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American Network Television News Coverage of Latvia, Lithuania, and
Estonia during 1990 and 1991: The Baltic States' Drive Toward and
Attainment of Independence
Anthony Moretti, Ph.D.
College of Mass Communications
Texas Tech University
P.O. Box 43082
Lubbock, TX 79409
(806) 742-6500 x 250
[log in to unmask]
Norman E. Youngblood, Ph.D.
College of Mass Communications
Texas Tech University
P.O. Box 43082
Lubbock, TX 79409
(806) 742-6500 x 229
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Paper submitted to the Radio-Television Journalism division of AEJMC
for possible presentation at the 2005 national convention in San Antonio
This study examines how American network television newscasts covered
the unfolding and dangerous situation taking place in Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia as these Soviet republics sought to break free
of the USSR throughout 1990 and 1991 with an eye towards how the
story was framed and what sources were used to tell the story.
The authors employed the Vanderbilt University television abstracts
in this study. The abstracts provided a brief sketch of each story
that was disseminated regarding the political and military events
inside the soon-to-be liberated Baltic nations. This information
included who reported the story, what the story was about, and who,
if anyone, delivered a sound bite. These abstracts could be accessed
online through the Vanderbilt University Television Archive Web site
(http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu). The authors are aware of the recent
constructive criticisms made by Althaus, Edy, and Phalen (2002)
regarding the use of the abstracts, especially their comments that
abstracts should not be surrogates for actual tapes of the newscasts,
and that the abstracts provide an imprecise evaluation of the tone of
policy statements. However, the authors of this study believe that
the type of information that was gleaned from the abstracts
alleviates some of the aforementioned concerns.
On February 10, 1990, a Lithuanian delegate of the USSR's Supreme
Soviet handed U.S. Secretary of State James Baker a letter telling
him that Lithuania was planning to declare its independence
(Oberdorfer, 2003). On March 11, Lithuania did just that, marking the
beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Soviet troops soon occupied
many of the Lithuanian government buildings, and Soviet aircraft
began conducting maneuvers over the breakaway republic. Within a few
months, Estonia and Lithuania announced that they also were planning
to leave the Soviet Union. As was the case in Lithuania, Soviet
leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered troops into those republics, but in
the end he was unwilling to use the force needed to suppress the nationalists.
In August 1991, Soviet hardliners attempted to oust Gorbachev. Their
coup failed. Nationalist groups across the Soviet Union united—in
part under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who would later become
the president of Russia—against the conspirators. Upon his return to
power, Gorbachev found himself running a country in the throes of
disintegration. Unwilling, and probably unable, to exert the military
force need to quell the nationalists, he recognized the independence
of the Baltics. The collapse of the USSR was soon to be complete: On
December 31, 1991 the USSR disappeared from the world stage and was
replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia did not join that new affiliation consisting
of many former Soviet republics (O'Conner, 2003).
The independence movement in the Baltics caught the attention of the
media across the world, as people paused to watch the one-time
superpower face its mortality and disintegration. In the United
States, reporting on the breakaway republics could have taken several
directions: it could have been treated as a diplomatic story,
focusing on U.S.-Soviet relations; it could have been treated as a
political story, with a focus on internal Soviet politics; or it
could have been covered as a military story, with a focus on the
Soviet Union's deployment of military forces in the region.
In the midst of what was unfolding inside the Soviet Union, the
American media were faced with reporting on another major story, and
it also had a significant military component.
On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. On August 7, George H.W. Bush
deployed American troops to Saudi Arabia and began the process of
developing an international coalition to liberate Kuwait. Five months
later, on January 17, 1991, the United States and its allies began
the military battle necessary to free Kuwait from the clutches of
Saddam Hussein. Special attention in this study was not paid to what
was happening in Iraq and Kuwait; however, the authors realize that
those events placed a strain on the resources of the American media
and ultimately compelled these media outlets to focus more attention
on the Middle East, where American forces were directly involved in
the crisis, and less attention on the Baltic states during the time
that the drive for independence remained in high gear and an
important item to the Bush administration.
The Baltic republics were latecomers to the Soviet Union, escaping
the evils of Stalinism until 1940. All three had been part of the
Russian Empire, but they succeeded in winning their independence
during the Russian Civil War. The new nations owed their existence in
part to a desire in the West to create a cordon sanitaire between the
Soviet Union and Germany. The republics began as liberal democracies
in the 1920s but once confronted with the economic and political
chaos of the 1930s moved to what O'Conner (2003) and others referred
to as "benign dictatorships." Cooperation among Latvia, Lithuania,
and Estonia was limited during these years and usually demonstrated
itself in bilateral rather than trilateral agreements. In the end,
they became pawns in the nascent struggle between the Soviet Union
and Nazi Germany. Their independence was signed away as part of the
secret protocols of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which
codified the division of Poland and the other parts of
central-eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union invaded the Baltics the following year, and its
forces quickly began the process of collectivization and rounded up
groups of people they believed would resist the takeover. Some 48,000
people were deported in only a few days in mid-1941 alone. In June
1941, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were invaded again, this time by
Nazi Germany. Soviet forces regained control of the region at the end
of World War Two, and they restarted the process of collectivization
and deportation of landowners and the intelligentsia (O'Conner, 2003).
