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U.S. Marines of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment come ashore in Somalia in March 1993.

Robert Mahoney, Nns

From some things, we must not look away

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • January 18, 2013 - 7:11 PM

Intervention in the world's trouble spots -- the subject of this month's Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" discussion -- is today increasingly discussed under the doctrine of "responsibility to protect," or "R2P," as it's commonly called (see Ellen Kennedy's accompanying commentary).

"R2P is here to stay," said Youssef Mahmoud, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute. The United Nations, he explained, was created in a context of conflict between nations, not within nations. But today, "you can no longer ignore what's happening in one state as if it is the sole preserve of that state."

Mahmoud was speaking on a panel, "The Arab Spring: A Real World Test of the Responsibility to Protect," at a November conference in Istanbul on international security and terrorism organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation and the Istanbul Policy Center.

If violence and violations of basic human rights can no longer be ignored, one reason may be the so-called "CNN effect." The term took root in the early 1990s, as the global news network brought images of Somalia's deadly famine into the world's living rooms. Many believed at the time that the subsequent international intervention, led by the administration of George H.W. Bush, was spurred by such coverage. Later, CNN images of the contorted corpse of an American soldier being dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu ("Black Hawk Down") were credited with inspiring the Clinton administration to pull troops out of Somalia.

Since the term was coined, some media scholars have come to doubt the CNN effect. Research, they claim, suggests that the Bush administration had planned the humanitarian mission before media coverage of Somalia's miseries spiked. But others still insist that international interventions of this scope cannot happen without a well-prepared public. Few doubt that images matter.

"I think there is still a form of a CNN effect," said University of Texas Associate Prof. Natalie Stroud, author of "Niche News: The Politics of News Choice." The term, Stroud said, "is a little tricky because it sounds like a singular outlet, but today it's so many different outlets."

And with the proliferation of outlets covering world affairs has come less agreement about what we're seeing and what we should do about it.

"We see media outlets presenting things in very different manners, and we know when people see things so differently they develop different ideas," Stroud said. "So I think these outlets do make consensus more challenging when there are extreme partisan differences on international affairs."

Politics starting, not stopping, at the water's edge was recently on display regarding Libya. This lack of consensus (as well as other geopolitical considerations) may be one of the many reasons the West has been sidelined in Syria.

"The R2P doctrine is kind of vague on the role of media. But in order to mobilize international political will to prevent mass atrocities, first you have to mobilize domestic political will, and the media plays a really important role in that," said Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director at the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

Matthews is an expert in the role that established international institutions and media play in intervention. So it's notable that he sees some positive media developments, even if media fragmentation has fractured domestic consensus to act globally.

"Social media, which is really citizen journalism, is really changing the game," Matthews said. "Now individuals have the power of witness -- capturing early on images and evidence that can actually affect state behavior and can be used for prosecution in the long-term."

Matthews' embrace of emerging media strategies even includes celebrities who have brought attention to atrocious rights abuses like those documented in Darfur.

"Today there is a whole group of nongovernmental organizations, student groups and celebrities that are almost creating a permanent constituency for the prevention of mass genocide and mass atrocities that didn't exist 15 to 20 years ago," Matthews said.

This "permanent constituency" is needed in this era of increasing international instability. But it's a welcome addition to, not a substitute for, news coverage. Yet news organizations, partly due to the technological transformations linking the permanent constituency, face their own challenges.

"We have so many mechanisms that provide journalists with real-time data -- how many people are clicking on different articles, how many 'likes,' how many people are tweeting your article. If that data do not support having more international coverage, a business concerned with the bottom line may not be as inclined to report on it," said Stroud.

Stroud is realistic, and right. But responsibility to protect still must be met by another emergent doctrine -- "responsibility to report." Because even if no single outlet is an outlier as CNN was, and even if the CNN effect was overstated, the power of the press in witnessing human-rights abuses is still a vital component in the world's responsibility to end them.

The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter: @rashreport.

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