Wilmington News Journal
June 6, 2000
Page A13
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CNN let light and air in on a world audience
June 6, 2000
by Ralph J. Begleiter

There are enough puff pieces being published this week about CNN's twentieth anniversary. If you want to read about "the stars" of CNN or about the "Chicken Noodle Network" days of the early 1980's, look elsewhere.

But there is something else worth noting about the network's two decade milestone: its pervasive and lasting impact outside the United States.

In January, 1991. As I descended the rear stairs of the aging U.S. Air Force jet then used by the American Secretary of State on diplomatic missions, a Saudi information ministry official ran across the tarmac toward me. Secretary of State James A. Baker III was being greeted by an official party at the front of the aircraft. But the Saudi information official shouted "Mr. Ralph, Mr. Ralph!" and waved vigorously at me, causing his flowing white business robe to billow almost humorously in the airport wind.

When he caught up, we barely exchanged greetings before the official blurted out the cause of his excitement: "We carried your reports 'live,' uncensored, unedited by the government. It's the first time."

I had just come from Geneva, where, much to my apparent-on-the-air dismay, I had broadcast many hours of live reports over CNN about the failure of diplomacy to avert an impending war against Iraq in the Middle East. The government of Saudi Arabia had relayed my reporting directly to Saudi citizens over the government television channel, without first recording and editing my independent analysis.

Saudi Arabia wasn't alone. And it wasn't just about the Gulf War (although that event was an important moment in the development of CNN's global influence). Around the world, governments which for decades had controlled the flow of "outside" information to their people were falling victim to the true "CNN Effect," the influence of independent, non-government-controlled news.

Twenty years ago, Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines in part by controlling what his people saw and heard about his and other countries. That was also true in China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In 1986, Marcos was toppled, as revolutionaries gained support in part from CNN's first live broadcasts about the extent of the insurgency. Three years later, in the famous Tiananmen Square uprising, Chinese dissidents were encouraged by international broadcasts, many of them on CNN. For several years after Tiananmen Square, as Beijing attempted to burnish its worldwide image, China's ambassador to the United States made annual pilgrimages to CNN's Atlanta headquarters to petition the network's president for a stop to the use of 1989 video chronicling the repression by the communist government.

Political scientists and historians have documented the role CNN's global broadcasts played in hastening the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan a few months earlier, and in the demise of the Iron Curtain.

By 1989, CNN broadcasts were being seen by a tiny minority of Russians in Moscow, as Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the network's signal to be shown there. Soviet viewers rigged makeshift antennas to catch CNN programs, and even if they spoke no English, Soviet viewers understood the implications for them of independent news not filtered through the Kremlin's mindset.

In 1988, a cleaning woman in my hotel in Moscow stood watching the TV set as I re-entered my room after breakfast. She seemed a bit embarrassed when she realized I was back, and gushed in halting English as she pointed to the CNN broadcast"It is so wide!" I'm sure she meant the view of the world presented in the few moments was so much broader than she'd ever experienced on television in Moscow.)

CNN's international influence came about almost accidentally, certainly not by design of the network's management, which focused on the American market. If the news signal could be sold via satellite to viewers in Peoria, why not Paris? If CNN was seen in Illinois, why not in Istanbul? The incremental cost of sending the signal abroad might be offset by international advertising. And sending the signal outside the U.S. might help build the CNN brand name. It was a business decision.

CNN executives in Atlanta always knew the network's profits (from cable subscriptions and advertising) and its audience ratings came from the U.S. domestic audience. Many of them initially failed to comprehend the worldwide information revolution CNN was creating beyond American borders.

Initially, in the early 1980's, the CNN International signal was identical to the one seen by Americans. Larry King would appear in morning drive time in Japan, half-a-day ahead of Atlanta's time zone. Major news events were seen simultaneously around the world; the same scenes, the same analysis, a common information in a single language shared on television for the first time by virtually every society with a satellite dish.

In India and Pakistan in the '80's, entrepreneurs pulled down the CNN signal with a dish, then ran wires through mud streets to neighbors, pirating and distributing the independent news signal for a fee &endash; bypassing the government in a crude, private "cable TV system."

At the time of the Gulf War, Belgium's cable TV system featured dozens of signals from European government broadcasters. But not CNN. (Atlanta wanted its signal on the Belgian system, but there was a dispute over compensation and equipment.) Almost overnight, the dispute was resolved when Belgium's Information Minister insisted on being able to see CNN's coverage of the war. Nations were discovering that global, independent news programming was becoming a public necessity.

Government officials eagerly sought interviews on CNN, knowing that the world was watching and hoping some of the American network's credibility would rub off on them. Foreign ministers and presidents regularly petitioned for an appearance. on the CNN International Hour, broadcast in European prime time nightly for some 10 years.

The world's dictators understood the phenomenon, too. Eastern Europe's government-controlled television networks regularly sought placement on CNN of their friendly portrayals of life behind the iron curtain. Africa's tin pot leaders reveled in the respect paid to them by CNN's coverage of their global travels and interviews.

By the mid-1990's, CNN's international signal had become an indispensable utility. A Greek woman, angered over my consistent use of "Macedonia" to describe a newly-created nation in the Balkans, violently wagged her finger in my face while insisting that I, as an American news broadcaster, had no right to teach her children things she and the Greek government didn't want them to know. (Greece officially opposed Macedonia's claim to that name.) I pointed out that she could easily prevent me from intruding into her family's life by simply turning off CNN. She recoiled in horror, saying "We can't do that! We have to know what's going on!"

Today, an Arabic-language version of CNN called "Al Jazeera," created by unaffiliated private entrepreneurs in the Gulf after the war, transmits independent (non-government) news and information throughout the Middle East. A competitor, financed by Saudis, runs all kinds of news and information (but with sharp limits on what's reported about Saudi Arabia). Egypt was among the first Arab nations to understand and embrace the CNN phenomenon. President Hosni Mubarak understood quickly the value to his own credibility of being seen on worldwide CNN, and he allowed the signal to be distributed in Egypt.

Today &endash; viewers of CNN International are shocked when they visit the United States, where the CNN they see on domestic television sets bears little resemblance to the program they're familiar with. Today, CNN International is a separate network, featuring anchors with international accents and shows tailored to appeal to Asian or European audiences. The CNNI signal, which carries most of the news gathered by the network's worldwide string of reporters, is sparsely shown on cable TV systems in the United States.

The American television scene is so crowded with independent programming (including news and information) that CNN's effect has been small here. The network's domestic audience is a tiny fraction of that of the non-cable networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC. That's not to say there has been no domestic impact. Surely information historians will note the significance of the 1994 NAFTA debate on CNN.

Internationally, others had made a mark before CNN. Britain's BBC radio, along with the U.S. government's Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, had already breached political boundaries during the cold war and established reputations for western-style news and information. But CNN was the television breakthrough, and established a new worldwide standard for round-the-clock television news without a government affiliation.

That breakthrough for billions of people previously prisoner to their government's view of the world will remain as CNN's legacy.

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