How the U.S. Media Promotes War as Entertainment

‘They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.’

– Ernest Hemmingway 1

The technological advances of the post-war era in the machinery of warfare have made human suffering and death in conflict-zones acutely brutal. Innocuous sounding weapons used in the public lexicon such as ‘daisy-cutter’ and ‘rocket propelled grenade’ are weapons used in modern conflict to inflict heinous death and casualty. However, public perceptions of the reality of war have been consistently censured by the press – in this case the American media establishment – since as early as the American Civil War. While the obvious reason for this is to maintain public morale and support for life-threatening conflict, American military intervention since that civil war has been projected internationally. During the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the explosion of media communications technology has mirrored military R&D in that it has allowed instantaneous access to global conflict.

In three case studies that chart American intervention – the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and the Second Gulf War – I will argue that the development of communications technology combined with traditional economic pressures in the Network News medium have reduced public perceptions of American intervention to a form of ‘entertainment.’ I will contrast the pressures and prejudices of journalists and producers on the ground with the economic pressures facing competing media networks to enlarge this debate. Specifically, this will address the ‘rolling news’ format that the Central News Network (CNN) established during the first Gulf War. Finally, the relationship between the media conglomerates and their target audience will be considered in reaction to the ‘entertainment’ label.

The emergence of the CNN Effect can be categorized as ‘the negative effect on the economy caused by people staying home to watch CNN or some other news source during a crisis such as a war.’ 2 It would be a misconception to place the ‘CNN effect’ as one simply referring to ‘rolling news’, a concept adopted by many international media outlets but pioneered by CNN in the first Gulf War. If one takes the CNN effect as an amalgamation of these two definitions, then the overall CNN effect has been to transplant Hollywood mentality onto a daily level, where producers denigrate genuine human suffering in favour of securing a wider audience from competing economic media giants such as CNBC; MSNBC; Fox; ABC; and Bloomberg.

In one example, it is widely held that the presence and reportage of CNN in Somalia prior to the October 3rd battle – where 29 U.S. soldiers were killed and up to 80 injured – pressured President Clinton significantly to intervene militarily and deploy Special Forces to that region. CNN knew what images would appeal to the American public’s conscience and how public pressure could convince an incumbent leader into intervening in humanitarian crises. So, while the economic benefit to CNN was an overriding concern, so too was the power to manipulate what in the Somali example was a highly complex international response to a highly complex national emergency. Then Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s policy of ‘assertive multilateralism’ involved actors and considerations reaching far beyond the humanitarian dimension of a Somali famine. Yet, CNN producers and executives chose only to present human suffering vis-à-vis the humanitarian dimension when presenting that particular conflict to the American public. In one assessment, the use of human suffering to influence foreign policy imbued in the Somali context had tragic consequences:

Even when the Mogadishu tragedy was followed a few days later by the outbreak of massive genocide in Rwanda – one that saw from 600,000 to one million men, women and children murdered – American public opinion did not criticize or challenge the contortions engaged in by the Clinton Administration to avoid intervening. 3

The U.S. media establishment, in the above, aided U.S. policymakers to secure public support for non-intervention in Rwanda, a decision which is universally recognized as irresponsible and an intervention which, unlike Somalia, could actually have benefited the country in question and stalled an unprecedented genocide. The concept of this distinction – between journalists as presenters and journalists as moralists – was discussed most ardently after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. During the Nixon Presidency, the television and print media acted moralistically in its presentation of the Vietnam conflict and questioned the national interest by mobilizing the public:

‘The president couldn’t sleep. Long afflicted by insomnia, Nixon had special reason for distress on the night of May 8, 1970. He was being pilloried in the press and by the anti-war movement, first for ordering the invasion of Cambodia, then for reacting coldly to the killing of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen. Now protesters had descended on Washington and the capital was in a state of siege.’ 4

Nixon’s paranoia and megalomania saw the media establishment purely in political terms, with a grand liberal conspiracy engaged in machinations to destroy his Presidency. The Watergate scandal which ultimately broke Nixon’s Presidency was a watershed in American media history as the media saw themselves as the purveyors of that society’s morality. Established journalistic rules regarding political character attacks which had prevented Clintonian scandals in John F. Kennedy’s era had now been deemed redundant. The media, in short, had free license to report anything and everything. In Vietnam, this became evident in how the media reported the War. The depiction of violence was no longer censored by the media establishment; it was sensationalized to mirror the mood of a radical American public, morally appalled at the legitimacy of the Vietnam War:

Any viewer in the United States who watched regularly the television reporting from Vietnam – and it was from television that 60 percent of Americans got most of their war news – would agree that he saw scenes of real-life violence, death, and horror on his screen that would have been unthinkable before Vietnam. 5

