Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering

Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering

by Markos Kounalakis


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As most long-standing news outlets have shuttered their foreign bureaus and print operations, the role of GNNs as information collectors and policy influencers has changed in tandem. Western GNNs are honored for being untethered to government entities and their ability to produce accurate yet critical situational analyses. However, with the emergence of non-Western GNNs and their direct relationships to the state, the independent nature of our global news cycle has been vastly manipulated.

In Spin Wars and Spy Games, Kounalakis uses his interviews with an expansive and diverse set of GNN professionals to deliver a vivid depiction of the momentous sea change in mass media production. He traces the evolution of global news networks from the twentieth century to now, revealing today’s drastically altered news business model that places precedence on networks leveraging global power. This eye-opening narrative transforms our understanding of why countries like Russia and China invest heavily in their news media, and how the GNN framework operates in conjunction with state strategy and diplomatic sensitivity.

Profoundly meticulous and insightful, this seminal work on the current state of transnational journalism gives readers a first-hand look at how global media powers shape policy and morph the public’s consumption of information.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817921958
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 07/01/2018
Edition description: None
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 816,503
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Markos Kounalakis, PhD is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He is a presidentially-appointed member of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

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Global News Networks and State Power

The complex relationship among GNNs, power, and policy is difficult to penetrate. Transnational media compose a significant part of GNNs, certainly the most public and prevalent media institutions on the world stage, but most empirical studies of the media fail to reveal the totality of how a GNN's constituent institutions and individuals function and the extended roles they perform both independently and in association with states. Further, studies of their geopolitical effects seem limited to soft power aspects or epiphenomenal effects not directly ascribed to GNNs or the totality of their effective performance in both soft and hard power roles.

This work leverages unique access and elite interviews to uncover and synthesize practices that are not typically acknowledged as GNN performance. The actively obscured, often surreptitious, and generally dismissed nature of this performance — and the professional stigma attached to some of it — is empirically established in this work. GNN institutions and individuals who work for GNNs reveal the means and methods of their systematic participation in two specific hard power aspects of GNN performance: (1) active participation in diplomacy, both informal and formal, and (2) both formal and informal intelligence-gathering activity. Establishing these acts as intrinsic GNN behavior is the primary contribution of this work. I hope that providing a structure of analysis advances research into global political and policy implications as the dominance of Western GNNs gives way to non-Western GNNs in the twenty-first century.

The past twenty-five years have witnessed a boom in scholarly literature regarding the media's potential role in policy making. As Kalb wrote in 1991, "Academics are now coming to appreciate what successful politicians have known for decades — that the press is a key player in the process of governance." A similar exponential rise in interest can be observed specifically for issues related to media and foreign affairs. As political scientist Bernard C. Cohen, author of one of the field's seminal texts (1963) put it in 1994, "The study of the media and foreign policy, a cottage industry thirty years ago, has become big business today." Living in the information age or (new) media age had caught up with scholars outside media studies.

At the same time, international relations as a discipline remained partly unaffected by the rise of interest in communication. Many of the important works on media and foreign policy come from outside of the discipline; the best ones offer a truly multidisciplinary approach, called for, among others, by Gilboa (2008). Theories based in international relations seem to have difficulty assessing the operations of the media. Some of the limitations and structural boundaries where international relations and political science appear confined to conceptual understanding of GNNs include: (1) GNNs are primarily viewed through a lens of soft power, where a focus is placed on the passive aspects of media — often as a conveyer belt — and on media effects in a framing, indexing, or priming framework and where the media have limited geopolitical agency; (2) GNNs are studied to a high degree within a national framework, looking at media effect and domestic policy and politics. For example, recent studies on "the Fox effect" show how exposure to the Fox network has an effect on citizen polarization and voting patterns, but both studies are conceptually incapable of assigning a media effect to foreign policy and international relations outcomes outside the margins of policy or in cases where policies are ambiguous and media are seen as an exogenous catalyst leveraged by a stronger elite framing actor to voice a perspective or policy preference to garner either elite sympathy or popular support for that preference; (3) when recognizing media as an agential actor, studies do not ascribe hard power or material value to any geopolitical media effect; and finally, (4) GNNs have not received broad academic scrutiny, other than for their roles in soft power and public diplomacy — their global strategic effects have been mostly neglected, in part likely due to the twentieth-century monopoly of Western GNNs and a preponderance of Western media and communication scholarship.

GNNs and Soft Power

As discussed in the introduction, the international relations theory that attributes the most importance to the media is Nye's soft power / smart power framework. "Fully defined, soft power is the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes." Nye sees this as directly linked to Lukes's third face of power, and he names the media as one of the important resources for soft power or smart power: "If the United States is involved in more communication networks, it has a greater opportunity to shape preferences in terms of the third face of power."

