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TV Images May Shock but Won't Alter Policy

Television coverage wouldn't have changed the course of history more than half a century ago, just as it hasn't determined foreign policy since the start of the war in Bosnia 32 months ago

AT a recent symposium on foreign policy and TV, Robert MacNeil of PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour asked an intriguing question: What would have happened if CNN's cameras had been able to show the plight of Germany's Jews in the 1930s?

The events of the last 32 months in Bosnia suggest that, as much as we might like to wish otherwise, instant TV images would not have changed the course of history then, as they have failed to do today. While the parallels between Hitler's fascism and (primarily) Serbian ``ethnic cleansing'' should not be overdrawn, it is clear that the graphic TV images of murder and starvation in Bosnia have failed to fundamentally move Western governments to intervene.

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The fashionable notion that the news media in general and television in particular determine foreign policy perishes with the European and United States decision to forgo the serious use of force in the United Nations-designated safe haven of Bihac. This will come as welcome news to those who believe that TV distorts foreign policy, leaving it at the whim of the crisis du jour. It will surprise those, including many in the news media, who claim great healing powers for the camera.

Television's impact

Sure, the pictures of suffering and brutality in the former Yugoslavia have, from time to time, shocked people on both sides of the Atlantic and forced policymakers in the White House, the Elysee Palace, and on Downing Street to respond - or at least to appear to be doing so. We all remember (or do we?) the emaciated Muslim men who were lucky enough to emerge from Serb camps; the plight of the little girl, Irma; and the mortar that killed 68 innocent people in a Sarajevo marketplace in February.

But in each case, officials' reactions came perilously close to mere damage control - announce another new initiative and get those pictures off the tube. The images of the market massacre came closest to affecting real policy change, leading to NATO's ultimatum to the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. But even before the mortar landed, the US, under intense prodding from France, was already moving toward a more activist stance in Bosnia. As UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright told a CNN conference in May: ``The mortar and the shock waves it generated accelerated this process, but they only reinforced our basic direction.''

The spasms of official outrage soon passed, as did public demand, measured in opinion polls, to ``do something.'' The horrors were only symptoms of a deeper problem. And despite the rhetoric, the US and Europe have been pretty consistent in turning down the price of action that might have saved Bosnia: the application, or credible threat, of military force. Now it is too late, and the ultimatums and ``safe areas'' are a mockery.

Consensus is key

Bosnia fits neatly into what might be called the First Law of Media Effects: The news media's capacity to influence is inversely related to the degree of consensus in government and society. When consensus is strong, as it was through most of the cold war, the news media generally follows it. When it temporarily breaks down, as it did in the middle of the Vietnam War and has in the post-cold-war era, images have an impact. In Bosnia, on the frequent occasions when US policy was in flux and there was still a chance of military intervention, the news media's words and pictures could give the system a shudder. As time passed and it became increasingly clear the US would stay out, the horrors ceased to have the same impact (and, one survey found, the TV-watching public tuned out).

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If TV did have an impact in Bosnia, I suspect it was a more subtle and perhaps more dangerous one: to add to the viewer's frustration and cynicism about the ability of his or her government to do anything about the world's seemingly unsolvable and ever-present problems.

This resistance to televised atrocities will no doubt comfort pragmatists (and nouveau non-interventionists) such as George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, who have worried publicly that TV will take the nation where it shouldn't go. Those with a more hopeful view of human nature - and history - will have to pause. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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