The Media and the Gulf War

Journalists looking back in the summer of 1991 at the record of the Gulf War came to the distressing conclusion that, while Saddam Hussein seemed to have weathered the military assault, the press corps of the United States had been routed. The full extent of U.S. military control of the media during the brief war was described this way in a report issued June 25 by a committee of representatives of some of the largest American news organizations:
“In the end, the combination of security review and the use of the pool system as a form of censorship made the Gulf War the most undercovered major conflict in modern American history. In a free society, there is simply no place for such overwhelming control by the government…. Television, print, and radio alike start with one sobering realization: There was virtually no coverage of the Gulf ground war until it was over.”

From the first day of the U.S.-led military response to Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, a central concern of the military was the ability to control the psychological atmosphere within which the operation would be conducted. That concern was dealt with by an elaborate system of control of press coverage of military operations.

The Role of Technology

In one important way the Gulf War was a radical departure for both the press and the military. Communications technology had made possible the instant transmission of pictures of events worldwide. The ability of news organizations such as the Cable News Network (CNN) to send real-time information around the world 24 hours a day via satellite presented new challenges and opportunities. This innovation raised military fears that tactical and strategic information would be revealed to the enemy.

As the conflict unfolded, virtually the only press coverage of the war not subject to U.S. military control were the televised broadcasts of missile attacks on Baghdad, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh, which the military was powerless to block from journalists’ view. Peter Arnett of CNN, who remained in Baghdad when other Western journalists left, sent home gripping images of a city being slowly taken apart by laser-guided missiles and bombs. His broadcasts, some of which showed the war’s effect on civilians, became the focus of bitter debates in the United States over the role of journalists in wartime. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein used communications technology for propaganda purposes; although clumsy with the medium, he tried several times to win support around the world for his cause through televised interviews and appeals.

In effect, 20th-century generals reacted to communications innovations the same way Civil War generals reacted to the introduction of the telegraph cable: They saw news reports as weapons in an arsenal and sought absolute control over the information journalists could obtain and transmit. The system put in place in the deserts of the Middle East allowed the military to decide who would be allowed to cover the war, by controlling credentials, and to determine what events could be covered.

From Grenada to the Gulf

This new press policy had been tested during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1986. Combat there was confined to an isolated Caribbean island completely sealed off from the press. No visual image of the war reached the public which was not, in effect, government propaganda taken and provided to the media by the military. Despite press complaints and Pentagon studies following the Grenada invasion, when U.S. troops were sent to Panama in December 1989, journalists were allowed into Panama only as part of a military pool. The pool itself was kept from the scenes of combat. It was an elaboration of the Panama plan that was transported with U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm.

Aside from being able to observe the missile pyrotechnics, journalists assigned to cover the Gulf War had little access to military action or personnel. They had almost no freedom of movement. Press coverage of U.S. military units in the Gulf area was limited to “pool coverage,” in which groups of journalists were escorted by military officers and produced stories to be shared by all news organizations accredited to the region—as many as 1,400 at one point in the war. Military escorts decided where the pool would go and had to be present for all interviews. In many cases they cut off interviews considered critical of official policy. Stories written by these pools were still subjected to censorship, which in many instances was political, aimed at removing information embarrassing to the military. Furthermore, the censorship system delayed most press reports for so long that they were useless when eventually transmitted.

Frustrated journalists, called “unilaterals,” tried to report independently of the pools and were subject to arrest. Nearly 50 journalists from the United States were detained, some arrested, for trying to avoid military press restraints. Several, including CBS newsman Bob Simon and three colleagues, were captured and held for a time by Iraqi troops.

As a substitute for reports from the field of combat, military briefing officers met with the press daily. Similar briefings held each afternoon during the Vietnam War had been dubbed the “Five O’Clock Follies” because the military used them for self-serving pronouncements and often misleading information. They were largely avoided by experienced journalists in favor of independent reporting on troops in the field. With that alternative forbidden to journalists in the Gulf War, most information delivered to the American public from the Middle East came from the official military briefings.

What the Public Saw

The resulting reports formed an image of warfare from which the human cost had been surgically eliminated. Film released for television was of “smart bombs” guided literally through the front doors of military bunkers by laser beams. The language used was equally bloodless. Military targets such as tanks and armored personnel carriers were listed as “KIAs” (killed in action) when destroyed by bombs, but the toll on human beings inside them was referred to as “collateral damage.” Unreported were the costs and consequences of the war in human terms. What was transmitted from the Gulf often served to mask reality rather than shed light on what was happening. Not only was military security protected by this control of the field of information; it was later disclosed that the military had used the press to fool Saddam Hussein.

