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The Factoid War: News Media Issues in the Persian Gulf Conflict

I was invited by the Kalamazoo chapter of Women in Communications to talk about media aspects of  the Persian Gulf War in April, 1991. At the last minute, the group decided they wanted a different topic and the original speech has gathered dust in my files all these years.

It’s Tommy-this and Tommy-that,

and chuck ‘im out, the brute,

but it’s savior of our country

when the guns begin to shoot.

Rudyard Kipling understood the fickle ebb and flow of public attitudes about the military. We’ve just come out of a time when the guns were shooting and many Americans are aglow with patriotic fervor. But because all of us have professional connections to the media, and various roles in how information is disseminated to the American public, I suspect we could not help but be fascinated with the recent Persian Gulf War and the so-called Mother of All Battles, which seems in hindsight from the Iraqi viewpoint,  more like the Mother of All Blunders.

While I was interested in the war itself, I found myself especially fascinated by the news media and how it covered the event.

From the night the war began until well past the ceasefire, I kept a detailed journal of daily events. I watched CNN, NBC,ABC and listened to NPR. I read several newspapers daily, and a host of magazines every week. I listened to my friends and colleagues talk about the war — especially the news coverage — and I listened to what my children had to say. I even read some books on Middle Eastern history because this was a region of the world about which I was painfully ignorant.

I came to this subject with my own biases, which need to be declared at the outset. I was raised in an Air Force family and know what government-sanctioned separations are like. I served in the Air Force myself for five years. I am a graduate of journalism school and have done freelance writing and editorial cartooning for newspapers, and magazines, and I have written poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ve also spent two decades working with reporters during my public relations career and to borrow from that famous Mother of All Cliches: Some of my best friends are reporters and editors.

This war being over, we can expect that the performance of our government and military will be thoroughly and officially analyzed and criticized in the future. Not doubt the media’s performance also will be scrutinized, but much less rigorously and not at all publicly and officially, so it falls to us, consumers of the news media’s products, to think for ourselves and let the media and others know what we think and feel.

What I would like to do tonight is to make seven assertions based on my observations over these past weeks — call it a survey of one with an equal margin of error. I don’t expect you to agree with what I have to say, but I do hope it will stimulate some interest. For those of you who are practicing journalists, it may even suggest a story or two.

1. The media had the technology to cover the war but did not understand that real-time, live coverage would change its role and impact.

There is an apocryphal story about a lone private placed far in advance of his lines at night. Intelligence reports indicated there would be an attack that night. Should the enemy appear the soldier was to radio coordinates of the advancing enemy so that air strikes and artillery could be rained down upon them. The sentry in the watching post is supposed to call in every few minutes, but fate intervenes, he falls into deep sleep and after a couple of hours wakes, up grabs the microphone begins to whisper his call sign and looks up to find several rifles pointed at his head.

“Jones,” his perturbed sergeant says over he radio. “Have you seen the bad guys?”

“Hold the line, Sarge and you can talk to them yourself.”

This story came true in the recent war, but instead of a sleepy private it was our media standing with the microphone and satellite up-link in hand.

TV media critics said during the conflict that information seemed to go into the ears of CNN correspondents and come out their mouths without having touched their brains. This sort of criticism, creativity and mean mindedness aside, presupposes its the media’s job to do anything other than pass information on.

Yet, to analyze information requires time and sources for verifying an checking facts. In a war made live via satellite there is no time for checking or reflection. Instantaneous technological communication capability, I believe will require the broadcast media to re-evaluate their philosophy of coverage in live, real-time conflicts.

I can be argued, I think, that CNN was a de facto, collateral participant in this war and that the implications for such involvement had not been adequately thought out in advance, but the media, the military or our government. CNN and the other networks were ,via their live reports, directly involved in aspects of diplomacy, propaganda (both information and disinformation), military strategy, tactics and intelligence to a much greater extent than in any conflict in history.

