Apr 1 1991

Gulf War Coverage

The Worst Censorship Was at Home

US fighter planes over Iraq (photo: USAF)

“Almost picture-perfect assaults”: CBS on Desert Storm

The morning after the U.S. began the bombing of Iraq, NBC‘s Robert Bazell reported the Pentagon’s assessment via the Today show: “It was spectacular news,” Bazell summarized. “We’ve lost only one casualty.”

Other networks were similarly ecstatic. CBS‘s Charles Osgood (1/17/91) described the early bombing of Iraq as “a marvel,” while the same network’s Jim Stewart (1/17/91) spoke of “two days of almost picture-perfect assaults.”

The war ended on the same note of enthusiastic cheerleading from the media, with CBS‘s Dan Rather (2/27/91) pumping a general’s hand after an interview and gushing, “Congratulations on a job wonderfully done!”

The euphoria at the beginning and the end of the Persian Gulf War bracketed one of the most disturbing episodes in U.S. journalistic history—a period in which many reporters for national media abandoned any pretense of neutrality or reportorial distance in favor of boosterism for the war effort. As Hodding Carter (C-SPAN, 2/23/91), who once served as a State Department spokesperson, put it: “If I were the government, I’d be paying the press for the kind of coverage it is getting right now.”  Or in the words of a U.S. colonel who handed out little flags to pool reporters (London Independent, 2/6/91): “You are warriors, too.”

A few journalists chafed at sacrificing professional standards: “We have sort of become adjuncts of the government,” one correspondent in Saudi Arabia told New York Newsday (1/23/91). “The line between me and a government contractor is pretty thin.”

But many TV journalists did not need to be coerced into abandoning the appearance of independence, instead accepting the task of guiding public opinion in favor of the war as their natural role. In discussing the prospect of increased casualties, Jim Lehrer (1/23/91) presented the government and the media as an information team: “Have officials and the press prepared the American people for what may happen next?” NBC‘s Tom Brokaw (1/22/91) was skeptical of the idea that reporters have a right (let alone a duty) to cover the return of dead U.S. servicepeople: “Do you think that’s in the best interest of the U.S?” he asked.

Reporters treated officials, particularly military officials, with kid gloves. When they did engage in tough questioning, it was usually to stake out a more hawkish position than that of the Pentagon. When ABC‘s Cokie Roberts, for example, interviewed General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (This Week With David Brinkley, 1/20/91), she pressed him: “Why not go after [Saddam Hussein] and end this?… Wouldn’t it be smarter to institute a draft and get 18-year-olds?” Or as Tom Brokaw asked on Day One of the Gulf War, “Can the United States allow Saddam Hussein to live?”

The use by journalists of “we” to mean U.S. military forces was constant, so that one seemed to hear of CBS taking out half the Iraqi air force, Saddam Hussein targeting NBC‘s command and control center, and even Walter Cronkite manning Patriots: “We knocked one of their Scuds out of the sky” (1/17/91). As Christopher Hitchens of the Nation put it, describing the limited range of debate on U.S. network television (C-SPAN, 2/4/91), “If you can’t, in discussing something like this war, use the word ‘we’ for everything that’s done, as if we are one and we’re all agreed … you really aren’t in the discussion at all.”

“We” weren’t fighting “them,” but “him.” Journalists constantly asked, “How long will it take to defeat Saddam Hussein?” or “How badly are we hurting him?”—as if wars are fought against single individuals, rather than nations. For all the media talk about “punishing Saddam Hussein,” he was clearly one of the few Iraqis who had three meals a day and a warm place to sleep. Even after the country of Iraq lay in ruins, ABC‘s Ann Compton continued the fiction that the war targeted a single person: “If there is any use of chemical weapons [against rebels], it will bring more air attacks down on Saddam Hussein’s head.” Not only was Saddam the only target in Iraq, but the only fighter as well: Journalists said, “Saddam Hussein launched another Scud tonight”; they didn’t say, “George Bush dropped another round of bombs on Baghdad.”

Pentagon “Experts”

The Pentagon usually either provided the networks’ information about the war, or managed the news from the front through censorship and press restrictions (Spin Control Through Censorship: The Pentagon Manages the News). The networks’ “analysis” of this information, which filled up hours of airtime in between real news, was not censored by the Pentagon, but it might as well have been. Network TV featured a one-sided procession of retired military brass, ex-government hawks, right-wing pundits and politicians, scholars from think tanks with generally conservative bents, and—for supposed balance—Democratic politicians rallying ’round the president.

