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COLUMN ONE : CNN: The Channel to the World : The Gulf War certifies it's the first true international news network. Critics worry about its instant reporting, but global leaders have made it a new diplomatic conduit.


ATLANTA — A few days after the United States made its only offer for direct talks with Iraq last November, the Emir of Bahrain met President Bush in a private Oval Office session and offered at least a partial explanation for why the offer was stalemated: Cable News Network.

"CNN is operating against us," the emir said of the Atlanta-based news organization, one senior Administration official present recalls.

Saddam Hussein watches the debate over gulf policy in America on CNN, the emir said, but he doesn't understand it--he thinks the United States will not do anything and that the President is paralyzed.

While the emir's concern did not fully convince the Administration, it did highlight what the parade of live Saudi Arabian air raid alerts, Patriot missile intercepts and Iraqi communiques has made dizzyingly plain: The Persian Gulf War has certified CNN's unique role as the first true international news network, with all the advantages and drawbacks that implies.

It has become a new channel for world diplomacy, often supplanting the diplomatic cable and the ambassadorial meeting. It has unique influence on international stories, despite the limitation of being aired live in the United States only on cable systems. As the only Western TV network seen in Baghdad, for instance, CNN correspondent Peter Arnett was invited to remain in Iraq, while other news organizations were thrown out.

When cable entrepreneur Ted Turner founded CNN 11 years ago, he dreamed of an international news organization that would bring the world closer together--and closer to peace.

But the implications of Turner's dream may be more complicated than he imagined. Some government officials--the royal family in Bahrain is not alone--worry about the abbreviated rhetoric of TV supplanting the precise language and personal contact of diplomacy. CNN has given a diplomatic channel to countries that might otherwise not have been heard, from Libya's Moammar Kadafi to Saddam Hussein. Others note that much of the time, what CNN provides is raw information--sometimes unconfirmed, unnarrated, unedited and uninterpreted--and, it passes so quickly, its meaning is often elusive or simply trivial.

Acknowledges Turner: "Everything is speeded up to the point where people can't deal with it."

Has Few Worries

But he seems to harbor few worries about the effect on diplomacy and world events.

"I think . . . it is more advantageous to have as much information as possible," he argues. And in any case, "you can't go back and put the cork in the bottle."

President Bush even concluded that war was finally inevitable from watching CNN, Administration officials have said. That moment came during Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz's globally televised press conference on CNN in Geneva after the meeting Jan. 12 with Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Aziz was rallying Arab support for war, the President told aides later, not offering a moderating view for peace.

So crucial was CNN's international audience to Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister checked with network officials to make sure he wouldn't be preempted by an upcoming Bush press conference. To be on CNN at such moments of high international drama literally means being seen in government ministries around the world. The network is broadcast in more than 100 countries, and with satellite receivers increasingly less expensive, it is picked up in ministries in many more countries than that.

When CNN called the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis on the first night of war to ask if its leader Yasser Arafat would appear on camera, Arafat's aide responded: "The President is in the situation room watching CNN and cannot be disturbed."

Two days later, the aide was calling CNN's foreign desk complaining that CNN was putting on too many Israeli officials and demanding equal time.

CNN's real coming of age may have occurred the first night of this war, when it alone among news organizations had an open phone line from Baghdad to the West, over which its correspondents narrated the initial 16 hours of allied bombing.

CNN's prime time viewership exploded that evening from its normal 560,000 to an astonishing 11.4 million. That was more than even the networks reached in cable markets.

Even those numbers may not tell the full story. CNN was also carried on more than 40 stations overseas in at least 25 countries. It was also carried on dozens of independent U.S. and network affiliated locals--in some cases breaking away from network coverage.

If Vietnam was the first television war, this so far has been the first 24-hour news war, with each air raid signal broadcast live.

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