CNN’s particular media market position made it the major player. One of the peculiarities of the war was that Saddam Hussein, an alleged CNN freak, used it at least in part as his barometer of events in the non-Arab world, and as a direct conduit into the Arab world.

There were a number of times when statements of CNN guests or correspondents seemed to provoke direct, quick Iraqi responses. One example: Gen. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on January 23 minimized the Iraqi Exocet missile threat to coalition naval forces in the Gulf. The next day three Iraqi Mirages with Exocets were intercepted during sorties into the Gulf. Two were shot down and the third fired an Exocet, missed its target, and bugged out. Cause and effect? Perhaps.

2. With few exceptions, reporters were unprepared to cover military subjects or warfare.

The very first night I heard a TV reporter describe with lugubrious awe how “bombers” were taking off from a Saudi air base with rockets that spewed long tails of flame.  No doubt the jet engine is based loosely on jet rocket theory, the reporter was witnessing afterburners from fighters using the extra power to takeoff fully loaded with arms and gas. The only true bombers in the conflict were ancient B-52s that do not have afternburners and were not present on that base that night.

This observation might be though inconsequential,  but given the amount of coverage and criticisms given to military inefficiency since the end of the Vietnam conflict, defense contract overruns and the like, it seemed odd  (or downright irresponsible) to me that the news organizations in this country did not always have qualified people “on the ground,” so to speak. How is it that the media can cover the so-called military industrial  complex without doing the homework essential to understanding the field? Just as our government tends to reduce military size in the wakes of wars it seems the media also allowed its war coverage to erode in the wake of Vietnam. Bottom line, the US media was not prepared to cover a war of any magnitude.

Also complicating military coverage was some reporters’ paranoia. Long-time correspondent Malcolm Browne wrote in the March 3 edition of The New York Times Magazinethat military censors had changed fighter-bomber to “fighter” in a story he had written about the F-117A Stealth, and he believed these changes were made for political reasons; that is, with the Air Force developing the expensive B-2, but bomber version of Stealth, the reference to the F-117A as a fighter bomber might lead citizens to ask why a bomber “version” was needed at all. As an old Air Force navigator and as a journalist I would have called the F-117A a fighter because that’s what the F designation stands for. The F-15 is also a fighter and produced in various models and configurations. The C and D models are largely for aerial combat and intercept while the E model is used for various bombing tasks. But nobody had referenced them as F-15 fighter-interceptors or fighter-bombers. The F says fighter and that’s the accurate way to report it.

Many reporters refer to my employer as Upjohn Company or The Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company when the correct name is The Upjohn Company.  If they can’t get something so simple right, how the hell can they deal with military lingo?

On that opening night of the war reporters described “an armada of fighter aircraft taking off from a base in eastern Saudi Arabia, and they said there also were reports of C-130s  (primarily cargo aircraft, except when equipped as gunships, or AC-130s) taking off one after another from other bases in central Saudi, but the reporters said they  didn’t know what these things meant.

If the cited C-130s were indeed C-130s it could have meant that Special Forces were headed somewhere in the darkness in great force, the primary mission of these people being to provide strategic recon deep in enemy territory.  But it’s unlikely there would have been so many C-30s required to handle our small Special Ops forces. Or the C-130s could’ve been dropping paratroopers. But the reporters didn’t know and didn’t seem to have the vaguest notion of the mission of various aircraft.

More likely the reporters mixed up C-130s (cargo aircraft) with KC-135s (aerial tankers)  and that in fact the KC-135s taking off in great force were in route to join up with the fighters to top them off with fuel before and after their strikes on enemy targets. Mass launches of fighters and tankers could only mean some sort of massive air strike campaign was under way, but reporter after reporter from network after network slapped his forehead and said, “We don’t know what this means.”

Somebody in the media should have known. Due to the realities of air warfare, the dropping of bombs on distant targets requires aerial refueling. The old rule of long-range bombing was: no tankers, no targets. During the gulf war a lot of reporters added two plus two and got zero.