“You know who I feel sorry for?” quipped Saturday Night Live‘s Dennis Miller (1/19/91). “It’s the one retired army colonel who didn’t get a job as a TV analyst.” NBC‘s satirical news anchor is paid to tell jokes; real anchor Tom Brokaw is not. But after introducing a retired U.S. Army colonel, Brokaw announced that “the Fairness Doctrine is in play here tonight,” and introduced, for balance, a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Army versus Navy was often what passed for balance on U.S. TV.

ABC‘s Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon and National Security Council official and, until the day the war began, an aide to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), was the analyst who showed up most often in a FAIR survey of network news sources—11 times in 14 days. His message could be summed up in one sentence: “I think the Pentagon is giving it to you absolutely straight” (Newsday, 1/23/91). Cordesman could be counted on to defend the Defense Department position—whether by referring to dead civilians as “collateral damage” or by explaining that if reporters on the roof of the bombed neighborhood shelter in Baghdad couldn’t find the camouflage paint the Pentagon said was there, it must have flaked off when the bombs hit.

Not all military consultants were as slavish as Cordesman in parroting the official line. But all shared a common history and set of assumptions with the current Pentagon leaders, and tended to reinforce rather than question the messages coming out of official briefings. Some of the military analysts had another kind of conflict of interest, like CNN‘s General James Blackwell, who has also served as a consultant to Lockheed, the manufacturer of many of the weapons Blackwell was called upon to praise.

Perhaps the most questionable choice as a network TV military consultant was General Michael Dugan, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff until September 1990. Dugan was fired by the Air Force for asserting, among other things, that the U.S. should target Saddam Hussein’s family and level Iraq’s most important cultural sites—both violations of the Geneva Protocols. Yet he was hired as a consultant by CBS, where he argued (2/13/91) that the U.S. would never deliberately harm civilians in wartime.

Heard and Unheard

Fouad Ajami (Hoover Institution)

Fouad Ajami: “We get lost in the twisted alleyways of the Middle Eastern bazaar.”

The non-military consultants used by the networks hardly provided more balance than the parade of general and colonels. For political commentary and expertise, CBS relied on Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born academic whose hawkish views made him the media’s favorite Arab-American pundit. He served to “explain” Arab culture for the United States with such comments as “we get lost in the twisted alleyways of the Middle Eastern bazaar” (3/5/91). He dismissed Arab opposition to the U.S. war, referring to “the Palestinian mob” (2/8/91) and “some few gullible souls…demonstrating in Algeria” (1/18/91). William Safire (New York Times, 2/28/91) called Ajami the best commentator of the war, “for the amazing way he reads the Arab mind.”

Ajami was unwaveringly pro-war, declaring, “We went over there to do what had to be done, we went over there to thwart a despot” (3/5/91). For an “objective” analyst, he had a strikingly skewed view of the political spectrum. When a caller to CBS‘s America Tonight (2/14/91) asked if people who “opposed this war” were adequately covered by the media—a question translated by Leslie Stahl as, “Do you believe that pro-Arab views are not getting enough of a hearing on television?”—Ajami replied:

I think everyone is being heard; the people who favor this war, the people who think it’s a just war are being heard; the people who think it is just barely a just war are being heard; the people who believe Saddam is a hero are getting their airtime from Amman and from the West Bank and so on.

ABC‘s Middle East consultant was the Brookings Institution’s Judith Kipper, who was “impressed” by the bombing of Iraq (1/16/91), but who found Iraqi missile attacks on Israel “an incredible escalation” (1/17/91). For analysis of the region, NBC went to Edward Peck, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. An example of Peck’s analysis was this explanation of the difference between U.S. and Iraqi culture (1/16/91):

Where we in the West tend to think of our New Testament heritage, where you turn the other cheek and you let bygones be bygones and forgive and forget, the people of the Middle East are the people of the Old Testament, if you will, if the Muslims will let me say that, where there’s much more of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and you don’t forget and you don’t forgive and you carry on the vendetta and the struggle long after people in the West would be prepared to say all right, it’s over, let’s not worry about it any longer.

Offered as the bombs were beginning to fall on Baghdad, these observations on the vengeful nature of non-Christian societies come across as somewhat surreal.