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Baltics became one of the most
productive regions of the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of
industry. In addition, the republics had closer ties to the West,
when compared to other Soviet republics. Estonian residents could
hear Finnish radio stations and make occasional visits to Finland
across the Baltic Sea. Despite the relative wealth in the Baltic
republics and frequent crackdowns by KGB security forces, the
nationalist movements, though small, did not disappear. Russian
immigration to the region and fears of Russification added fuel to
the nationalist fires. In addition, as the Soviet Union attempted to
escape the legacy of Stalin, the government was generally unwilling
to resort to the mass shootings and deportations necessary to cow the
entire population. Nationalism, while still subdued, was waiting for
a chance to come to the fore (O'Conner, 2003)
That chance came in 1985 with Gorbachev's election as General
Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Two years
later, he began the process of perestroika, the restructuring of the
Soviet economy, and of glasnost, the open discussion of political,
social, and economic problems and issues. The nationalist movements
in the Baltic republics quickly took advantage of the policies. In
June, Latvians held protests to mark the anniversary of the 1941
deportations. In August, nationalists across the three republics
staged demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet
Non-Aggression treaty. In November, Lithuanians commemorated their
country's 1918 declaration of independence. On August 23, 1989, the
pro-nationalist group Baltic Way coordinated a human chain of more
than 2 million people that stretched across Latvia, Lithuania, and
Estonia to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact (O'Conner, 2003).
The nationalist movement continued to gain momentum in 1990,
climaxing in Lithuania's declaration of independence. Soviet forces
quickly occupied a number of government buildings, including the
Institute for Party History and the Press House, the republic's main
newspaper press. On the night of March 23, the army began driving
military conveys around the Lithuanian parliament building while it
was in session. Military helicopters began flyovers of the capital,
frequently dropping pro-Soviet leaflets. Later in the month, the
Soviet government ordered foreign journalists out of the republic.
Lithuanian nationalists proved unwilling to be browbeaten or provoked
into action. Gorbachev, worried about relations with West, was
unwilling to unleash the full might of the Soviet military machine.
With the threat of military force failing, he ordered a blockade of
Lithuania on April 18, 1990, stopping the flow of oil, natural gas,
and other items into the breakaway republic. The 75-day blockade was
a failure. Relieved of the need to supply food to the rest of the
Soviet Union, Lithuania had more food for the domestic market. In
addition, with the Ignalina atomic station located in Lithuania, the
republic was actually an energy exporter. Soviet citizens in other
republics, faced with food shortages began to think "We should
experience such a blockade" (Senn, 1995).
By the end of the year, Gorbachev found himself forced to give the
military a more active role. On January 7, 1991 Soviet paratroopers
arrived in the republics, ostensibly to look for army deserters. One
day later, more than 100 tanks rolled through the Lithuanian capital,
Vilnius. Over the course of the next few days, Soviet troops once
again surrounded the Press House, Parliament, and other government
buildings. The people reacted quickly, filling Independence Square in
the heart of the city and surrounding the television station to keep
it from being taken off the air (Senn, 1995). On January 13, Soviet
troops stormed the station, killing 15 people—an action that became
known as Vilnius Massacre. Similar events unfolded in Latvia, where
people put up barricades to prevent the Soviet army from taking
important government buildings. Five Latvians were killed when on
January 20 the army attacked Ministry of the Interior buildings
Gorbachev's decision to use force, so reminiscent of the oppressive
actions taken by previous Soviet administrations, cost him both
international and domestic support (Watson, 1998). Indeed, O'Conner
(2003) credits international coverage of the events in the
Baltics–particularly the attack on the television station in
Vilnius–with having kept the Soviet leader from taking even harsher actions.
In the end, Gorbachev was unwilling to commit the military force
necessary to put down the independence movements, and he quickly
distanced himself from the army's attacks on civilians. In August,
Communist Party hardliners tried to overthrow him. They failed. In
the process, they undermined what little faith people had left in the
party. Estonia declared full independence on August 20. Latvia's
declaration of independence came the next day. Republics throughout
the Soviet Union followed suit. The Soviet Union officially
recognized the independence of the Baltic nations on September 6, and
at the end of the year it simply ceased to exist (O'Conner, 2003).
