Leadership: November 15, 1999

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The CNN Effect: During the 1990s, the media has hijacked public opinion. Increasingly, the mass media not only reports what is going on, but energetically pushes their own version of what the popular will is. They do this even when the media version is at odds with the real one. 

National leaders have always paid attention to public opinion. Even dictators and kings do so, for revolution can replace a head of state as quickly as an election. But in the past, before television and polls, taking the public pulse was more art than science. Most leaders didn't stay on top unless they were able to sense what the people were thinking. No more. In the past half century, electronic media and highly efficient polling methods have been used by democrats and tyrants alike to keep tabs on what the public wants, or strongly dislikes. 

There is no secret conspiracy among journalists and media barons to rule the world. No, it is the result of intense competition among an ever growing number of mass media outlets. You've got to attract lots of eyeballs to stay in business and the best way to do that is to turn out one catchy headline after another. This means that reporting the news is submerged by the need to sell those headlines. Actually, this is nothing new, but news moves so fast now, often in real time, that there is little opportunity to stop and think. Go with the best headline and get the next one ready.
This has had a curious effect on our political leadership. The president sees a hyped up story on CNN, believes it, or believes the voters will believe it, and reacts. The voters, who are a lot more sober minded than they are given credit for, assume that the president knows what he's doing when troops are ordered to some trouble spot because of the mass media attention. And so off the troops go to Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor, Haiti and sundry other emergencies. But at the same time, the politicians insist that it is unacceptable for any American troops to be put at risk. 

How can this be? Public opinion insisting that troops are needed overseas, but only if none of them are hurt. What kind of armed forces does that? Is this what the people really want? Well, it turns out it isn't.

A recent opinion survey by Duke university researchers shows that there is a serious difference of opinion between our political and media leadership, the military leaders and the public. The survey asked a random sample of these groups how many dead American troops would be "acceptable" if U.S. armed forces were called on to; stabilize a democratic government in Congo, prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, or defend Taiwan against invasion by China. 

The answers were interesting. For the Congo, the military leaders would tolerate 284 dead, the media and politicians 484 and the public 6,861. For Iraq, the acceptable losses were 6,016 for the brass, 19,045 for the politicians and 29,853 for the public. For Taiwan, the generals would tolerate 17,425 dead, the politicians 17,554 and the public 20,172. What is missed here is that the public knows which overseas wars are important to their lives, and which are not. Taiwan and the Persian Gulf are places that, if trashed by war, would hurt the American economy and have a very personal effect on many Americans. But unrest in a a lot of other places, like the Congo, have little or no effect on Americans. The generals and politicians realize this. But once the media jumps all over the horrors unfolding in out of the way places, and provides vivid visual coverage round the clock, any part of the world starts to look like a place that needs U.S. troops to make things all better. 

But the generals and politicians also know that if they get involved in a war that the public sees as not in America's interest, and there is not a quick victory, the American people will be quite upset if a lot of Americans get killed in the process. This is what happened, big time, in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in Korea. But let us not forget that a century ago, it was headline hungry media that got us into the Spanish-American war and World War I. But we won both of those wars in short order. Now there is more media scrambling for attention. There are always plenty of conflicts going on around the world, always have been. And now you can get camera crews into just about any place on the planet and report live. The only thing that limits the media is that many of these strife torn areas are very dangerous, even for normally sacrosanct journalists. 

The military leadership, who work with the troops and feel rather protective of them, also take seriously their duty to protect the United States . They know there is no such thing as a risk free war. You might get lucky, and you might fight at arms length and hope for the best, but eventually your people get hurt. Thus the generals are reluctant to get behind wars that are not obviously in America's interest. The American public also understand that wars are very dangerous and that if you get into one, a lot of troops are not coming back. 

But the media doesn't care, the politicians is unwilling to face down the sensational headlines and the voters, as always, more aware of what is really going on than the press or their elected leaders give them credit for. 

 


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