Gulf War protest at White House (cc photo: Rik Goldman)

Criticism of US policy was usually missing from the news.

Usually missing from the news was analysis from a perspective critical of U.S. policy. The media’s rule of thumb seemed to be that to support the war was to be objective, while to be anti-war was to carry a bias. Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield made clear in her Newsweek column (1/21/91) who she felt should be left out of the debate:

If the capacity of the American political system to function effectively is not itself soon to become a victim of the crisis … a few premises [will have] to be accepted. The first of these premises is that just about everybody engaged in the argument hoped to prevent war.

Those who believe that George Bush pushed for war all along, then, had little chance of making that point in the Post.

A survey conducted by FAIR of the sources on the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news in the first two weeks of the war found that of 878 on-air sources, only one was a representative of a national peace organization—Bill Monning, of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. By contrast, seven players from the Super Bowl were brought on to comment on the war.

When antiwar voices were heard, it was very rarely as in-studio guests partaking in substantive discussions. Instead, typical coverage of the peace movement resembled nature footage—outdoors, in the demonstrators’ “natural habitat.” Many TV viewers must have wondered if peace advocates were capable of expressing themselves in more than slogans, chants or sound bites. But even sound bites were rare: Only about 1.5 percent of nightly network news sources were protesters, about the same number as people who were asked about how the war had affected their travel plans.

Relying on random protesters to present a movement’s views, as network TV did, denied that movement its most articulate and knowledgeable spokespeople. The situation is comparable to depending on interviews with the crowd at a Republican rally to convey the views of the Bush administration.

In a broadcast debate, a local TV news director bristled at the suggestion by FAIR’s Martin Lee that television news had systematically slighted U.S. opponents of the war. “How can you do any better than having Saddam Hussein piped into our homes live?” the news director asked (WPIX-TV, 2/5/91). “How can you do any better than that?”

Civilian Deaths as ‘Propaganda’

With policy critics basically excluded from the discussion, few had any interest in bringing up one of the most important issues of the war: civilian casualties. No one was on hand to contradict claims like Ted Koppel’s (1/17/91) that “great effort is taken, sometimes at great personal cost to American pilots, that civilian targets are not hit,” or Brokaw’s statement (1/29/91) that “the U.S. has fought this war at arm’s length with long-range missiles, high-tech weapons…to keep casualties down.” The unstated but obvious truth was that by carrying out an air war that was unprecedented in its ferocity, U.S. strategy sought to reduce U.S. military losses at the expense of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties.

Again and again, the mantra of “surgical strikes against military targets” was repeated by journalists, even though Pentagon briefers acknowledged that they were aiming at civilian roads, bridges and public utilities vital to the survival of the civilian population. One was reminded of Harry Truman’s announcement of the dropping of the atomic bomb (8/6/45): “Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.”

Journalists and pundits were rightfully outraged when Baghdad advertised its violations of the Geneva protocols by parading prisoners of war on TV. They failed to object, however, when the United States proved its own violations by showing footage of laser-guided bombs destroying hydroelectric dams (forbidden as targets under Protocol I, Article 56).

While civilian targets deliberately hit by U.S. bombs were transformed by the media into military targets, the civilians accidentally killed by U.S. bombs became Saddam Hussein’s fault. “We must point out again and again that it is Saddam Hussein who put these innocents in harm’s way,” Brokaw (1/16/91) announced. Reporting on Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. bombs, Mark Phillips of CBS (2/14/91) intoned, “Saddam Hussein promised a bloody war, and here was the blood.”

Amiriyah bomb shelter, Baghdad

Hole made by US bombing in the roof of a Baghdad bomb shelter.

Some of the media apologies were ill-timed. The same week that high-tech, armor-piercing bombs destroyed a Baghdad bomb shelter and its civilian inhabitants and a British laser-guided bomb killed 150 Iraqis in a market, the Newsweek cover (2/18/91) on newsstands  read: “The New Science of War; High-Tech Hardware: How Many Lives Can It Save?” The next week’s Newsweek (2/25/91) was able to turn even the shelter bombing into a moral victory for the United States: “The mere fact that the bombing was such a big event suggested how few civilian casualties this war has produced in the first place.”