Entman (1991) suggested that frames are constructed from and embodied
in the keywords, metaphors, concepts, symbols, and visual images that
are emphasized within news narratives. Hall (in Curran, Gurevitch,
and Wallacott, 1977) argued that over time the selection and
repetition of certain codes become accepted as the dominant
explanation for events that need definition. Gitlin (1980) defined
frames as "persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and
presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which
symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether visual or
verbal." Hackett (1984) added that framing the news might not be a
conscious act by journalists. Instead, he wrote, "It may well be the
result of the unconscious absorption of assumptions about the social
world in which the news must be embedded in order to be intelligible
to the intended audience."
In short, framing allows for a single interpretation to dominate news
coverage; all other themes become inferior or are non-existent.
Entman noted that government officials were especially adept at
developing news frames that they hoped the media would adopt, which
quite often they did. For example, he examined U.S. media coverage of
the downing of two commercial jetliners and the corresponding frames
that developed in the media. In sum, the shooting down of a Korean
Air Lines plane by a Soviet military aircraft was a deliberate act
that might have been approved by the Soviet government. However, the
U.S. government was assigned no such moral culpability when one of
its naval ships shot down an Iranian airliner.
In a separate study, Jayakar (1997) found differences in the coverage
of national elections in India and Israel in 1996. More stories were
devoted to the Israeli elections, and more of them appeared on the
front page. India, in a variety of ways, was portrayed as a "backward
and mysterious region," which, according to Jayaker, reinforced the
image Americans had of the country. Meanwhile, Israel was portrayed
as ready for an historic election that would enhance peace prospects
with the Palestinians; this was an explicit aim of Bill Clinton's
The media's unwillingness to seek out additional voices to help frame
news coverage compounds the concerns associated with framing.
Employing the "news net" approach suggested by Tuchman (1973) means
that gathering information becomes a sure thing. Selected individuals
and institutions are guaranteed to provide material that is presumed
to be newsworthy because it flows from a credible, legitimate, and
frequently used source. But this arrangement also allows the source
to determine what kind of information, and how much, is released to
the media at a particular time.
Closely associated with framing is the press nationalism model, which
asserts that that the American media have allowed their political
leaders, especially the executive branch, to dictate foreign news
coverage about the communist world. Gans (1979) argued that the
American media are inclined to cover some foreign news stories over
others. Among the topics more likely to be reported are stories that
involve the United States, involve countries with extensive dealings
with the United States, and somehow suggest a communist country has
been weakened because of an event or action. Gitlin (1980) added that
the media – because they are part of the elite and support the status
quo – are able (and do) criticize the U.S. government; however, they
are not going to extend that criticism too far because their own
legitimacy might then come into question.
There has been substantial research in the area of press nationalism,
and many studies have demonstrated that U.S. government officials are
the primary, if not only, sources used in reporting of such stories.
Dickson (1992) and Kieh (1992) reviewed media coverage of the ouster
of president Manuel Noriega from Panama and found that the American
government portrayed Noriega as an international drug dealer without
offering any proof; however, the media reported these allegations.
The media also ignored the long-standing political relationship that
the U.S. had had with Noriega before he was removed. Meanwhile,
Dickson (1989) and McCoy (1992) noted that the substance and tone of
American press reports from El Salvador adopted U.S. government
positions. A study by Kodrich (1998) found bias in the coverage two
American newspapers gave to the 1990 and 1996 Nicaraguan presidential
elections. Studies by Mowlana (1984) and Chang (1984, 1989) supported
the press nationalism models in studies about coverage of the Shah of
Iran and from China. Finally, Kim (2000) provided additional evidence
for the press nationalism model in a study that found that student
demonstrators in China were labeled in positive terms when compared
with students protesting similar government policies in South Korea.
The positions of the United States government in both instances
mirrored that of the media.
Herman and Chomsky's (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political
Economy of the Mass Media is one of the more recognized works in the
discussion of press nationalism. They suggested that the government
and selected dominant private interests control news flow with one of
the primary effects being the reduction in the number of voices
helping to frame news coverage. They identified five filters that
they said assisted the government and private interests in shutting
out opposition voices. One of those filters was anti-communism. The
authors contended that the easy-to-level charge that a news
organization was too far left of center acted as a powerful
limitation. Compounding this problem was that the charge that a
journalist or news outlet was "red" needed no evidence in order to be
supported. The authors argued that simply the fear of being labeled
"red" affected the media.
Coverage of the Soviet Union
The American media traditionally provided a negative portrayal of the
Soviet Union. Merz and Lippmann (cited in Salisbury, 1980) noted that
in the first two years of the USSR's existence one American newspaper
reported on 91 occasions that the Bolshevik regime was on the brink
of collapse or had already fallen.