Misleading the media in order to mislead lraq took several forms. Early in the buildup preceding the war the government released long lists of military units called to Gulf duty. In many cases only a few individuals of the units named were actually activated. The result was to create the sense of a much larger force projected into the region much earlier than was the case.

In a remote war zone, the news media are the eyes and ears of the world. But if the military carefully controls access to information, what can the public learn? In this article from Collier’s Year Book, respected American journalist Bill Kovach explains how the Persian Gulf War of 1991 put this question to the test. Many journalists, provided with carefully screened information and shepherded around in carefully controlled “pools,” believed they were unable to portray the war as it really was. The military, concerned over the security risks posed by instant media coverage, insisted the restraints were essential. The Gulf War was remarkably short-lived, but the conflict between the media and the military may persist for a long time.


In addition, there were elaborate press briefings replete with tactical details of a planned amphibious assault from the Persian Gulf and a frontal assault across the desert into Kuwait. Literally hundreds of stories based on these briefings were printed and aired, with exhaustive graphics and maps. With these reports the military hoped to keep the bulk of the Iraqi forces pinned down in the center and right flank (which is, in fact, where they remained), while a massive movement of allied forces to the left outflanked and eventually encircled the Iraqis.

Media Reaction

The combination of manipulation for military purposes and for political advantage created a constant tension, building distrust between the media and the military.

Journalists react strongly to military justifications of such manipulation on the basis of the need to protect tactical and strategic information. The military’s own studies of the role of the press in Vietnam had concluded that allowing journalists virtually free access to troops and not censoring their reports had not resulted in military failure. Army Colonel Harry Summers conducted a study for the Army War College of the relationship between the military, the media, and the American people during the Vietnam War. His findings were published in a book entitled On Strategy, which is used as a text in the military war and staff colleges. Colonel Summers says that journalists were not responsible for losing the Vietnam War and that no serious breaches of security occurred. He concluded that America’s civilian leaders lost the war, because they never clarified the political objectives and as a result could not retain public support.

Looking Back

As a result of press restrictions in the Gulf War the public received a carefully distorted version of events. The full costs and consequences of the war became clear only afterward. For example, only after the war did the public learn that 90 percent of all bombs dropped were unguided bombs, most of which missed their targets, and that Patriot missiles (launched to intercept Iraqi Scuds) may have caused as much damage in Israel as the Scuds themselves.

The U.S. war strategy was extraordinarily successful in holding down immediate civilian casualties. But Iraq’s inability to function as an organized society, because its industrial and commercial infrastructure were destroyed, meant that the effects on the civilian population would continue far into the future.

While this strategy was being pursued in the region, the press was reporting President George Bush’s words assuring the world: “We have no argument with the people of Iraq, … and we are not trying to systematically destroy the foundations of daily living there.”

A team of doctors from the Harvard University School of Public Health who visited Iraq shortly after the war agreed with a United Nations assessment that the country had suffered “apocalyptic destruction.” They projected that at least 100,000 more Iraqis, mostly children, would die as a result of destruction of the country’s hospital, health, and sanitation systems.

Journalists’ Failings

Not all of the fault for incomplete and misleading coverage of the war rests with the military. Journalists themselves failed to come to grips with their own technology. Instant news puts additional burdens on journalists to introduce their craft into the process. Journalism is the act of choosing from competing information that which most accurately and completely reflects an event. This includes editing for balance and accuracy. It means presenting information in context, relating it to other facts and events.

Larry Grossman, former president of NBC-TV News, noted in the summer issue of Nieman Reports: “On the first day of the war, a CNN correspondent reported that Iraq’s Scud launchers had all been destroyed, that Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard had been ‘decimated,’ and that the entire Iraqi Air Force had been wiped out. Warheads of incoming Scuds were said to have been filled with nerve gas. The Iraqi military was reported to have had nuclear missiles ready to launch.” These false reports were largely the result of careless misinterpretations and extrapolations from information provided by the military.

Future Conflict

Although the conflict with Iraq lasted only a few weeks, the conflict between the military and the media will continue. The outlines of the future conflict can be seen in a lawsuit filed during the war by a dozen news organizations, including The Nation and The Village Voice, in a U.S. district court, charging that the restrictions on the media violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights. Several prominent individuals joined the suit, including authors E. L. Doctorow and William Styron and the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of the war in Cambodia, Sydney Schanberg. The case was eventually dismissed as moot, since the war was over before it could be decided. But the judge ruled on two issues important for the future. First, he accepted the right of the parties to sue the Department of Defense. Second, he held that such actions as restricting the press from the field of conflict are subject to judicial review even in wartime.