Even ground warfare today is largely technology-based and highly complex. If reporters do not understand the relevant technologies or systems or even basic terminology, how can they hope to cover a war?

In the future, as it was a long time ago print and broadcast media ought to have reporters whose sole job it is to cover the military and related stories full time, and junior reporters ought to rotate through such a beat to increase the number of personnel who can cover these stories when the need suddenly expands.

The media also needs to learn military and war terminology. Bill Krasean, the Gazette’s excellent science and medical writer has made it a point to understand “doctor talk” so he can translate it for the paper’s readers. The same capability should be cultivated in every news operation for military-related matters.

Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame said during an appearance on the Larry King show, “There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers.” Maybe so, but I believe the quality and sophistication of questions has a direct bearing on the quality of answers. In my days in journalism school we were taught that the art of reporting boiled down to learning to ask the right — or pertinent– questions, not all questions.

Listen first, look around and see. Then ask. The interrogation process is like a computer: garbage in, garbage out. If you’re questioning someone in a narrow field and have done no preparation, you are likely to get less from the interview than someone who is better prepared. This is not to dispute the value of naivete in seeing things others may miss, but one who remains naive is a fool. We saw a lot of fools at work in this war.

Years ago, when Upjohn was involved in the early phases of gene splicing experiments I went with one of our scientists to a West Michigan TV station where he was to be interviewed. Before the interview began the reporter told our scientist, “I’m going to ask you what the dispute over genetic engineering is all about, and you take it from there because I don’t know anything about this stuff.”

The the reporter added. “My job’s to ask questions and get out of the way.” True story.

3. The role of women in the military was not well served by some print reporters.

It is only a matter of time until women receive direct combat roles. Some already are in the thick of dangerous operations and at least five American women perished during the war. These deaths notwithstanding, women still are not allowed to participate in direct combat, meaning face-to-face with an enemy.

In part the laws and policies that make this so stem from an historic prejudice that proclaims women lack the requisite physical strength and propensity for aggression afforded by the dominance of testosterone — the so called “warmone.”

The stereotype here is that women will break down in combat for a variety of reasons too specious to discuss. My own view, for those who care to know, is that woman and men should be able to hold any job they are qualified to hold, with no regard for chromosomes. If a job legitimately requires a level of measured strength, then all men and women who can meet the strength test should be able to perform that function. 

It seems to me that some print reporters seemed to go out of their way to tell us about female soldiers crying in the wake of certain situations. Maybe they were simply and innocently describing what they witnessed and perhaps they only saw women cry, but it’s also possible these images fit their own stereotypes and focused them on seeing what they expected to see. Trust me: male soldiers cry and I saw TV images of males shedding tears and even General Schwarzkopf choking up in referring to casualties, but I saw not one print description of a male shedding tears. And none of the media told me about soldiers who defecated in their trousers in the din of battle, or vomited when they came upon bloated, rotting corpses. I would make a final note that the print media in the war zone seemed to be almost exclusively male. Could this have influenced the slant?

4.  War may be hell, but journalists “imprisoned” by censorship make it “worse.”

As a novelist the whole notion of censorship makes me boil, yet I understand that the freedom of speech is not absolute and can be circumstantial, if that’s  good word for it. E.g., free speech doesn’t allow you to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, or joke about bombs or hijackings  in airports.

The issue of censorship in wartime is complex, but the principle of “do no harm” is generally accepted. Despite this, there seemed to be a sort of media schizophrenia loose in the Gulf. Most countries practiced some sort of formal censorship, ranging from the limitation of reporter’s movement and access, to prior approval of stories before transmission or broadcast.

Reporters in Saudi seemed to carp about rules more than those in Israel or Iraq, which makes me wonder why.

