On Aug. 3, President Turgut Ozal of Turkey was watching George Bush on CNN during a live press briefing when Bush mentioned that he was about to call Ozal about the Gulf crisis. Just then, Ozal’s phone began to ring-it was Bush on the line.
Ozal isn’t the only Middle Eastern ruler who feels the need to check out what’s on CNN these days. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and members of his foreign ministry are all regular CNN watchers. So are King Hussein of Jordan and King Fahd and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. Because so many foreign leaders tune in to the news cable network, in fact, CNN has become a controversial negotiating tool in the Mideast conflict. ”We’ve become part of the loop,” says Peter Vesey, director of CNN International, the service seen in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and most of Asia. ”Leaders watch us to act and react to each other. We are the primary source of information for most of the principals in and around the region.”
That may be going a little far, and in any case just what CNN is up to in the loop has become open to question. Saddam Hussein has used the network for his own satellite diplomacy: He has been seen projecting a concerned, friendly attitude toward foreign hostages in Iraqi TV transmissions shown live and unedited, leading some critics to charge that the cable service has acted, in effect, as a mouthpiece for Iraqi propaganda. Hussein’s media events ”have been propaganda, certainly,” admits Steve Haworth, director of public relations for CNN, ”but from our standpoint they were news.” He points out that CNN has clearly labeled the material as the work of the Iraqi government and that a network commentator has emphasized its jingoistic nature.
Despite CNN’s considerable worldwide influence, the Iraqis have given little preference in the current crisis to its journalists compared with the access given Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, who are seen very little outside the U.S. ”We tried every means we could,” Haworth says. ”We pushed every button. It didn’t work.” But there’s one thing you can count on with CNN: It’ll keep on pushing.