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Before "Hope Was Restored": News Media Portrayals ofSomalia Prior to the U.S. Intervention FoIu Ogundimu Michigan State University Jo Ellen Fair University of Wisconsin Overview As the U.S. struggles to redefine its superpower role in the post-Cold War era, this paper examines U.S. network television coverage of Somalia before "Operation Restore Hope." The objective is to conduct a critical interpretive analysis of television's représentation of reality in the Horn of Africa over a two-year period leading up to die U.S. intervention in Somalia. Why interest in television's representation of reality in Somalia? Partly because of the presumed influence television coverage had in making the U.S. intervene in Somalia. One variant of this argument has it that "it was television's wrenching pictures from Somalia that goaded a reluctant administration to act."1 TV critic Walter Goodman writes that "the stunning effect of pictures of fly-tormented faces and bloated bellies of dying babies" finally assured Washington's intervention in Somalia (Goodman 1992: C20). According to Goodman, the net result of television's representation was to "bring into millions of homes horrors that policy makers might have preferred not to confront " (Goodman, ibid.). Goodmanmaybe right. Butwe suspectfar more complex processeswere at work in the determination of U.S. foreign policy. As persuasive as is the anecdotal evidence, we intend to show tiiat television's representation of®NortheastAfrican Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 4, No. 2 (New Series) 1997, pp. 19-41 19 20 FoIu Ogundimu and Jo Ellen Fair reality is part of a complex narrative embedded in a cultural and ideological framework without which any discussion of the likely impact of media structuring of reality is meaningless. We argue, moreover, that die artifacts of this case notwithstanding, the production of visual and textual images on U.S. network television has historical referents. By historical referents we mean a frame ofreference that assures consistency with a dominant ideological and cultural framework. This framework ensures that journalists must rely on cultural values reprocessed through news conventions and routines of reporting that define and create reality in ways that appear as "common sense," "natural ," or "normal." For example, Shoemaker and Reese point to die treatment of deviance in media narratives to show how media tell us what is normal by showing us what is deviant (Shoemaker and Reese 1991: 41). They argue that media representations can either portray people and groups as being powerful or powerless, depending on the choice ofnarrative(1991:41). Similarly, because many Americans—journalists and media consumers alike—lack direct contact with Africa andAfricans, the "reality" of Africa represented in news stories draws upon historically specific inventions of Africa (Mudimbe 1988; Pieterse 1992) that are updated and reconfigured in contemporary journalistic accounts of events and issues on the continent. Furthermore, we argue in this paper that although media realism serves as a powerful metaphor for understanding public policy responses to "alien" events, television news cannot be decontextualized without reference to important structural and functional parameters which highly constrain television reportage ofAfrica. In examining the dialectic of television representation of Somalia before "Operation Restore Hope," our intent is neither to debunk nor diminish the argument that televised images of war, violence, famine, and the violation ofhuman dignity in Somalia contributed largely to the U.S. intervention in that African country. Rather, we seek to further explore, understand, and underscore the nature of television's representation . In fact, we believe such exploration has implications for the notion of effects commonly attributed to media structuring of reality. For example, we point to Wiley's observation that American media discourses and representations of Africa play a powerful role in the determination of U.S. foreign policy in Africa (Wiley 1991). WÜey finds that because most members of Congress have little knowledge of, or direct Before "Hope Was Restored" 21 experience with Africa, the media provide legislators and policy makers a framework of reference for information about events in Africa. But this frame of reference is problematic because: the generally gloomy tone of U.S. media coverage of Africa reinforces powerful stereotypes about Africa within government and in the broader society and creates...


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pp. 19-41
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