As technology continues to improve communications hardware, conflicts between the military and the media may be even more formidable. Satellite phones are now on the shelf that can be carried into the field and used by reporters to call instantly from almost anywhere in the world. Television cameras the size of penlights and transmitting equipment that fits into a briefcase will soon be available. Controlling a press contingent made up of hundreds thus equipped will be virtually impossible.

In the next war the military may decide the only hope for control is to move into the home office and tell editors what information coming into their buildings they may or may not publish or show. Short of total war, such an action would touch off the ultimate constitutional confrontation between media and government.

About the author: Bill Kovach is a veteran journalist who is curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, former Washington Bureau chief of the New York Times, and former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Source : 1992 Collier’s Year Book.

Maureen Dowd Has A Thought
By Paul Walfield
February 14, 2003

Columnist and self-proclaimed know-it-all Maureen Dowd had a thought, and began to write her article “Pass The Duct Tape,” for the February 12, 2003 edition of the New York Times.
She seemed to sense that because Osama bin Laden in an audio tape had confirmed what the Bush Administration had been saying all along, that the terrorist group al Qaeda would align itself with the Iraqi regime, maybe the Administration was on to something, but, alas, she couldn’t put two and two together.
Rather, she believes President Bush had been “rescued” by the mastermind of the 9-11 attack on America. Forgetting that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell had made the case for a connection between the two. She simply scoffed at the evidence presented at the UN about the connection; Ms. Dowd would rather trash the Administration and see Osama jumping into action because America gave him the opportunity.
Ms. Dowd in all her wisdom determined that even though Osama declared his solidarity with Iraq, she preferred to look at his connections with Syria and Saudi Arabia without explaining why that matters or is relevant to the
reality and danger of terrorists supporting and being supported by Saddam Hussein.
Forgetting the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Ms. Dowd chooses to lament the former hostility of Osama for Saddam, and the “present” alliance of the two. Rather than expanding any thought of placing
responsibility for America’s current relations with Iraq or even the al Qaeda terrorists with Saddam or Osama, she chooses to blame the American President instead.
While admitting that bin Laden was squarely with Iraq and against the United States, like most folks who can’t allow reality to interfere with their “beliefs,” Ms. Dowd continues to argue without sound judgment. Referring to
bin Laden’s own words, “He barely mentioned the Iraqi leader and seemed to be holding his nose when he gave permission to his Qaeda brethren to fight “the Crusaders” alongside Saddam’s Baath Party.”
Ms. Dowd’s befuddlement over the alliance between terrorists and Iraq does not change the fact, that it is a fact. So, for the Left it requires a shift in blame.
Treating the alliance made in hell as a self-fulfilling prophecy of the Bush administration, Ms. Dowd need not admit she was wrong or that the Bush administration had been right all along. Rather she can point to her preconceived notion that there had never been cooperation before between the two, “Saddam has no proven record of sharing weapons with Al Qaeda.”
It appears that for the Left, now that bin Laden admits to allying al Qaeda with Iraq it is “true,” but when their own government said it, it wasn’t.
Taking the word of a terrorist or tyrant is easy for the Left, taking the word of an American President or Secretary of State is not, unless of course, they are Democrats.
Undisturbed by the setback, Ms. Dowd attacks the Administration for exposing the truth, “So the Bushies no longer care if Osama sends a coded message to his thugs as long as he stays on message for the White House.” Forgetting that al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern television Network was going to air the tape in its entirety and that America was put on alert for an already planned terrorist attack raising the threat level to orange.
Ms. Dowd’s pathological disdain for the Bush Whitehouse will not allow her to accept that not only was the Bush administration right all along, but that action against the threats posed by terrorists and rogue nations is a cause worth fighting for.
Rather, Ms Dowd opines that “Osama might be perversely encouraging America in this war.” Explaining that if we remove the Saddam regime, occupy Iraq, and install a Democratic form of government bringing freedoms heretofore unknown to the Iraqi people, we are simply playing into the hands of the terrorists and they win, we do not.
Speaking of perverse logic, Ms. Dowd believes that because America and Osama want a regime change in Iraq, America seeking democracy and freedom for the Iraqi people and Osama seeking the reverse, we have fallen into bin Laden’s trap. So much for Maureen having thoughts.
Finally, Ms. Dowd, referring to the democratization of Iraq as a “model kitchen of democracy.” However, she believes it might get messy and cost a lot. Of course, for Ms. Dowd, having a tyrant with weapons of mass destruction who gasses and tortures his own people isn’t messy enough to do something about.
Ms. Dowd and the Whitehouse do have something in common though, they both see the use of Duct tape as not being adequate to protect the American people in the event of attacks by terrorists or rogue nations. However, the Bush administration plans on taking action, Ms. Dowd just whines.

Paul Walfield is a freelance writer and member of the State Bar of California.
Paul can be contacted at [email protected]

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