When they were not apologists for U.S. killing, journalists often assumed a dubious evenhandedness: “The Iraqis say the main targets are civilians. The U.S. insists their targets continue to be military. In war, there are no independent judges” (NBC, 2/5/91). Unless, of course, an independent press commits itself to cutting through the hype on both sides.

British journalist Patrick Cockburn took exactly such an approach in his reporting from Baghdad for the London Independent. “From the beginning, the allies’ bombs and missiles were never as accurate as might have appeared,” he concluded (2/14/91).

There were craters where missiles had hit houses or waste ground, or were far from any obvious targets…. Often the bomb that had hit a civilian house was one of a stack of bombs, most of which had fallen on open ground. Sometimes an obvious target was visible in the distance…. The allied air forces have become victims of their own propaganda. They have pretended they can carry out surgical strikes; but mass bombing remains a blunt instrument.

Other reporters in Baghdad, such as ABC‘s Bill Blakemore, also did creditable jobs of reporting the facts as they saw them, sometimes under considerable pressure from their anchors to conform to the official Washington version.

The U.S. media’s most effective—and offensive—tool for dismissing civilian casualties was to treat the whole issue as a propaganda ploy on the part of Saddam Hussein. As CBS‘s Bruce Morton (2/9/91) commented: “If Saddam Hussein can turn the world against the effort, convince the world that women and children are the targets of the air campaign, then he will have won a battle, his only one so far.” Viewers—and CBS employees—could only draw the conclusion that aggressive pursuit of the issue of civilian deaths would give aid and comfort to the enemy. The media were warned away from the subject by writers like Jonathan Alter (Newsweek, 2/11/91): “The voracious American media will use human-interest stories to prey on the sensibilities of the American people, who are extremely sensitive to casualties.”

NBC‘s Dennis Murphy (1/27/91), concluding a segment on video evidence of victims provided by the Iraqi government, took a tone that was widespread throughout the media: “Until we get some Western reporters and photographers in there to vouch for it, I think we’ll have to call it propaganda.” Anchor Garrick Utley agreed: “That’s a pretty good name for it.” It’s a name that the media gave to dead Iraqis again and again.

There is no doubt that U.S. journalists are able to convey sympathy for civilian victims of war; the coverage of the aftermath of the Scud attacks in Israel is proof of that. The networks took great pains not to underplay the seriousness of the missile attacks; when a CBS reporter noted that the situation after an air raid was “as would be expected, quite normal,” Dan Rather (1/18/91) stepped in: “That is not to say, when we say normal and expected, that we are insensitive to the people who were affected by the attack.” But when, as a FAIR survey showed, more than three times as much attention is given to victims in Israel—where four people had been killed by missiles—than to civilians in Iraq and Kuwait—where thousands died—such coverage ceases to be sympathy and becomes exploitation.

Sometimes the deaths occurring in Iraq were literally forgotten, as when Ted Koppel (1/23/91), on a day when clearing weather allowed 2,000 bombing runs over Baghdad, said, “Aside from the Scud missile that landed in Tel Aviv earlier, it’s been a quiet night in the Middle East.”

Terrorism on TV

The compassion that might have been extended to the innocents under U.S. bombing seemed reserved instead for another “victim”—the U.S. citizen. Experts on economics and psychology were brought on TV to explain how Saddam Hussein was hurting the American public, which helped to dissolve any residual guilt they might feel over the destruction of Baghdad. But the main way the media established the living-room participant as a sort of vicarious casualty was by the incessant repetition of the terrorism theme.

Report after report about terrorism was based on nothing more than the speculation of self-styled terrorism “experts,” as in, “Anti-terrorism experts say an attack in the U.S. can be expected…. [The question is] not if an attack, but when” (NBC, 1/22/91). The experts usually turned out to be either Bush administration officials putting out the line of the day or corporate security consultants for whom fear means business, or sometimes both. Billie Vincent, a member of Bush’s anti-terrorism task force and president of a company that designs security systems for airports, wrote a New York Times op-ed (2/26/91) piece with the unsurprising rallying cry, “Improve Airline Bomb Detection.”

The truth is that while there is little history of foreigners committing organized political violence in the United States, there is a long tradition of governments using the specter of such violence for political ends, as in the “Libyan hit squads” supposedly stalking Reagan in 1981—an apparent creation of then-CIA director William Casey.