Newspapers such as The New York Times issued boxed disclaimers that described the “pool system,” including this statement: “Some of the information appearing today on American military operations was obtained under such circumstances.” Not all papers, including the Times, carried such disclaimers every day; some never bothered. CNN and the networks routinely referred to restrictions on news reports out of Baghdad, but rarely mentioned restrictions in Saudi. I find all this both curious and confusing.

I remember a time when someone I know wrote a speech for a business executive. The speech came back with a note attached: “This is fine except for the errors.” There was not a single mark in the draft. The New York Times statement reminds me of that unmarked speech draft. It it is important enough for readers to know that some of the gathered information was obtained under such circumstances, doesn’t it follow that readers ought to know exactly what information that caveat refers to, and in which stories? And, if the disclaimer box does not appear one day, does that mean the information was not restricted or impinged that day?

Early in the war Dan Rather assured us that journalists knew what to report in order to avoid possible injury to troops. For my part, the subsequent performance of our media showed Mr. Rather’s confidence to be sadly misplaced. The attempt to identify Scud missile impact sites in Israel is but one example and Israeli censors quickly stopped it. On the night the ground war began, military analyst George Christ of CBS began with a briefing showing the location of all allied forces, by type, name and unit number.  This was quickly interrupted — one presumes by a call from the Pentagon. When the network resumed the broadcast it  assured its viewers that it was telling them “generally available information.” In a real-time situation the value of tactical information is theoretically high. Football referees today use instant replay videos to review certain decisions; TV provides warring countries with similar capability.

5. The heavy hand of censorship came from a Pentagon view that the media lost the Vietnam war.

I don’t doubt  that this statement accurately reflects the perception of some senior military officers and administration officials, but it is not so neat as this. What the Pentagon’s senior people may feel is that the media in Vietnam made it seem like the military was incompetent and that this perspective contributed to the less-than-honorable treatment and criticism of soldiers and the military during and after the war.

I heard several correspondents proclaim that in Vietnam junior and middle-level officers and grunts liked the media and welcomed their presence. Excuse me, folks, but these same junior and middle-level officers from Vietnam are now colonels and generals and the grunts are senior non-commissioned officers. These same people who allegedly “loved the media” in Vietnam are precisely the ones who were the architects of media-control policies during the Gulf War, a fact that suggests to me that the media has never come to grips with its own actual performance in Vietnam.

I would hasten to add that I have never met a single Vietnam veteran, officer or enlisted, who praised the media’s conduct during the war. Not one. And once I saw three highly decorated Green Beret NCOs on the tarmac in Honolulu go after a now-network anchor not to be named for what the sergeants referred to as the “job” said anchor had done on their outfit during a particularly brutal and bloody battle in Vietnam.

Okay, it was that same esteemed anchor who assured us that the journalists lmpw what to report in order to avoid possible injury to troops. That Dan Rather.

The Vietnam war was lost by bumbling politicians. LBJ once said that the Air Force could not bomb an outhouse without his permission, which was true. In this war George Bush seems to have left the prosecution of the war to those qualified and authorized to do so while he took care of the political, propaganda and diplomatic aspects.

I would add here that polls during this latest war — much to the media’s chagrin and apparent surprise — showed that the majority of Americans not only supported censorship, but felt that greater controls and restrictions were warranted.

In this past war the media seemed to want to relive Vietnam while the Pentagon had moved on to fight a new war by new ground rules.

6. Everybody in the Western world knows that a swimming pool is an artificial and convenient place to swim. There is no muck, no snakes, no crocs, no fish, no unknown currents or drop-oofs, and no major temperature variations. A pool is a thing of convenience and relative safety. So why all the carping over the Pentagon’s media pools?

The fracas over pools may in retrospect turn out to be one of the more interesting stories of the war. If preliminary reports are accurate, it may be that the media tried to use pools to its own advantage, and failed.

You’ll remember that the media heaped criticism on the pool arrangement used by the Pentagon during the earlier Panama adventure, but when the Gulf War began to look imminent, news organizations told the Pentagon that they feared if they applied for Saudi visas, the Saudis would turn them down.