Meanwhile, Winch (1999) examined editorial cartoons that appeared in
three American newspapers during World War Two. He found that
"Germany was portrayed as a much greater threat (to the United
States), and was consistently depicted in editorial cartoons as a
villainous and despicable totalitarian regime, while favorable
cartoons of the Soviets were fairly common throughout the period." He
added that it was during the war that many "American journalists
seemed to admire the courage of the Soviets" and often wrote positive
reports of their experiences with the citizenry. Walsh (1945) polled
American public opinion about the Soviet Union toward the end of
World War Two. He determined that a large majority of Americans held
inaccurate beliefs about the Soviet state, its people, and the depth
of support for the Communist Party within the USSR. Moreover, his
survey found that Americans wavered on the question of whether they
thought the Soviet Union could be trusted to remain cooperative with
the United States once the war ended. At its zenith, only 51 percent
of those surveyed believed good relations between the Americans and
the Soviets would remain a constant of a post-war world.
Larson (in Adams, 1982) found that between 1972 and 1981 the Soviet
Union was one of four countries that received an exceptional amount
of coverage on network television news. However, the coverage
allotted to Eastern European nations – the Soviet's satellite states
– was not as strong. Wanta, Golan, and Lee (2003) reported that
Russia received the most mentions of all foreign countries in
television news reports during the first nine months of 1998. More
importantly, survey respondents considered Russia to be a country in
which vital U.S. interests were at stake; and they demonstrated
slightly negative feelings about Russia even though the Soviet regime
had collapsed in 1991. McLean and Ikpah (1994) noted that throughout
the 1980s more stories from the Soviet Union than any other foreign
country appeared on American network television newscasts.
Kreisberg (1946) found that a leading American newspaper gave more
attention to negative news about the USSR than favorable news about
it. Moretti (2002) reviewed New York Times' coverage of the entrance
of the Soviet Union into the Olympic Games. His study found that
stories written by the newspaper's reporters and columnists
demonstrated a consistently negative tone toward the USSR, its
reasons for entering the Olympics, and its willingness to abide by
Olympic rules. However, stories written by the Associated Press or
other wire services that made it into the same newspaper did not
include similar negative frames. Moretti (2001) also examined network
television news coverage of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts and
found that American government and private sources appeared in the
news far more than their Soviet counterparts. Moreover, he found that
the achievements of Soviet athletes during the 1980 Games were
largely ignored by the American media because of the absence of
American athletes; however, no such discrediting of the achievements
by U.S. athletes occurred in 1984 despite the absence of Soviet athletes.
Huang and McAdams' (1995) examination of U.S., Chinese, and Taiwanese
newspaper coverage of the failed 1991 coup in Moscow is worth
mentioning. The authors determined that each country's coverage was
biased and motivated to bolster the political agenda of their
respective national governments. Specifically, they reported that the
American and Taiwanese newspapers devoted more space to the on-going
story; the American papers relied much more heavily on American
government officials as sources than did reporters from the other
nations; the American papers provided more detailed information about
Boris Yeltsin and others opposing the coup; and American newspapers
allowed the coup leaders to serve as sources on far fewer occasions
than did the Chinese press. The authors concluded that political
ideology and foreign policy played important roles in how much and
what type of coverage appeared in each media outlet.
Cable television and the advent of newer media technologies continue
to eat away at the audience share that America's over-the-air
networks once enjoyed, but they remain a dominant news and
entertainment source (Nielsen Media Research, 2002; Pew Research Center, 2004).
Justification for examining television coverage stems from the
recognition that television has supplanted the newspaper as the
primary source Americans turn to for news. The coverage accorded to
the so-called "breakaway" republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
offer an opportunity to examine whether network news producers,
reporters, and anchors allowed American foreign policy interests to
influence their reporting of these events. At the risk of overstating
what was at stake during this time, the demise of the Soviet Union
(manifested through the successful breaking away of selected
republics) ensured the end of the Cold War, the collapse of
communism, and the validation of America's political, social, and
The authors included some of the key dates in the battle for
independence in the Baltics. This chart also lists some of the more
relevant events in the American-led effort to liberate Kuwait. As
mentioned, one of the critical components connected to this study was
how and if the events in the Middle East affected the amount of
coverage from the Baltic region.
