Hill to demand that U.S. troops be withdrawn. Newspapers that ran them were deluged with calls and letters from readers who were furious that the pictures had been published.

Members of Congress referred to the pictures – and the resulting calls – in angry speeches exhorting President Clinton to bring the troops home immediately. National security adviser Anthony Lake said the photographs made the president "very angry," and lent "a new urgency" to White House efforts to clarify U.S. policy toward Somalia.

The photographs and the reactions they evoked sparked a nationwide debate about the political and ethical implications of the pictures, and the media's influence on foreign policy.

Government officials, policy analysts and journalists are concerned about the powerful impact that photographs can have on public and congressional opinion. Dramatic images can oversimplify complex issues, commentators say. They fear that emotions raised by the pictures of the dead and captured U.S. soldiers, for example, might overwhelm other political and military factors that the Clinton administration needs to consider regarding Somalia. Some believe the situation is further complicated by the fact that the video footage was shot by Somali stringers whose political sympathies are unclear.

"What sort of policy making is it to have Washington's actions decided, even in part, on the latest affecting pictures on the evening news?" wrote the New York Times' Walter Goodman.

Some analysts, however, believe the photographs illustrate how the media increase the public's participation in foreign affairs by showing the results of governmental decisions.

The pictures "brought home to everybody in this country that something was wrong with the American policy," says Newsday's Patrick Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Persian Gulf War and has reported from Somalia.

The photos also raise questions about the role of the media in the post-Cold War world, where the framework for formulating policy – and news coverage – on the basis of the East-West conflict has collapsed.

Diplomats and analysts say the crisis in Somalia, and the way that news organizations have covered it, is an example of the challenges facing the government and the media, at a time when the criteria for defining U.S. interests have not yet been formulated.

The situation is complicated, they say, by the media's capacity for showing real-time images of violence and conflict from any part of the world. This practice can distort public opinion and government priorities. Analysts also are concerned that U.S. coverage often lacks historical and cultural context that could give the public greater – and sorely needed – perspective.

The photos from Somalia are only the most recent example of how visual images can affect foreign policy.

The U.S. public's horror at the on-camera execution of ABC newsman Bill Stewart in 1979 by a Nicaraguan national guardsman helped persuade the Carter administration to withhold support for dictator Anastasio Somoza – a decision that helped the Sandinistas overthrow him.

In the weeks after the Persian Gulf War, the American public's reaction to the pictures of Kurdish women and children killed and wounded by Saddam Hussein's forces as they tried to flee Iraq led President Bush to begin Operation Provide Comfort, sending U.S. forces to protect refugees.

Some commentators believe U.S. policy in Somalia has been driven principally by photographs. They say the pictures of starving children that appeared in the media last year contributed to the decision to send in U.S. forces.

On the day that U.S. troops departed for Somalia last December, retired diplomat George F. Kennan questioned why the American people and members of Congress had accepted President Bush's decision to send American forces to a distant land where the United States had no pressing national security interests.

"There can be no question that the reason for this acceptance lies primarily with the exposure of the Somalia situation by the American media, above all, television," he wrote in his diary, excerpted in the New York Times on September 30.

If U.S. policy, "particularly policy involving the uses of our armed forces abroad, is to be controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry," he continued, "then there is no place..for what have traditionally been regarded as the responsible deliberative organs of our government."

Some journalists believe that view exaggerates the power of television. In responding to Kennan, CBS newsman Dan Rather wrote in a letter to the New York Times that "to give television credit for so powerful an influence is to flatter us who toil there – but it's wrong." Some reporters "may wish for the power to direct public opinion and to guide American policy – but they don't have it."

CNN executive Ed Turner made a similar point on the cable network's "Reliable Sources," which examines media issues.

"It's up to the president and the State Department to conceive policy and execute it, and if somehow we are driving them, then maybe we need some new officials in Washington," he said on the October 10 program.

But New York Times Washington Bureau Chief R.W. Apple Jr. said Turner's idea of how policy is formulated is "a fantasy." The "journalism of images," Apple said, has always had a "tremendous impact upon public opinion, and public opinion has always had a tremendous impact on government."

Some argue that this relationship has strengthened the democratic process by providing the public with information to evaluate foreign policy decisions.

Author and former New York Times reporter David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War, says the image of starving children drove the United States to become more involved in Somalia, and now the pictures of U.S. casualties in Mogadishu have provided a "counterimage" that tells Americans "the price of this involvement."

Toronto Star correspondent Paul Watson says that's one reason he took the photo of the Somali crowd dragging the dead soldier. The photo was distributed in the United States by the Associated Press.

"I think it is important for the people who elect the politicians, and who should decide where their troops go, to know what happens to them," he said in an interview from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa.