The effect of this on the American public was obviously an integral tool to the anti-war movement. Correspondents did not question themselves when taking footage of self-immolating monks, as in response to President Diem’s pro-Catholic policies during the Kennedy Presidency. Appalling images such as those, designed to shock the American public and enhance the career of a correspondent, would re-emerge during the height of the war. De-sensitized to the everyday realities and horrors of a soldier in Vietnam, Americans such as Norman Morrison effectively questioned not only the legitimacy of the war, but the media’s representation of it. Morrison infamously set fire to himself outside Secretary of Defense McNamara’s Pentagon office in 1965, thereby inviting the American public to compare domestic, as opposed to foreign, representations of human suffering in conflict zones. Samuel Huntington, when describing the new world order as The Clash of Civilizations, also alluded to a domestic media’s perspective when describing foreign intervention:

A world of clashing civilizations…is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others 6

It must also be considered that Nixon’s view of the media as conspiring against Republicans alone was misguided. The previous Democratic Presidents involved in Vietnam – Johnson and Kennedy – both endured a hostile press. In Johnson’s case, even Cabinet members defected to the press in an effort to discredit what they perceived as an unsteady Presidential leadership descending into chaos. In Vietnam, the television media establishment recognized the power of shock tactics to induce the government to relinquish control of ambiguous foreign policies not clearly in the national interest. However, the power of the media in Vietnam to influence public opinion has often been exaggerated, as James Hoge notes:

[As in Vietnam,] public attitudes ultimately hinge on questions about the rightness, purpose and costs of policy – not television images. 7

In the Iraq conflict of 1991, CNN established itself as the dominant American media network. This was due to the efforts of producer Robert Weiner, who urged that CNN should stay in Iraq to report the war Live From Baghdad, as the title of the book chronicling his experience suggests. Due in part to Weiner’s ability to secure a relationship with then Deputy Minister of Information Naji Sabri Ahmad al-Hadithi, CNN procured a ‘floor wire’, a device similar to that of a two-way radio. The advantage for CNN when air strikes on Baghdad became a certainty was that the ‘floor wire’ communicated directly to the Atlanta head office using underground communications cables. Thus, even in the event of U.S. air attacks striking traditional communications centres, the network would be able to broadcast live and uninterrupted. Once direct warnings emerged from U.S. embassy officials warning of an imminent bombing, the remaining international media networks pulled their journalists out of Baghdad, a move designed to protect journalists’ lives and the credibility of President Bush’s bombing campaign.

CNN engineered a historic moment in international broadcasting when veteran journalists Bernard Shaw; John Holliman; and Peter Arnett were flown in to report the first wave of U.S. attacks. ‘Rolling news’ had found both a niche and an audience, as few of us can forget the live images of U.S. air strikes combined with up to the minute reporting. In addition, the U.S. and global audience were simultaneously transported to live events and extensions of the Iraqi conflict by journalists as far as Tel Aviv and Jordan.

Weiner and his team were hailed as journalistic ‘heroes’ and the envy of the U.S. media establishment. During the first wave of U.S strikes, competing media networks could only feed directly into CNN’s broadcasting to retain a minor portion of the market. Americans tuned in live round the clock to watch the U.S. air strikes on Baghdad, yet the immediacy of the devastating effects on Iraqis went unnoticed by the American public. Additionally, the Executive Branch now had to contend with a competing information source, as the government was unable to counter military losses or Hussein’s aggression with pacifying statements to the public: the media now controlled the distribution and content of information.

Underlying this paradox is the concept that the CNN audience was becoming de-sensitized to the realities of a Patriot missile strike or Iraqi Scud launch to the extent that the choice of watching the war on television was not an exercise in information procurement, but a perverse and horrifying form of entertainment. Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Powell laments:

These days, it seems that an administration can develop a sound foreign policy strategy, but it can’t get people to acknowledge or understand it. 8

Secretary Powell refers here to reinvigorated U.S. government public diplomacy efforts to counter anti-Americanism. In the aftermath of 9-11, the Executive Branch established an Office of Global Communications (OGC) with the mandate: ‘the Office assists in the development of communications that disseminate truthful, accurate, and effective messages about the American people and their government.’ 9 In essence, OGC’s job is to monitor foreign media broadcasts and cultivate effective counter-attacks to perceived propaganda. However, OGC is also competing within a larger paradigm that sees CNN and Al-Jazeera as the principal methods of disseminating ‘truthful, accurate, and effective messages’ related to the demands of their audience. Al-Jazeera has a pro-Arab and anti-American stance, a position which invited their broadcasting (in mid 2003) of bloodied Iraqi carcasses killed by American armed forces.