One could argue that the upsurge in hate crimes against Arab-Americans that accompanied the war frenzy, as documented by an American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee report (Report on Anti-Arab Hate Crimes), constituted a form of terrorism. The committee found more than 100 instances of hate crimes against Arab-Americans from August 1990 through March 1991, including a bomb found in a San Diego mosque and an Arab restaurant burned down in Detroit. But these crimes were not treated by the media as terrorism; the terror, after all, could not be blamed on Iraq.

Coverage of the “terrorist threat” sometimes hit the higher frequencies of hysteria, as when Dan Rather interviewed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief William Sessions (1/16/91): “If you’re an American mother who happens to be of Jewish heritage…do you send your child to school?” Rather asked earnestly. “What should our attitude toward Americans of Arab heritage be?” he queried. Sessions was reassuring: The children were safe, and Arab-Americans “all support the president’s policy.”

The Rand Corporation’s Brian Jenkins argued on Nightline (1/15/91):

If we think of terrorism as not only the sum of terrorist actions but also comprising the atmosphere of fear and alarm created by terrorist actions or by the threat of terrorist actions, then the war here has already begun…. People are alarmed.

If TV news is running unsubstantiated stories designed to increase ratings by frightening viewers, wouldn’t that make the networks “terrorists” as well?

The Threat of Peace

David Brinkley

ABC‘s David Brinkley brought on Dick Cheney to discuss “Saddam Hussein’s phony peace offer.”

If mere demonstrations for peace had annoyed the media, the prospect of actual peace breaking out sent many journalists into convulsions. The Wall Street Journal‘s Karen Elliott House called the prospect of a negotiated settlement a “tragedy,” while for Tom Brokaw it was “a nightmare…the worst possible scenario.” (See Newsday, 1/24/91.) Dan Rather (2/12/91) seized upon the perfect metaphor to depict Soviet peace proposals as threatening and dangerous: “If you consider this a kind of Iraqi-Soviet Scud—diplomatically…Marlin Fitzwater at the White House has fired what amounts to a diplomatic Patriot at it.”

David Brinkley promoted his February 17, 1991, program thus: “Sunday on This Week: What next in the war after Saddam Hussein’s phony peace offer? Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney will be our guest.” The New York Times offered this smug editorial comment in response to the Soviet peace effort (2/20/91): “The same question can be asked about peace that is reasonable to ask about ground war: What’s the rush?”

Saddam Hussein was consistently presented as a madman with whom it was impossible to negotiate: “His one success was deeply atavistic: toppling all standards of reasonable discourse, rejecting every rational approach, he managed to throw everyone back into antique ways of settling their disputes” (Newsweek, 3/4/91).

When breaking news made it clear that Iraq was willing to negotiate its withdrawal from Kuwait, the idea of negotiating itself had to be discredited. Commentary dwelt on racial stereotypes about “haggling in the bazaar”; one NBC newscast actually illustrated a report about negotiations with footage of rug merchants.

Commentators seemed oblivious to the racism inherent in talk about the “Arab mind”: “We go in a straight line; they zig-zag,” Judith Kipper remarked (U.S. News & World Report, 12/24/90). “They can say one thing in the morning, another thing at night, and really mean a third thing.” The constant Bush flip-flops on the war’s aims and justifications did not evoke similar speculations about WASP psychology.

By the end of the war, U.S. troops were actually maneuvering to prevent Iraqi troops from leaving Kuwait before they could be killed—a fact the Washington Post referred to two weeks later (3/11/91) as a “grim irony.” The media shied away from describing the massive cost in human lives of such a policy, euphemizing instead that the United States was seeking the “humiliation” of Saddam Hussein. The New York Times‘ Leslie Gelb gave an original explanation of why such a “humiliation” of Saddam was necessary (2/17/91): “If he were to survive the war as a hero, he would be like a giant starship emitting undeflectable death rays.”

The ‘Evenhanded’ Press

The media’s performance in the Gulf War prompted extensive self-analysis by journalists—much of it focused, in self-congratulatory fashion, on whether the press is too independent, too aggressive, too willing to present both sides. Typically, TV discussions on the subject pitted right-wing press-bashers on the attack against mainstream journalists defending the media, with progressive critics largely excluded.

One of the most extreme examples of this imbalance was a panel on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (2/14/91), which included, on the right, Wall Street Journal press critic Dorothy Rabinowitz and not one but two representatives of the far-right organization Accuracy In Media (AIM)—Reed Irvine and Admiral Thomas Moorer, an AIM board member. These were “balanced” with three journalists—including Bernard Kalb, formerly a spokesperson for the Reagan State Department, and Harrison Salisbury, who stated, “It is fair to have a prejudice in favor of our side and I always have had that.”

