Whatever the Gulf War will do to the political geography of the Middle East and the world, the war changed the landscape of the American and international news media forever. The clear winner is Cable News Network, in ratings, name recognition, praise, even envy. CNN has become the international channel of choice.
When Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz was asked if he was familiar with a pronouncement by President Bush, he sarcastically answered that he also watched CNN. Dan Quayle boasted that if you want “to know how successful the air campaign is… watch CNN.”
Compelled by the highly competitive domestic market, CNN chose an international newsgathering and dissemination strategy. Through a complex system of foreign bureaus, barter agreements, and satellite hook-ups, it has established a network that circulates materials from and among many countries, including those traditionally shunned by the regular networks. This has given CNN a presence in Iraq that its other American competitors can’t match.
The U.S. has become accustomed to a dominant position in the flow of international information. As the Gulf war unfolded, CNN‘s established system of two-way communication became a thorn in the side of the Pentagon, which would have loved to keep information flowing from the U.S. outward only. While statements and even images provided by the Iraqi government are easily dismissed, eyewitness reports by Western journalists were harder for the U.S. to counter. CNN Baghdad correspondent Peter Arnett therefore became the target for the frustration of the U.S. government and right wing.
The Arnett Syndrome
Consistent with CNN‘s international emphasis, Arnett did not join other network correspondents on the next flight out when the U.S. government warned them to leave Baghdad. During the early days, he provided the only voice from the country on the receiving end of the air war; indeed, the only reminder that there was a receiving end. While his first reports, depicting Baghdad markets functioning normally, played into U.S. government denials of Iraqi casualties, the journalist-behind-enemy-lines received a flood of accusations that in not pulling out, he became a propagandist for Saddam Hussein.
His first controversial story was his report that an alleged chemical weapons plant destroyed by bombing was, in fact, a baby milk factory that supplied many countries in the Arab world. Arnett reported seeing no barbed wire or other indications that the plant had any military purpose. While Arnett was ridiculed by commentators as an Iraqi dupe, the German architects of the factory indicated it would be impossible for the building to have been used for chemical weapons manufacturing (Washington Post, 2/8/91), and Nestle confirmed that the plant was a competitor to their own infant formula (Weekend Australian, 1/26/91).
His eyewitness reports on the destruction of Baghdad earned him vitriolic criticisms, not just from right-wing figures like Sen. Alan Simpson, but also from mainstream media critics like the Washington Post‘s Tom Shales, who (2/16/91) described “Arnett’s Syndrome” as “a seemingly inexhaustible concern for the welfare of the Iraqis.”
The spin in numerous media reports was that images of the destruction of Baghdad are part of a “campaign of psychological warfare” against the American public designed to “weaken our resolve.” The obsession with the idea of Iraqi propaganda stood in sharp contrast to the media’s overlooking of the far more effective U.S. propaganda campaign. NBC‘s Bryant Gumbel gazes slyly at footage of Arnett’s interview with Hussein, then asks NBC‘s “psychological expert,” “Is he saying that for our benefit?” Such questions are never asked, of course, of U.S. leaders.
CNN repeatedly warned about Iraqi censorship in a forceful if not fixated manner. A story on CNN by Independent Television Network reporter Brent Sadler is introduced with: “Keep in mind an Iraqi official monitored him.” Sadler himself repeats the caveat as the story begins: “All media, including ITN, have to operate under Iraqi control.” And when the anchor returns: “And again this reminder: Brent Sadler’s report is subject to Iraqi censorship.” All these things could also have been said of reporters in Saudi Arabia, who were restricted, monitored and censored by the Pentagon, perhaps to a greater degree than in Iraq. A Western journalist interviewed by Sadler in the segment described above asserts, “Most things, apart from straight military information, you can report from here. Censorship here is exaggerated.”
Patriotism: CNN‘s Last Refuge
CNN, defensive over charges that correspondent Peter Arnett was spreading Iraqi propaganda, often bent over backward to promote the media version of patriotism—i.e., flag-waving and war support. An extreme example was a February 15 “Special Assignment” on patriotism in which CNN wrapped itself in the flag with a vengeance.