This was not necessarily a ‘shock’ tactic. Al-Jazeera’s defence of its inflammatory journalism is that it is a network, like CNN, cultivating its content to the requirements and beliefs of its audience. It is the content of the message, however, which also reiterates the concept of mass media as entertainment. Al-Jazeera tailors its coverage of the current Iraqi reconstruction to favor its audience, often at the expense of its international credibility. However, Al-Jazeera also provides a balanced portrayal of events important to the Middle East region with the aim of countering purely Western portrayals of Arab conflagrations which include the Arab-Israeli conflict. 9-11 and the ‘globalization’ of mass media also contributed to an enhanced and increasingly complex relationship between a network and its audience. When assessing U.S. media presentations of 9-11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, one has to take into account that:

[Thus,] the difference between news coverage of terrorism inside and outside a target country is striking: when terrorists hit their enemies at home, they can inflict greater damage but they lose in the battle over media access and predominant perspectives. 10

In the U.S. media’s haste to assuage the nation’s thirst for justification and retribution in response to the 9-11 attacks, the legitimacy of intervention in Iraq – and the methods employed to gain that legitimacy – were not called into question by the media until too late. If the media does not exercise control on its moral obligations – as it did in Vietnam and Watergate, but only reacts to the government’s supply of information and their audiences need for military action to counter unlimited domestic terrorism, the public can only be expected to treat the media as another form of entertainment in their lives. Consider CNN’s article of May 8, 2003, reporting President Bush’s dramatic arrival on the USS Abraham Lincoln:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Several administration officials Wednesday defended President Bush’s flight on a Navy jet to an aircraft carrier last week, saying there was a minimal difference between the cost of the president flying to the ship in a jet versus flying in a helicopter. 11

This extract, and the subsequent article in its entirety, fails to acknowledge that the true cost of that political maneuver. The event was ‘staged’, much like a theatrical trailer, to enhance President Bush’s image as a war-time leader with previous combat experience in Vietnam. International media executives and producers could not simply exercise a moral high ground and refuse to cover the event: that would be tantamount to economic suicide. However, CNN et al. are inconsistent in their coverage of the Iraq war and reconstruction efforts by not pressuring Administration officials to reveal accurate casualty and death rates, or to cover with as much zeal and attention items such as President Bush’s visit to the relatives of deceased combat soldiers. The latter are not stories of success and triumph, yet for an audience to comprehend the nature of an all encompassing ‘war on terror’, the audience must be allowed a balanced portrayal of the realities of American intervention. In addition, the cost of American national security can only be understood in a wider context of universal injustices precipitated worldwide in the name of ‘terrorism.’

Appalling images of suffering in the world are interrupted by advertisements for car insurance: barbarism and banality, cheek by jowl. 12

If the American public becomes increasingly de-sensitized to violence, policy makers may well become less emotionally attached to human suffering. In terms of future American military intervention, this could prove beneficial when having to make decisive action in delicate operations, as the recent Haitian example suggests. However, sensitivity to human suffering – epitomized in how governments react to global conflict and international intervention of any description – is not only a fundamental aspect of participating in international affairs, but what legitimizes the foreign policies of mature western democracies. If continually editorialized media representations of war are promoted with the same guidelines as those used by producers to market programs such as ER or Friends, this moral conviction erodes. The increasingly belligerent undertone taken by the U.S. media television establishment in its efforts to secure economic stability should throw a caution to the prevailing wind that American intervention is always justified when the national interest is at stake. War and violent conflicts, however marketed, are not enjoyable enterprises for any potential actor involved. CNN and the larger U.S. media establishment may well benefit from this reminder.


Bunting, Madeleine. ‘Reasons to be Cheerless’, The Guardian

The CNN Effect

Goshko, John M. ‘Bush, Clinton, and Somalia’, in Abshire, David, ed., Triumphs and Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Seventy-Six Case Studies in Presidential Leadership (Praeger: Westport, CT), pp. 226-232

Greenberg, David. Nixon’s Shadow: the History of an Image (Norton: New York)

Hemmingway, Ernest. ‘Top Ten War Quotes

Hoge, James F. ‘Media Pervasiveness’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1994, pp. 136-144

Huntington, Samuel P. ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72. No. 3, pp. 22-49

John King, ‘Administration Defends Bush Flight to Carrier‘, CNN

Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (Andre Deutsch: London)

Nacos, Brigitte L., Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the World Trade Center Bombing (Columbia University Press: New York)

Office of Global Communications

Powell, Colin, ‘A Strategy of Partnerships‘, Foreign Affairs

1Top Ten War Quotes

2The CNN Effect

3 Goshko, p. 231

4Greenberg, p. 232

5 Knightley, p. 410

6 Huntington, p. 36

7 Hoge, p. 141

8 Colin Powell, ‘A Strategy of PartnershipsForeign Affairs

9Office of Global Communications

10 Nacos, p. 47

11 John King, ‘Administration Defends Bush Flight to Carrier‘, CNN

12 Madeleine Bunting, ‘Reasons to be Cheerless’, The Guardian

One thought on “How the U.S. Media Promotes War as Entertainment

  1. War was never meant to be entertainment, or the purpose of games, scoring number shot, killed, but in treatment of it in that manner, encourages premise of life without value, death without remorse.

    It isn’t just guns, but easy accessibility helps to blur the enactments, real or imaginary.

    Dumb choices!.

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