CNN's Turner cited similar reasons for his network's decision to run footage of the dead and captured U.S. troops. CNN had video of one dead soldier, plus that of Durant, shot by a CNN stringer. Video of another U.S. casualty being dragged through the streets had been shot by a stringer for Reuters, whose headquarters is in London.

The American people "have a right to see what their foreign policy is, how their tax dollars are being spent, what's happening to their troops," Turner said on "Reliable Sources." "It's fair and proper that they should understand what this kind of warfare is all about."

Using Foreign Stringers

Some journalists and policy analysts express concern that the footage had been shot by Somalis whose political affiliations were unclear, and who might be vulnerable to manipulation or intimidation.

U.S. news organizations have been relying on Somali personnel since pulling correspondents out of Mogadishu earlier this year, after several journalists were killed and others received kidnaping and death threats.

Former CBS and New York Times newsman Bernard Kalb, who has also worked for the State Department, challenged CNN's use of the videos. "How do we know we can trust the product that is being distributed?" Kalb asked Turner on "Reliable Sources."

"You don't," Turner replied. But he defended CNN's decision to use the footage. "You get this and you don't use it? We're in the job of reporting." Americans "would rather know more about what's going on rather than less."

Turner said in an interview that he didn't know whether the CNN stringer had ties to the clans fighting in Mogadishu, but that the stringer had been reliable in the past.

Reuters Editor in Chief Mark Wood says he presumed the stringer who took the video of the dead U.S. soldier had tribal ties to clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid, but did not believe that had affected his coverage.

Wood says the stringer, Issa Mohammed, had worked for Reuters as a driver and assistant. When the news service pulled its staffers out, it handed Mohammed a camera and told him to shoot whatever looked important.

His videos have always seemed unbiased, Wood says. All Mohammed's footage has been scrutinized by Reuter personnel in Nairobi, Kenya, and in London because the news agency is aware he is not "a qualified journalist."

"We would rather have had a skilled cameraman or journalist there," he says, "but having lost three people in one incident, we weren't prepared to risk any more lives."

That doesn't comfort Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. He thinks the increasing use of foreign nationals "is one of the more serious problems now facing television news."

Kalb says the networks "hand out camcorders to political activists in different parts of the world" because news departments don't have enough staffers or money to cover the story, or consider the situation too dangerous for U.S. journalists. Viewers don't know whether video from abroad comprises "honest pictures" or "pictures taken for political purposes," he says.

CNN's Ralph Begleiter recalled seeing a story from South Africa in which the black correspondent was an employee of the white minority government, a fact that many viewers did not know. News organizations need to tell the public "more about these people who are providing the news," he told a foreign policy forum sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University.

Nevertheless, some journalists think concerns about foreign nationals can be exaggerated. "It's the news quality of the picture that counts," says Newsday's Sloyan. The videos of the dead and captured U.S. soldiers were "clearly taken with all the proper parameters for news photography."

Distorted Picture?

Another concern about the impact of the images on the debate about policy in Somalia is that they may present a distorted view of the situation.

"There is a great success story here that the television pictures don't always show," Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) told reporters on October 5. Outside Mogadishu, "the food is being delivered... There is a lot that has been accomplished."

USA Today senior diplomatic correspondent Johanna Neuman points out that the media had not shown pictures of the thousands of Somalis who had demonstrated in support of the United States after more than a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed during fighting in Mogadishu on October 3.

CNN's Turner acknowledged the lapse, and the network later ran reports about the demonstrations. Many newspapers ran stories and photos about the positive results of U.S. involvement in the weeks that followed, but it was too late to change many hearts and minds.

Rep. W.J. Tauzin (D-La.) echoed the feelings of many members of Congress when he cited the "ingratitude" shown by Somalis in the photos as a reason to bring U.S. troops home.

But some journalists say this attitude indicates that the Somalia coverage was distorted not by the photographs of the dead and captured U.S. soldiers, but by a lack of pictures that could have provided more context for understanding what happened to the American troops.

"The pictures that we don't have from Somalia are as significant as the pictures that we do have," says Dave Marash of ABC's "Nightline." "There have been a lot of casualties on the Somali side," but Americans seldom have seen photographs of those deaths.

Exaggerated Impact?

Policy analysts say that although the pictures of American casualties have been a catalyst for renewed debate about U.S. policy in Somalia, they have not controlled the discussion.

"Image in and of itself does not drive policy," Marvin Kalb says. "Image heightens existing factors."

These factors, such as the history of the region and chances of achieving clear objectives, have the decisive effect on policy making, Kalb says. He and others point out the media have carried searing images of the situation in Bosnia for more than a year, but U.S. involvement has been limited to air operations, partly because both the public and government officials regard the situation as a complex ethnic conflict unrelated to immediate U.S. interests.

USA Today's Neuman, who is writing a book about television coverage of war, believes diplomats sometimes use dramatic images as an excuse to cover policy failures.

"I think that policy makers may be too quick to blame the picture or the media drumbeat when the evidence suggests that it's a failure of leadership," she says.

