CNN as Theatre of War


London: Chris Cramer , president of cnn international networks, is the man who had the job of conveying to the world the united states’ sense of being invaded on september 11. an honorary american, the green-card holding englishman left the bbc in 1996 to join the network he describes as “putting its money where its mouth is”. the 53-year-old former journalist thought up cnn’s “regionalisation” policy, which is the reason india and the rest of south asia gets to watch its own dedicated cnn channel. within two years, it should get cnn hindi as well. on his first visit outside america after the terrorist attacks, cramer stopped off at cnn london and told rashmee z ahmed how the world changed at 2 pm greenwich mean time one fine september day:

You were in the cnn centre in atlanta when terrible tuesday unfolded. What happened?

I was in a meeting. there is a bank of (television) monitors in my office, the sound was down but i could see that something was happening. as i tuned the tv set up, people dispersed, actually in complete silence. that was really weird, total silence. cnn headquarters in atlanta has a variety of control rooms, there’s not just the one newsroom. i went into the cnn international control room just as the second aircraft hit. slightly bemused i went to a recorder machine and actually played it back to check that i’d seen what i’d seen.

And then?

A judgment was made to bring all of cnn’s 34 separate services together. that’s very rare, bringing english language, vernacular channels, websites together. the last time i can remember was diana’s funeral.

Also the florida recount in the us presidential election?

Actually yes, that was the last time. it is a judgment that this is special, you play your aces high, you don’t compete for resources. in this case, it went one stage further. many of our vernacular services, espanol cnn, cnn+ in spain, cnn turk in turkey, started to broadcast the english-language service with translations, which is very unusual. and still one stage further, many of our affiliates around the world, of which we have hundreds, started to broadcast continuous cnn. it was totally unique, it had never happened before.

How quickly was the decision taken to bring all cnn services together?

Literally in a heartbeat. it was within minutes. i coordinated and communicated with the domestic channel and then one braces oneself for the next two or three days. in my case, i was at work for 36 hours.

Was it harder as the non-american head of an international broadcaster that’s very american, to cover a story that affected the us so deeply?

I’m still in the position of being an observer in america. the american psyche, work ethic and success culture fascinates me. therefore, seeing the american response to something as traumatic as september 11 is interesting anyway, but particularly interesting as a journalist. i think it’s quite difficult and will remain difficult to explain to people that americans feel invaded — psychologically invaded, not just physically invaded. this was essentially a cnn story, coming out of america, crucially engaging american interests. how much of a problem is that? there are a variety of different versions of cnn and they are all received in different parts of the world in different languages for different reasons and by different people. are we conscious, were we conscious of that during the simul-casting which lasted may be a couple of days? are we conscious now that people look to us for a number of things, an eye on america and as a genuinely international broadcaster? yes. we don’t have any agenda. we are not an ambassador for us foreign policy. it would be a masterpiece of social re-engineering to try to eradicate the us position from most international stories. like it or not, they have a finger in many, many pies. they have a right to be heard. cnn people are passionate about the world and prone to self-analysis.

But what about analysis in stories, in cnn’s output? many say it is short and punchy, but short on context.

No, i would have accepted that in 1995 or 1996. one of the reasons i was brought in was to change the nature of the content internationally, to change it from being a mile wide and an inch deep.

But then why did you say that the terrorist attacks made americans realise they didn’t know anything about the wider world?

Well, the article i wrote in which i said that, was an analysis of the american media in general. the us media has shortchanged the audience. the broadcast networks have retreated behind the balance sheet, closed their international bureaux, fled back to the states and relied on agencies.

But has the american media changed at all since september 11?

It will not be the same again. i think many mature news organisations are re-assessing the resources they’ve given to covering that horrible term, “foreign” news, which is banned at cnn. if there can be a momentary upside for something so gloomy, it is this. the american public were shocked that they were so ill-prepared for something to come on to their own backyard. fewer than 20 per cent of americans have passports, but they’re inquisitive about the outside world, read newspapers and are not stupid. the media by and large feeds them a diet of rubbish: reality television, lottery winners, sports scores and homespun violence. 

It has been controversially suggested that even the events of september 11 were a gross form of `car crash tv’.

No. This was the largest act of terrorism, people watched it because it was a dagger in their hearts, not because they were captivated by the images. indeed, very soon, four-to-five days later, we stopped using them gratuitously, because they are beyond shocking, they are historically shocking. 

Are you satisfied with cnn’s profile in India?

India is one part of the world where the bbc actually does better. bbc world (television) that is, not world service, though a 60-year start is helpful. it’s the (mark) tully factor. but our commitment to india speaks for itself. we’ve bolted on a fifth channel for india and pakistan.

What about cnn hindi?

We have been talking for the last year to potential partners about english and hindi, television and web opportunities. thus far, we haven’t found the right deal, though some of the partners have been quite attractive. 

How soon will it be a reality?

I’d be disappointed if we didn’t do it in the next two years.

Rashmee Roshan Lall / World Report