In the media and international relations literature, this "shaping of preferences" has been analyzed in many studies in terms of agenda setting and framing. Perhaps the most important argument used in the study of these effects in foreign news coverage is that "for many, the sole source of information about world events is the press." Further, Entman contends that media effects can be particularly significant in issues where "there are no old attitudes to defend," where audiences "lack detailed, expert knowledge or strong opinion." Others argue that precisely because the media (particularly US media) provide no background for news events (particularly foreign news events), "most citizens remain dependent on news and infotainment media and the cues they offer for making sense of war and other aspects of foreign policy." Thus, the media are expected to have a particularly strong effect on the audience in foreign policy issues.

While agenda setting in communication studies means simply "the idea that there is a strong correlation between the emphasis that mass media place on certain issues ... and the importance attributed to these issues by mass audiences," in political science, research has focused on agenda setting as intrinsically linked to power. It was Dahl (1956, 1961), and even more prominently Schattschneider (1960) and, following him, Bachrach and Baratz (1962), who first recognized the importance of the political agenda for understanding power. In an often-cited passage, Schattschneider put agenda setting at the center of his power concept: "The definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power. ... He who determines what politics is about runs the country." Bachrach and Baratz developed Schattschneider's work further. Their concept of nondecision making can be understood as control over the agenda.

The international relations theory that attributes the most importance to the media is Nye's soft power / smart power framework. While a number of historical works have explored the development of soft power from Wilsonian times, Nye argues that in today's new media age soft power / smart power is of primary importance. "Politics has become a contest of competitive credibility. The world of traditional power politics is typically about whose military or economy wins. Politics in an information age 'may ultimately be about whose story wins.'" Further, although soft power has been criticized as a fundamentally American concept, scholars have studied its application in a variety of national contexts, including Japan, Turkey, India, and most important, both in terms of the size of the literature and for the purposes of this project, China as well as Russia. Importantly for the present project, in addition to the interest in China's soft power in the English-language academic world, as Nye points out, "hundreds of essays and scholarly articles have been published in the People's Republic of China on soft power."

Despite the impressive number of studies, critics still argue that analysis to date has lacked distinction or operational understanding. "[International relations]-based approaches have rarely had a strong empirical handle on the actual role and influence of news media. More often than not, the role and function of media have been assumed." Nye himself has seldom provided case studies; his conceptual development of soft power has a dominant role for media, but he does not elaborate on the function or efficacy of media, creating the skeletal framework for the future development of media models appropriate to his soft power conceptual structure. The soft power framework of understanding transnational GNNs is used to measure popular and elite effects on foreign policy making, but it is useless in measuring GNNs' hard power diplomatic and intelligence-gathering aspects and effects, the central focus of this work.

Yet within international relations, the primary use of soft power theories in analyzing GNNs' media effects provides the background against which this research project was carried out. To extend Nye's theoretical framework, we need to establish the presence and performance of GNNs' nonsoft power. That nonsoft power manifests itself as the diplomatic and intelligence-gathering characteristics that are uncovered and presented in this book. The prevalence of understanding and analyzing of GNNs within a soft power context and through soft power theories is not disputed in this work, nor is the reason for this: within the international relations literature, international state broadcasting is the dominant traditional GNN manifestation; the role of such institutions is traditionally considered an aspect of public diplomacy and an extension of soft power.

Soft power can be wielded through a variety of means; one of them is public diplomacy, "a long-term foreign policy asset"; "an instrument that governments use to mobilize these [soft power] resources to communicate with and attract the publics of other countries, rather than merely their governments." Many writings in international relations that account for the media on some level fall under the rubric of public diplomacy studies. These range from historical overviews to insiders' memoirs and analysis and to case studies. Yet as soft power theories were criticized for lack of nuance, it has been argued that the literature focused on public diplomacy suffers from a lack of engagement with nonhistorical issues, an overly US-centric approach, and oversimplification. To rectify this, in a series of papers, communications studies expert Gilboa developed a system of conceptual models on how the mass media are utilized in foreign policy in general, and in public diplomacy in particular. Viewing the media "as an instrument of foreign policy and international negotiations," Gilboa makes an analytical distinction between diplomatic efforts that impose limitations on the media (secret diplomacy, closed-door diplomacy, and open diplomacy) and those where officials make use of the media. The latter category includes public diplomacy, media diplomacy, "officials' uses of the media to communicate with state and non-state actors, to build confidence and advance negotiations, and to mobilize public support for agreements," and media-broker diplomacy ("journalists turning mediators"), this last notion being his own conceptual invention. Of the three, only public diplomacy has been subject to much international relations discussion; the concepts of media diplomacy and media-broker diplomacy have, unfortunately, not taken hold with other scholars. The notion of media-broker diplomacy, where "international mediation [is] conducted and sometimes initiated by journalists," is of great importance to this research; the concept of informal diplomacy deployed in this work is closely related to Gilboa's concept. This connects back to the soft power / smart power framework: when journalists are employed to carry out these nonjournalistic missions, they can be interpreted as resources bringing about hard power. This is a highly underresearched yet highly interesting phenomenon, and one which the present work aims to explore.