Saudi Arabia does not have a free press as we would define it and I know Saudi journalists, like those in many Middle Eastern countries can only get along if they go along. Free-range reporters( like free-range pork) is not something a Muslim culture will easily or willingly tolerate. If Spam was to be banned  from such counties– and it was–  there was every reason to believe that the Western media would be equally unwanted.

Hear this: It was the news organizations themselves who suggested the creation of pools to the Pentagon, telling the government such an arrangement would provide a means for reporters to be vouched into the war zone.

So, the Pentagon agreed, rules were developed, and reporters signed agreements saying they would abide by those rules.

Once in country the Pentagon limited the size of pools and most reporters were unable to “get out in the shit.” And when they did get out, they went in small groups with military public affairs escorts who screened what they could do, report on, or depict. In some cases the escorts were present during interviews and intervened in the questioning, the upshot of all this being a sporadic brouhaha over censorship.

Lest you think this is a figment of my imagination, I would hasten to point out that the history just related was described by the Pentagon’s chief spokesman Pete Williams to a panel of journalists led by ABC’s Ted Koppel on the night of January 23. Not one reporter from that panel disputed or challenged Williams’s story and all of them seemed anxious to avoid how the Saudi pool arrangement came to be.

Not all reporters have complained about the pool system; Scott Simon of PBS said that he had not encountered any problems with the system.

The main complaints seemed to originate from the “star class,” those senior reporters and anchors for major media who looked down on lesser media with the disdain of a czar for a serf. One ABC  man complained one night that a reporter from Mirabellawas in a pool, the inference being the more legitimate news organizations should have had that slot. In other words, not all media are equal  in the minds of the media and so much for the  brotherhood and sisterhood in that trade.

It was also incomprehensible in the pool fiasco that certain newspapers ran identical stories with different bylines and gave no indication that any of these stories came out of some sort of pool arrangement. There may in fact be a perfectly good explanation of this, but it’s not apparent to me. I was taught that when I did the work, my name went on the story. If several of us contributed, all of our names went on the story. And, if someone else wrote it and we put our name on it, it was called plagiarism.

Journalists, I expect, want combat no less than warriors because combat is a professional ticket (or merit badge) that few have the opportunity to get punched. Outside events in the Baltic, what bigger stories were there in the past year? Like moths, warriors and reporters want to go to the flame because that is the essence of both professions. Better beats, juicier assignments, promotions, careers, book deals, talk show appearances — all of these thing ride on journalistic performance in an important story, and nothing is more important or NOW than a shooting war.

Which takes us inexorably to the subject of news competition.

Pete Williams, the Pentagon’s civilian public affairs chief, posed this question to a correspondent on Bill Moyers’s panel: “If I told you you could go anywhere you choose in the theater but had to go along with other reporters, would you go?”

Consensus answer: No. Ergo, lack of access was not the root of all evil. Exclusive access was the problem and at the heart of the complaints. The main complaint about the pool system was that it inhibited what one reporter called, “enterprise journalism.”

All of these behaviors and many more bother and disappoint me.

The news media at the practitioner level has for a long time tried to portray itself as separate from the business side of their employers but I think media behavior in the Gulf War revealed the truth: Coverage equals interest equals audience size equals advertising rates equals revenue.  When news outlets begin to lose audience or ratings they act in their own best fiscal interests to get back what they’ve lost. A TV station that plans an investigative series based on the timing of sweep weeks has compromised its much heralded journalistic standards. All of this, I suspect, was naked to the public eye during the recent war.

Let me get to the last point by posing the subject as a question.

7. Does a journalist’s profession take precedence over his or her responsibilities as a citizen?

When CNN’s Bernard Shaw was asked if he had provided information to government officials  about what he had seen in Baghdad and during his seven-hour drive to  Amman to get out of the country, he answered with an emphatic, “No, reporters are neutral.” I suppose the convenient explanation here relates to the protection of  his sources, but does this principle hold in wartime , and when sources are enemies at war with your country of citizenship and residence?