• March 11 Lithuania declares independence
• March 23 Soviet troops active in Vilnius
• April 18 Soviet blockade of Lithuania begins
• June 29 Soviet blockade of Lithuania ends
• August 2 Iraq invades Kuwait
• August 7 Beginning of Desert Shield
• January 7 Soviet forces move into the Baltic republics
• January 13 Vilnius Massacre: Soviet forces storm TV station in Vilnius
• January 17 Beginning of Desert Storm
• January 20 Five Latvians killed; Soviets storm Ministry of
• February 9 Lithuanians vote to declare independence
• March 3 Latvians and Estonians vote to declare independence
• August 19 Soviet hardliners try to oust Gorbachev
• August 21 Gorbachev returns to power
• August 20 Estonia declares full independence
• August 21 Latvia declares full independence
• September 6 Soviet Union recognizes Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
• September 17 Baltic nations admitted to the United Nations
• December 31 The end of the Soviet Union
As mentioned, the authors employed the Vanderbilt University
television abstracts in this study, and a census of all Monday
through Friday stories focusing on Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
that appeared on the three network evening newscasts was coded. The
coding period began January 1, 1990 and concluded December 31, 1991.
The January date corresponds to the beginning of the year in which
the independence movement in the Baltics, as mentioned in the
introduction, blossomed. The December date represents the dissolution
of the Soviet Union. The authors chose to code all weekday stories on
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia because of the short nature of the
study. Weekend stories were not coded because of the periodic
inconsistent nature of Saturday and Sunday network newscasts
resulting from sports or other special programming. It is not
uncommon for these newscasts to be either delayed or abandoned when
special programming goes beyond its scheduled time frame.
Five research questions were at the core of this project. RQ1 asked:
Did the amount of stories from the breakaway republics decrease once
American forces were deployed in the Middle East? Closely associated
with RQ1 is RQ2: Did the stories from Latvia, Lithuania, and/or
Estonia appear lower in the newscast once the American military was
called upon to assist in the liberation of Kuwait?
RQ3 asked: What types of stories were emanating from Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia during 1990 and 1991? In other words, did
stories from the breakaway republics focus on the domestic political
struggle for independence, the real or threatened actions of the
Soviet military, and/or international diplomatic efforts to avert a
widespread killing of the populace? (A complete listing of the
classification of stories can be found below.)
A frame that had developed within the American media regarding the
Soviet military was enhanced with the previously mentioned KAL
tragedy. In short, the Soviet military was thought to be ruthless and
probably operating under the direct orders of the Kremlin. Any action
in any of the three Baltic republics, less than ten years after the
airline accident, could easily be framed once again as evidence of
the ruthless nature of the Soviet regime. Thus RQ4 asked: How will
story placement vary based on story topic? In other words, would some
stories be considered more newsworthy and more prominent (and
therefore consistently appear earlier in the newscast) than others?
Stories involving conflict, for example, are ones that by their very
nature engender more media interest than stories about social trends.
Because of this, conflict type stories (among others) might be
considered more newsworthy and thus appear earlier in a newscast,
when compared to non-conflict stories. For purposes of this study,
the newscasts were blocked into ten minute segments. Stories that
began in the first ten minutes were classified as "first third"
stories. Those that began in the middle ten minutes were categorized
as "second third" stories. Finally, those reports that began in the
last ten minutes were classified as "final third" reports.
Recognizing the importance of framing and the sourcing of news leads
to RQ5: What sources assisted America's national television networks
in discussing the events in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1990
and 1991? A reliance on sources from the United States and its allies
would tend to reinforce previously developed frames about the Soviet
Union and its intentions in the Baltics.
There were seven coded categories in this study. A short description
of each is provided here.
1. Case: This category included information about the date a story
was aired and the network which aired it.
2. Year: This category reflected the year in which the story aired.
Only two options existed here: 1990 or 1991.
3. Network: The three national, over-the-air networks were included
in this study. The coders were to select ABC, CBS, or NBC. The
information about which network aired a story is found on each
abstract available through Vanderbilt University database.
4. Latvia and/or Lithuania, and/or Estonia: This category indicated
whether Latvia, Lithuania, and/or Estonia were discussed in the
network news report.
5. Story classification: One of 14 possible categories characterized
the type of story that appeared in the newscast. Those categories
were domestic politics; diplomacy and foreign affairs; economics; war
and defense; domestic crime; public health and welfare; public moral
problems; accidents and disasters; transportation and travel;
agriculture; education and the arts; science and invention; popular
amusements; and general human interest.
6. Appearance: This category reflected whether the story from or
about Latvia, Lithuania, and/or Estonia appeared in the first-,
second-, or final-third of the newscast. The start time of the story
(available on the abstract) determined the answer to this category.
7. Sources: Government, military, business, academic/think tank,
health care, religious, human rights/international aid organizations,
journalists, and private individuals representing Latvia, Lithuania,
Estonia, other Soviet republics, the Soviet Union, the United States,
and all other countries were potential sources. All sources that were
quoted either directly or indirectly in any news story were
considered a source, for purposes of this study.