“The flags are everywhere and on everything and with everybody,” reported CNN‘s Mark Feldstein. “In Duluth, flags flap in unison—harmony in a fresh breeze. In San Diego, a human flag—a grand gesture, a statement of solidarity.”
The segment was persistently partisan, linking endless shots of flags to a bunting-draped portrait of George Bush. Used as background music, without identification, was the 1988 Republican campaign song.
There was not a single suggestion that anyone opposed the war—only that in the “troubled past” (represented by a burning flag superimposed over the Vietnam Memorial) U.S. soldiers were “abandoned.” African-Americans, who persistently expressed more opposition to the Bush policy than whites, were featured prominently in the pro-war imagery.
When the segment presented a commercial for Boeing as an example of the use of patriotic imagery, it was difficult to tell where CNN stopped and the commercial began—except that Boeing’s film quality was higher.
As pictures of helicopters, tanks and soldiers giving the thumbs-up sign appeared, Feldstein says, “Those images have fueled America’s new outpouring of patriotism.” He did not examine how reports like his fueled the war effort.
Stories from Baghdad illustrate that journalists do know how to be skeptical and can actually point out propaganda strategies. Sadler himself sounds like a psychological warfare expert: “In terms of media imagery, this kind of routine scene at a Baghdad market is important for Iraqi propaganda. The sale of birds…is used to illustrate an atmosphere of calm and resolve.” The effects of Pentagon propaganda might be diminished if it were introduced in a like manner. But mainstream journalists in Washington will never acknowledge that they are being used by a sophisticated system of opinion manipulation that is totally out of Saddam Hussein’s league. With all the focus on Arnett and Baghdad, it is the White House and Pentagon psychological operations that provide the overwhelming bulk of CNN‘s round-the-clock coverage.
24 Hours of What?
One of the traditional laments about network news has been that a half-hour program is simply not long enough to explain complex national and international affairs, and that the segment format is inadequate for the presentation of background and analysis. CNN has the luxury of 24 hours, time that could presumably be filled with more background and analytical information than the networks ever dreamed of.
But CNN does not present any greater depth of coverage. All Gulf coverage radiated from the narrowly defined military operation, with hours filled with tedious haggling over minute details of activities in the “theater of operation” and endless speculation on battle strategies.
After presenting the speeches, briefings and addresses of U.S. officials live, CNN excerpted segments in wrap-ups that were repeated throughout the day with very little additional information: Mainly, they present soundbites, like James Baker saying we are fighting “a just war in a just way,” or Bush stating, “so that peace will prevail, we will prevail.” The analyses and assumptions of the leaders’ statements are not even discussed, much less challenged. Nor is any attempt made to put political decisions in a historical context.
It might be argued that analysis and history are inappropriate for CNN‘s “video wire service” format. However, they do report particular historical perspectives: One long segment featured the history and development of military tanks, broadcast live from Fort Knox’s World War II museum. In-depth military reporting was also propelled into the future, with an “analytical” report on what the fighter planes of the 21st century and the even higher tech “war of the future” will look like.
What the expanded format amounts to in most cases is the uninterrupted, unchallenged dissemination of longer and more frequent versions of the U.S. government perspective. So it is true that CNN presents the world to the world, but through U.S. eyes.
A strange schizophrenia took hold after watching CNN for any length of time. Eyewitness reports from Baghdad would show images of the destruction of the bombing and its impact on civilian life. A reporter would stand in front of a destroyed bridge and comment, “Its loss will further complicate the lives of civilians here.” Later at a press briefing, officers would show aerial photos of hits on the same bridge, now unquestioningly referred to as a military target. Then a later report would state that Iraq is “stepping up its claims” of civilian casualties: 150 dead, 35 of them children. This would be followed by the disclaimer that “extreme efforts are being made to avoid civilian casualties.”
The muddled, incongruous, often irreconcilable nature of CNN coverage can be maddening. But the alert viewer could at least see that there was a perspective on the war beyond the carefully tailored view of the Pentagon information managers.
Robin Andersen and Paolo Carpignano teach communications at Fordham University.