Institutional journalists, as well as some INGO employees and academics, often engage in diplomatic discourse, intermediation, and negotiation, as well as serving, in their least direct involvement, as couriers of fact and position. GNNs and their constituent members often act as private actors rather than performing their strict public role as observers and reporters of fact. The following chapter will review this long-standing performative role in greater depth and later chapters will reveal that this role is endemic to both Western and non-Western GNNs, though the relationship to the state will be seen differently, as Western GNNs are predominantly nonstate or hybrid institutions. These hard power diplomatic functions have not garnered as much attention in scholarly literature as the soft power aspect of GNNs.

In his work on hard and soft power, Nye put great emphasis on soft power being a capability, since many of his critics mistake it for a type of behavior or, more commonly, a resource. He also tries to avoid an overly simplistic identification of tangible resources with hard power and intangibles with soft power (although he does claim that it is often the case) by bringing up a number of counterexamples, such as patriotism, an intangible sentiment affecting military (hard power) outcomes. Typically, hard power resources can also produce soft power; he says, with Osama bin Laden, that "people are attracted to a strong horse rather than a weak horse." Another example of a hard power resource — wealth producing soft power — is that of CNN and the First Iraq War: "When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the fact that CNN was an American company helped to frame the issue, worldwide, as aggression. Had an Arab company been the world's dominant TV channel, perhaps the issue would have been framed as a justified attempt to reverse colonial humiliation." In his later work, Nye completes the picture by pointing to the difference between the first and the second Gulf War: "CNN and the BBC framed the issues of the First Gulf War in 1991, but by 2003 Al Jazeera was playing a larger role in shaping the narrative in the Iraq War."

When discussing soft power media effects in the contemporary world, the fundamental changes in the media landscape must be taken into consideration. Bringing about a dramatic reduction of communication costs and thus "exponentially increasing the number of channels of communication in world politics," the information revolution has had a major effect on "the patterns of complex interdependence" between states. At the same time, Keohane and Nye are careful to emphasize that the information revolution did not occur in a vacuum but rather in an existing political system that has shaped it (and is being shaped by it).

A further effect of the information revolution explored by Nye is the "paradox of plenty." In today's world of information overload, attention rather than information has become the scarce resource. Gatekeepers who can separate relevant information from noise are in high demand; thus credibility is a "crucial resource and an important source of soft power." Credibility is an undefined and untheorized but nonetheless central concept in Nye's argument. Not only is it a decisive soft power resource for the media, but it has become crucially important for governments, too, who are also implicated in a "contest of competitive credibility."

GNNs perform this gatekeeper role at a high level. They are, if nothing else, built as reporting and analysis mechanisms with extraordinary access to political actors and other social leaders. The GNNs' professional, institutional role is to use omission and commission of fact to draw comprehensible and, at times, actionable narratives for both mass audiences and narrower state actors. The credibility and track record of these GNN institutions gives them greater credence in policy-oriented, epistemic communities as well as in analytical institutions that turn to reliable open-source data and information for policy formation and prescription. These functions allow GNNs to perform the hard power tasks of providing the data used in policy formation, but also to fulfill soft power aspects by helping to set agendas from a limited and perspective-driven reportorial and analysis stance. A Western GNN will note different points of interest and delve deeper into policies that reflect their own institutional biases compared to a non-Western GNN.

The development of the information society has certainly piqued the interest of communication studies scholars. As McCombs notes, many scholars predicted that the spread of new media would diminish media's effects on the public, and maybe also on policy. The spread of new communication technologies continued to favor a diversification of news sources; some have argued that with the rise of customized, idiosyncratic news, mass audiences will cease to exist. Fragmentation of the audience, the argument goes, will lead to fragmentation of the public agenda. However, there are now studies showing that the changes are more limited than scholars had expected. McCombs compares the situation to cable television: you have access to a hundred channels, but you only watch a few of them. He cites evidence to the effect that "attention on the web is even more concentrated than in the print world."


Excerpted from "Spin Wars and Spy Games"
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Copyright © 2018 Markos Kounalakis.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Peter Laufer ix

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Global News Networks and State Power 21

Chapter 2 Western Global News Networks and State Power 1 39


Chapter 3 Western Global News Networks and State Power 2 81


Chapter 4 Non-Western Global News Networks 125

Diplomacy and Intelligence Gathering

Chapter 5 Conclusion 153

Appendix 1 Interview with Terry Phillips 165

Appendix 2 Methodology 173

References 179

About the Author 213

Index 215

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