The authors along with two graduate research assistants acted as the
coders during this study. Intercoder reliability, borrowed from
Stempel and Westley (1989) and based on percentage of agreement,
ranged from 100 percent for date, year, network, republics mentioned,
and appearance in newscast, to 98 percent for story classification,
to 86 percent for sources, for an overall percentage of agreement of
97 percent (all figures rounded).
A total of 407 stories from or about Latvia, Lithuania, and/or
Estonia appeared on the three over-the-air networks during 1990 and
1991 (see Table 1). Slightly more than 71 percent (289 of 407) of
those stories appeared in 1990. ABC delivered the most stories in
1990 (ABC – 102, CBS – 93, NBC – 94), and ABC and CBS delivered the
most stories in 1991 (ABC – 42, CBS – 42, NBC – 34). These findings
suggest that the "story" about the impending collapse of the Soviet
Union was written in the republics in 1990. However, by 1991, the
internal conflict within the Kremlin (including the failed August
coup) had assumed the principal attention of the U.S. television
networks. And, as mentioned, by the end of that year, the Soviet
Union had dissolved. Moreover, the sharp drop in the number of
stories reflects that American network television had turned its
attention to another crisis: The U.S.-led war against Iraq, which
began in January 1991. (Please see Table 2, for a month-by-month
breakdown of stories that aired in calendar years 1990 and 1991.)
Thus, support for RQ1 was found: The deployment of American forces in
Kuwait and the Middle East did lead to a decrease in the number of
stories from and about the Baltic states. The potential effect that
this incident had on the coverage of the drive for independence
within the Baltics will be addressed further in the discussion section.
As mentioned, RQ2 asked: Did the stories from Latvia, Lithuania, and
Estonia appear lower in the networks' newscasts once American forces
were deployed in the Middle East? The answer to this question is yes.
Table 3 refers to the placement of stories throughout 1990 and 1991.
Almost seven out of every ten stories (201 of 289, 69.5 percent) in
1990 coming out of the Baltics appeared in the initial ten minutes of
a network newscast. Almost one in four (72 of 289, 24.9 percent)
appeared in the middle ten minutes of the newscast, and only 16 of
289 stories (5.5 percent) aired in the final ten minutes of the
newscast. The percentages were much different in 1991, when only 58
of 118 stories (49.1 percent) were shown in the first ten minutes.
More than one-third of all stories (41 of 118, 34.7 percent) appeared
in the middle of the newscast, and 19 of 118 stories (16.1 percent)
aired in the final ten minutes of news programs.
In short, the first two research questions demonstrate that there was
less interest in and less prominence placed on stories from the
Baltics once American military forces were dispatched to the Middle
East. These findings should not be surprising when one recognizes
that the involvement of American troops in the Middle East
necessitated that news coverage shift to that part of the world. The
amount of coverage and the prominence attached to American forces at
war in the Middle East ensured that reporting from other
international hotspots – including the Baltics – would decline.
The third research question associated with this study asked: What
stories were emanating from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia during
1990 and 1991? The results that are contained in Table 4 suggest that
in 1990 the "story" within the Baltics was viewed as a political one,
as the governments in Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn maneuvered toward
freedom from the Soviet state; however, one year later the spotlight
had shifted to the military conflicts taking place in Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia as the three continued to press ahead toward
their independence. In 1990, 190 stories concerning the political
actions of the three Baltic governments aired on the three American
television networks. This represented almost two-thirds (190 of 289,
65.7 percent) of all Baltic-related stories during that year. One
year later, the percentage of domestic political stories dropped to
less than 50 percent of all stories (51 of 118, 43.2 percent);
however, this item remained the most discussed element on the three
networks. In 1990, less than 6 percent (16 of 289, 5.5 percent) of
all stories focused on issues of war and defense; one year later more
than one in four stories (33 of 118, 28 percent) focused on that
topic. As mentioned, only domestic political acts received more attention.
The increasing number of stories about war and defense (combined with
the overall decrease in attention paid to the Baltics because of the
situation in the Middle East) during 1991 led to sizable drops in
stories relating to international affairs and economics. In 1990,
almost 14 percent (40 of 289, 13.8 percent) of all stories described
the diplomatic and foreign affairs efforts of the three Baltic
states. A similar number of stories highlighted economic issues.
However, by 1991, the number of reports about diplomatic efforts fell
to 23; the decline in the number of overall Baltic-related reports
meant that the percentage of stories about the topic in this year
actually increased, when compared to 1990, to almost 20 percent (23
of 118, 19.4 percent). The number of stories about economic issues
all but disappeared in 1991. Only two stories (1.7 percent) dealt
with this issue.
