Turn around time: Matt Baum on media coverage of the Syrian chemical weapons attack and its effect on U.S. foreign policy

April 12, 2017
Robert O'Neill

With the April 4 chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held part of Syria, and the heart wrenching images that followed of civilians dying, the United States policy on that country’s civil war seemed to change abruptly. While a private citizen, and then again as candidate, Donald Trump’s statements on involvement in the brutal civil war had been unequivocal – a tweet in 2013 that urged the United States to “stay the hell out of Syria” pretty much summed up a policy that seemed intent on keeping America focused on American domestic problems and away from policing the Middle East, and that believed there was no alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But, reportedly deeply moved by the images of children suffering, Trump ordered a military strike on a Syrian airstrip and his administration is now talking about the end of Assad. Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications Matthew Baum studies the intersection of international conflict, domestic politics, and the media.

 

Q: The Syrian civil war has been a deeply documented tragedy, with iconic photographs of refugees fleeing violence or children pulled from bombed-out buildings, massive coverage in the media, and a constant stream of information on social media. Was there something about the April 4 chemical weapons attacks that set it apart from others?

There is a longstanding international norm – codified through the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – against the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The CWC applies to both combatants and civilians. The Assad regime, which signed the CWC in 2013, flagrantly violated it on April 4. Perhaps equally important in understanding subsequent events, there was extensive, near-real-time television and social media coverage of the after-effects. This brought graphic images of civilian casualties to people around the world.

Civilian deaths from other means – whether it be from bombs, guns, or otherwise – are arguably equally horrific, and the Assad regime has killed with conventional weapons a great many innocent men, women, and children. Yet chemical weapons evoke exceptionally strong, and near universal, public revulsion. Civilian deaths from conventional weapons typically do not produce comparable outrage. It was the involvement of chemical weapons, combined with graphic images of suffering children, that made the events of April 4 a compelling narrative for television. This, in turn, prompted American television networks to broadcast the sorts of graphic images that they have mostly eschewed in covering the Syrian civil war, as well as most other conflicts.

These images, and the strong public outrage they generated, increased the odds that the president – reportedly an avid watcher of cable news – would encounter such images and feel a need to respond. In short, it is the novelty of chemical weapons use against civilians and their consequent newsworthiness that sets this event apart, far more so than the existence of civilian casualties, which, tragically, have been a daily occurrence during the Syrian Civil War.

 

Q: Is there truth to the so-called CNN Effect – that images have changed the course of American foreign policy? Does this count as such an instance?

As originally articulated by journalists and scholars, the CNN Effect refers to a scenario in which shocking television images of human suffering prompt such widespread public demands that the U.S. government “do something” to alleviate the suffering that the president feels irresistible pressure to act. The archetypal case, which formed the basis for most of the arguments concerning the CNN Effect, is the 1992 US-led humanitarian intervention in Somalia, known as Operation Restore Hope.

The CNN Effect narrative in that case held that television images of starving children, resulting from the 1991 civil war and subsequent famine in Somalia, produced intense public pressure on the Bush administration to intervene to alleviate the famine. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that the Bush administration made its major decisions concerning intervening in Somalia largely prior to intense media coverage or public interest. Such coverage and public attention in that case appears to have mostly followed, rather than led, the U.S. into Somalia.

Most political communication scholars have subsequently concluded that television images typically cannot “force” U.S. presidents to militarily intervene abroad against their preferences. That said, it seems possible that this case might be different. Observers of U.S. foreign policy have loudly complained that they have been unable to discern any clear Trump doctrine with respect to foreign affairs, beyond “America First,” the practical implications of which remain opaque. President Trump, in turn, is reputedly an avid watcher of cable news and regularly responds to stories appearing in the news via Twitter. If one accepts that there currently exists something of a doctrinal vacuum in U.S. foreign policy, then, given the President’s apparent propensity to respond to what he sees in TV news stories, it seems at least plausible that the U.S. cruise missile attack represents a variation on the CNN Effect. In this scenario, however, the media’s influence would primarily be direct – on the president himself – rather than via the previously assumed pathway through public opinion. The president’s publicly expressed outrage at witnessing (on TV news) the after-effects of the attacks lends at least some credence to this view.

 

Q: For Trump, the unwillingness to show concern for those affected by far-away conflicts, whether they be refugees or victims, seemed to be part of his “brand” and attracted many supporters who were sick of costly foreign interventions. Is there a political cost, or at least the need for a realignment, that comes with this apparent change in course?

Several segments of his coalition reacted strongly negatively to the attack. One such segment might be termed the Bannon-Breitbart base, which began circulating a conspiracy meme about the chemical weapons attack – promoted by right-wing radio host Alex Jones – on the day after the April 4 chemical weapons attack. The meme held that the entire event was a so-called “false flag” hoax, propagated by opponents of President Trump to goad him into intervening. Despite their opposition to the U.S. attack, these individuals are likely to maintain their support for Trump for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps more troubling for Trump is the negative reaction from another segment of his coalition – isolationist-leaning libertarians, led by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – who also reacted quite negatively to the cruise missile strike. Here again, I expect that this one incident will be fairly quickly forgiven. But it does portend deeper problems maintaining the Trump coalition, should the United States broaden its overseas military entanglements.

 

Q: Once everybody becomes aware of the influence of images and media coverage on foreign policy, does it shape the way the media behaves and the way policymakers respond?

In some respects, this horse long ago left the proverbial barn. For instance, journalists have been considerably more persuaded by the CNN Effect narrative than their academic counterparts who have empirically investigated the issue. This has led to a great deal of hand wringing among journalists about their responsibility to be, well, responsible in exercising any such influence.

What may be “new” is the election of a president who clearly pays close attention to television news and routinely, as well as publicly, responds to it in real time. As I discussed earlier, this seems to at least raise the possibility that the media could directly influence the Trump administration’s foreign policy decision making. The administration would surely deny this, and certainly we do not know whether or not news coverage had any causal impact on the decision to launch the April 6 cruise missiles attack. But presumably journalists and news producers – particularly at Fox News – have taken note of the president’s seeming responsiveness to their coverage. Whether or not such concerns are sufficient to override newsworthiness norms (that is, covering a “good story” in ways designed to maximize audience appeal) is a different question. My expectation is that, barring some sort of dramatic incident that leads to widespread public pressure on the media to alter its routines, traditional market incentives will continue to drive journalistic decisions regarding what to cover, how to cover it, and when to do so.

Matt Baum

Matthew Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications at Harvard Kennedy School.

 


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