Mr. Shaw’s statement caused me to pause and give considerable thought to the implications of his assertion. In my journal I wrote down forty-four test cases or scenarios and these would serve as interesting meat for a symposium. Tonight there’s no time to explore the full list, but let me share a couple of examples. The question, remember, is what should a reporter do?

SITUATION 1:  A reliable source in Riyadh informs a reporter that there is a plot to assassinate General Schwarzkopf. You’re the reporter. What do you do?

SITUATION 2:A reporter is with General Schwarzkopf when an assassination is attempted; the reporter is close enough to knock aside the would-be assassin’s weapon ,and shout a warning. What do you do?

SITUATION 3:  Same scenario as No. 23, but change Schwarzkopf to Saddam Hussein. What do you do?

SITUATION 4: Finally, a reporter fluent in Arabic is with a front-line unit that overruns an Iraqi military bunker where he discovers  a document revealing that the Iraqis have placed six small nuclear devices in Kuwait City. What do you do?

Is it really possible for  a reporter to remain neutral, or is neutrality a a desired position, circumstances notwithstanding?

As a final example and food for thought, let’s say I am traveling from Baghdad to Amman and I see Scud missile launchers disguised by school bus shells. Should I report this to intelligence officials?

My view is that journalists enjoy unprecedented freedom in the U.S., and because of this their first amendment rights require under certain circumstances, a quid pro quo. At very minimum a reporter must deal with situations at a level of conscience. To not reveal the existence of juryrigged Scud buses could quickly pose a lethal risk to Israel  and expansion of the war front. In such a case I think the reporter is bound to reveal what he or she has seen. Such a revelation could risk enemy lives and probably will. But this is a dilemma that shakes our very souls and when a country is at war I believe there can be no two-legged Switzerlands, especially if the driving force for such neutrality is maintenance of a competitive advantage for your employer.

One hopes there will not be another war. We all know there will be, and this time I hope the media will be better prepared.

Peter Braestrup reported the Vietnam war for The New York Times and as Saigon bureau chief for The Washington Post. In the March/April edition of Columbia Journalism Reviewhe wrote: “A new generation of journalists is learning about war and they’re learning about the military. They’re all bright enough. They’re all energetic enough, but this is like landing on Mars. Their use of military terminology is always wrong; they don’t know the difference between a brigade and a battalion, between a machine gun and an automatic rifle. We’ve had five and a  half months to get people out there to learn it, but a lot them just didn’t . They’re  ahistorical, that is, they can’t remember any precedents for anything…They’re yuppies in the desert.”

With the percentage of citizens who serve in the military sinking lower and lower over the years, the ability of the media to meaningfully cover military subjects and wars will just get worse.

To conclude, I’d propose a couple of post-war awards, one a national one for the worst mangling of English and that award goes to Bobbie Batsita of CNN.  On January26 telephone contact was suddenly lost with Peter Arnett in Baghdad and Ms. Batista told viewers, “We are efforting to restore the connection.” It’s an effort for me to effort how effort becomes verb.

The second award is local and goes Kalamazoo mayor Ed Annen for his statement to the city commission that, “Kalamazoo is secure.” This was political showboating at it’s most blatant.  Lousy show, Mister Mayor, lousy show.

My remarks are intended to provoke thought. Like our democracy, our media are messy and inefficient, but they beat the alternatives. What bothers me is that I see in the media little introspect and anything other than the most superficial self-criticism.

If history were compressed into a single day, hunters would have been around about 24 hours and fifteen minutes, farmers only 15 minutes and journalists about as long as it takes to read this sentence. Something so young needs a lot of nurturing.

It is a strange, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying world we live in. Twenty percent of adults in America in 1991 believe: the sun circles the earth; the iron Curtain rusted out; there was a no-smoking sign in the Auschwitz crematorium; and, Elvis has left the building.

Thank you.


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