In short, by 1991 the attention of the American television networks
was focused squarely on government and military actions; all other
topics essentially were removed from the media agenda. It could be
argued that as the number of reports declined so did the breadth of
coverage: The Baltics were seen as a political and economic
battlefield in 1991. The authors contend that the complexity of
coverage from 1990 was now evident in the Middle East, which was the
focal point of international reporting.
RQ4 asked: How will story placement vary based on story topic? Tables
5a (covering 1990) and 5b (covering 1991) assist in the reporting of
this answer, which is a mixed one. On one hand, certain topics were
more likely to appear earlier in the newscast; however, in 1990 an
overwhelming majority of stories about the Baltic nations aired
during the initial ten minutes of the news programs. This was not the
case in 1991.
Especially in 1990 America's network television news producers,
reporters, and anchors considered prominent stories about the
domestic politics, diplomacy, and economics of the Baltic nations.
More than six of every ten (119 of 190, 62.7 percent) domestic
political stories aired in the first ten minutes of the networks'
newscasts. Meanwhile, almost nine of ten (35 of 40, 87.5 percent)
reports pertaining to diplomatic efforts appeared in the initial ten
minutes of a news program. Finally, eight of every ten stories (32 of
40, 80 percent) relating to economic issues appeared in the first ten
minutes. Overall in 1990 almost seven of every ten stories (201 of
289, 69.6 percent) were disseminated in the "first third" of all
newscasts. By 1991 there was a noticeable shift: Domestic political
and diplomatic stories remained prominent "first third" stories;
however, the percentage of those stories appearing in that timeslot
declined. Slightly more than half (27 of 51, 53 percent) of the
domestic political stories remained "first third" stories, and almost
two of every three (15 of 23, 65.2 percent) reports relating to
diplomatic efforts aired in the initial ten minutes of a news
program. Perhaps the most interesting result is that the data show in
1991 less than one in four (7 of 33, 21.2 percent) reports relating
to the actions of the Soviet military and/or the response to those
actions appeared in the "first third" of the newscast. Overall in
1991 almost one-half (58 of 118, 49.2 percent) of all reports
relating to Latvia, Lithuania, and/or Estonia were placed in the
initial ten minutes of a network newscast.
These findings relating to coverage in 1990 and 1991 provide perhaps
the strongest evidence that the U.S. military's deployment and
engagement in the Middle East affected media coverage from and about
the Baltic nations. In 1990, more stories were disseminated about
this region and they were given prominent placement in the newscasts.
In 1991, there were fewer stories and they were not guaranteed a
"first third" classification.
Finally, RQ5 asked: What sources assisted America's national
television networks in discussing the events in Latvia, Lithuania,
and Estonia in 1990 and 1991? Table 6 reports these results. Overall,
Soviets (248 of 777, 31.9 percent) and Lithuanians (30.2 percent)
were the most frequently used sources. Americans (179 of 777, 23
percent) were the third most frequently used. Soviet (157 of 443,
35.4 percent) and Lithuanian sources (149, 33.6 percent) were the
most often used in stories relating to domestic political acts. Both
dwarfed the number of appearances made by Americans (69, 15.5
percent) when this topic was discussed on network television news
programs. Similarly, stories relating to war and defense also saw
more Lithuanian (34 of 95, 35.8 percent) and Soviet sources (31, 32.6
percent) than American sources (18, 18.9 percent). These findings
perhaps suggest that U.S. news producers, reporters, and anchors
considered "local" sources better suited to report what was happening
in the Baltics.
However, Americans were the most often used sources when stories were
disseminated relating to diplomacy and foreign relations (63 of 135,
46.7 percent). They also were heavily used in reports centering on
economic issues (29 of 86, 33.7 percent). These findings could
suggest that topics that were more abstract or had a direct effect on
actual or potential American actions required, in the minds of the
news professionals, U.S. sources to assist in making them understandable.
As mentioned, Lithuanian sources were used most often, and they spoke
on a variety of topics. However, their Baltic neighbors made only
sporadic appearances on network news programs. Latvians were used as
sources on only 42 occasions (5.4 percent of all sources), and
Estonians appeared only 25 times (3.2 percent). One possible
explanation for this imbalance in Baltic sources is that the push for
Baltic independence in 1990 began in Lithuania; thus, government
officials and others from that country had more time to frame the
independence movement. At the same time, their efforts drew the most
attention from the Soviet government and it was in Lithuania where
Soviet troops were sent first in an effort to derail the independence drive.
Finally, further evidence that the situation in the Middle East
dominated the attention of American sources (at the expense of what
was happening in the Baltics) in 1991 can be seen in Table 7, which
reviews the use of those sources during both calendar years examined
in this study. More than three of every four U.S. sources (135 of
179, 75.4 percent) appeared on American television newscasts in 1990.