Nevertheless, she and others agree that television has altered forever the way in which foreign policy is formulated and conducted.

U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, testifying about Somalia at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing October 20, said, "Television's ability to bring graphic images of pain and outrage into our living rooms has heightened the pressure both for immediate engagement in areas of international crisis and immediate disengagement when events do not go according to plan. Because we live in a democratic society, none of us can be oblivious to those pressures."

Neuman says despite the drawbacks, communications technology has helped to "democratize information," giving the public a greater voice in policy debates. Television has meant "the end of elitism in diplomacy," she says. Government officials have to "talk to all of us now."

Air Force Reserves Maj. James Callard, who teaches U.S. foreign policy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, says this information has given the public an opportunity to re-evaluate the principles underlying U.S. foreign policy, including using military force to achieve political objectives.

Callard says the photographs of the dead and captured soldiers in Somalia have led people to ask not only how and where the armed forces will be used overseas, but why. As the public has gotten more access to information about these decisions, it is less willing simply to accept the government's word that the commitment of troops is justified.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict and a leading proponent of a rapid pullout of U.S. forces in Somalia, also says increased coverage of military operations is "not all bad."

"World War I wouldn't have lasted three months if people had known what was going on in that conflict," he said on CNN's "Crossfire" on October 14.

However, the nature of modern media coverage presents serious problems for foreign policy. Television's ability to show conflicts as they occur greatly reduces the time that governments have for deliberation and negotiation before the public demands action.

Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, believes "real-time coverage is a disaster in terms of its impact on foreign policy."

Public opinion used to be formed over weeks or months, but now "it takes only hours for [it] to in some way be galvanized" to support "a particular policy or approach," Dennis says. "One of the obligations of leadership these days is to try to take a somewhat measured approach in the midst of all kinds of conflicting signals and visual images that might, in fact, be wrong."

But the media's emphasis on conflict makes this difficult. "For many viewers for whom this is the main source of news, the picture of the world is limited, threatening and deeply distorted," James F. Hoge Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote recently in Media Studies Journal.

Retired diplomat Jack F. Matlock Jr. says in the same journal that television's emphasis on violence means that important elements of foreign policy decisions receive little coverage. "Television is excellent at conveying a feel for violence, a feel for struggle, but not very good at conveying constructive things, institution-building. It's day-in, day-out work, with very little spot news."

But institution-building is at the heart of the Clinton administration's policy in Somalia, and commentators agree that this trend is one of many that the media must learn how to cover in the post-Cold War world.

Setting the Agenda

Questions about the pictures of the dead and captured U.S. soldiers – Did they have too much influence on policy? Did they present a distorted picture of U.S. policy? – reflect larger issues about how the media will set the agenda now that the East-West conflict has destroyed what Matlock calls the "navigation points" that guided foreign policy and news coverage for 40 years.

Some analysts believe the media – which in the past often allowed the government to set the agenda for foreign coverage – will develop independent criteria for evaluating which issues and events will define coverage in the wake of the Cold War.

However, several aspects of the Somalia coverage suggest that the media's priorities may not change much. The coverage shows that the media continue to focus on what Hoge calls "flashpoints of conflict" rather than reporting on political or economic trends.

The resulting emphasis on "parachute journalism" – dropping correspondents into trouble spots and expecting reports within hours – means Americans seldom receive the background or context that would enable them to evaluate U.S. policy in a meaningful way, commentators say.

For example, few stories about Somalia have discussed how the country became involved in the East-West conflict. During the 1970s and '80s the Soviet Union and the United States showered dictator Siad Barre with money and weapons, hoping to win his allegiance. These armaments "still fuel his hellish legacy," according to Nigerian journalist Tunji Lardner.

Most stories also don't mention that Aidid, whom many U.S. media now call a "warlord," helped overthrow the dictator Barre in 1991, thus becoming a hero to many Somalis.

"The Western press typically seems unaware of the historical record," Lardner wrote recently.

Many reporters still view Somalia through a Western prism.

They are unaware that some analysts believe the humanitarian intervention that their photos and stories supported is "humanitarian imperialism" that enabled the U.S. government to pursue its own policy initiatives under the guise of doing a good deed, says Freedom Forum research associate Jon Vanden Heuvel.

Some Somalis regard the United States as just "another player" in the political system, especially after the troops' mission was expanded from feeding the starving to nation-building, he says.

Information about historical and cultural factors might have enabled the public – and the government – to understand why some Somalis have been hostile to U.S. efforts to become involved in the country's political affairs.

But most news reports did not discuss these issues. Instead, the photograph of the crowd jeering the dead soldier has become a critical moment in U.S. policy, some commentators say.

The picture, says Marvin Kalb, is "not just an American body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu," but "a symbol of American power being dragged through the Third World, unable to master the new challenges of the post-Cold War era." l