In 1991, they made far fewer appearances in stories relating to
politics and government (14, versus 55 in 1990), diplomacy and
foreign relations (19, versus 44), and economics (1, versus 28). It
was only when stories related to war or other military issues (10,
versus 8) that American sources made more appearances than they had
during the previous year.
This study examined American network television news coverage of a
specific aspect of the collapse of the USSR: the pursuit and
attainment of independence by the so-called "breakaway" republics of
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia during 1990 to 1991.
The independence movement in the Baltics received substantial network
television coverage in 1990; however, in 1991 coverage waned,
principally because of the Gulf War. On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces
invaded Kuwait. Five months later, the United States launched
Operation Desert Storm and began the process of liberating the
country. Given the importance of Persian Gulf oil reserves to the
United States and the deployment of American troops to the
chronically volatile Middle East, it should not be surprising that
reporting on Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia declined because of media
attention being refocused to the Middle East.
Network coverage of the Baltic region was at its highest between
January and June 1990, a period before Saddam Hussein ordered his
military into Kuwait. The networks averaged 46.7 stories per month,
reaching a high of 83 stories in April (see Table 2). Coverage fell
to only two stories in July, indicating that the networks viewed the
situation there as having reached a stalemate (the second factor
accounting for the decline in overall reporting from the region).
Coverage all but disappeared until January 1991, with only four
stories being disseminated in these five months. It took the deaths
of protestors in Latvia and Lithuania and an attack by the Soviet
military in January 1991 to erase the image of the stalemate and
bring the area back into the news. However, the coverage did not
approach the depth and scope of the reporting in 1990; only 40
stories in the month of January appeared on network television. Of
these stories, 12 (30 percent) appeared in the final ten minutes of
the newscast. This is particularly striking because of the 407
stories on the three republics in 1990 and 1991, only 36 occurred in
the last third of the newscast. Clearly, the Gulf War and the
commitment of American military forces to it continued to dominate
American television news coverage; however, the appearance of these
stories on the newscasts indicates the importance the media attached
to the region.
Coverage of the three Baltic republics for all intents and purposes
disappeared again until August 1991, despite referendums in February
and March that overwhelmingly reaffirmed moves towards
independence—the networks totaled only seven stories in each of the
two months. Again, without the Gulf War, it is likely that there
would been a more thorough media examination of these events given
the tremendous interest in the region only a year earlier. When the
republics returned to the media spotlight, it was as part of their
final drive to independence and the failed August 1991 coup. The
number of stories on the republics jumped to 28 in August and 22 in
September, the month that the Soviet Union finally recognized
Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian independence.
The last three months of the year saw only one story each on the new
nations. The story of independence had been overshadowed by the death
throes of the Soviet Union. The political situation in Moscow had
once again become the principal story, as viewed by America's three
over-the-air television news programs.
The American television networks tended to frame their reporting of
the independence movements more as a political story than as a
military one. This research found that almost six of every ten
stories (241 of 407, 59.2 percent) from the Baltics dealt with the
fluid political situation inside the three republics. This attention
to domestic politics among the American media is likely due to the
importance the political situation in the Soviet Union had on the
American government dating to the end of World War Two. The Cold War
ensured that the Americans saw the Soviets as their principal
political enemy. Thus, according to successive American governments,
it was necessary to prevent the Soviets from spreading Communist
ideology around the world. Had Eastern Europe (and specifically the
Soviet Union) been a less important area of the world, it seems
likely that the coverage from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would
have focused more on the military aspect of the story.
While stories mentioning the Soviet military were more likely to show
up in the early portions of the newscast, these stories were
substantially less likely to appear in the beginning of the newscast,
when compared to strictly political, diplomatic, or economic stories.
This finding again highlights the political importance of the Baltics
and the Soviet Union to the United States. In addition, the story of
Baltic independence, at least in Lithuania, was largely told by
Lithuanian and Soviet sources, something that might have been much
less likely had the region been unimportant to the United States.
American sources only begin to dominate the story when it became a
diplomatic issue, and then they overshadowed Soviet and all other sources.
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Table 1: Yearly Breakdown of Stories, All Three Networks
Table 2: Number of Stories from and/or about Latvia,
and/or Lithuania, and/or Estonia
Table 3: Placement of Stories from the Baltic region; 1990 and 1991
Table 4: Stories from the Baltics, 1990-1991
Public Moral Problems
Table 5a: Placement in Newscast of All Story Topics (1990)
Pub. Moral Probs.
Popular Amusement Amusements
Table 5b: Placement in Newscast of All Story Topics (1991)
Pub. Moral Probs.
Table 6: Use of All Sources by Country and Topic
Table 7: Distribution of American Sources, 1990 and 1991
Diplomacy/ For. Rel.