MacNeil and Lehrer could hardly claim to be unaware that there were critics who would call this view unprofessional; just that morning, FAIR activists were outside their New York office, protesting their one-sided coverage of the Baghdad shelter bombing the night before.

The extensive airtime handed to right-wing critics was the media’s reaction to an alleged upswelling of public anger over the disloyal press. Not all of this “outrage” was spontaneous: The Republican National Committee, for example, sent out a half-million copies of form letters to be passed on to the media, complaining about “the attention given to war protesters” (New York Times, 2/21/91).

But attacks from the hysterical right are useful to the media in burying serious press criticism. Time devoted a three-page article (2/25/91) to the charge that the media served as conduits for Iraqi propaganda, with only one paragraph allotted for those arguing that U.S. dissidents were being slighted. This was followed by, “Is this anything more than the usual partisan carping at the press? The attacks from both sides probably mean that the press is situated just about where it usually is: in the evenhanded middle ground.”

Just where this “evenhanded middle ground” is situated was illustrated by an article on the war’s effect on network profits (New York Times, 2/7/91). In an effort to increase ad sales, CBS executives

offered advertisers assurances that the war specials could be tailored to provide better lead-ins to commercials. One way would be to insert the commercials after segments that were specially produced with upbeat images or messages about the war, like patriotic views from the home front.


Operation Desert Scam

Why were people surprised at the weakness of the Iraqi ground resistance? Because they trusted the media, and the media trusted the U.S. military.

Newsday‘s Susan Sachs (3/1/91) reported how the Pentagon intentionally placed false estimates of Iraqi defenses in the U.S. press: “There was a great disinformation campaign surrounding this war,” one senior commander boasted. “We’ve known for weeks that the lines weren’t that formidable,” Gen. Walter Boomer told Sachs. “But we wanted to let Iraqis think we still thought they were big.”

One might question whether it’s permissible to corrupt the U.S. political debate in order to fool Saddam Hussein. But given the fact that the U.S. military knew that it would face little or no resistance in Kuwait, it seems more likely that this “great disinformation campaign” was aimed directly at the American people—first justifying a massive military build-up, then making the Pentagon into a hero for knocking down a straw man. George Bush’s unprecedented rating in the polls is the fruit of this deception.


Weapons Fetishism

nuclear explosion

“Should a Nuclear Bomb Be Used Against Iraq?”: one of Time magazine’s “ethical dilemmas”

A phenomenon related to the domination of the media discussion by retired military men was a near-worship of weapons. Journalists revered U.S. weaponry—a CNN reporter (1/16/91) described the “sweet beautiful sight” of bombers taking off from Saudi Arabia—and attributed moral failings to Iraqi munitions, as when NBC‘s Arthur Kent (1/17/91) called the Scud “an evil weapon, but not an accurate weapon.” While  ABC’s Anthony Cordesman talked about the “brilliance of laser-guided bombs” (1/21/91), Peter Jennings described the Scud as “a horrifying killer” (1/22/91), even though the effects of the U.S. bombs were demonstrably more deadly.

The contest between good U.S. weapons and evil Iraqi ones seemed to be summed up in the comparison between the Patriot and the Scud. (The media universally chose to use the nickname given to the Iraqi missile by the Pentagon, which often gives silly and/or sinister-sounding names to their enemy’s products, rather than use the Soviet designation, R-300.) Richard Blystone of CNN (1/22/91) described the Scud as “a quarter-ton of concentrated hatred,” while the Patriot was described by USA Today (1/22/91) as “three inches longer than a Cadillac Sedan de Ville.”

Pundits like George Will and most of the McLaughlin Group took advantage of the Patriot’s celebrity status to call for more “Star Wars” anti-missile research—although the Patriot has nothing to do with Star Wars technology (New York Times, 1/27/91)—and to celebrate the ’80s military build-up in general. As Lee Cullum, editorial writer for the Dallas Times Herald, said on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (1/18/91): “It’s gratifying to know all this money was well spent.”

Justifying further military spending, of course, was a major goal of Pentagon management of the news. Sometimes the spin control was so effective that reporters ignored the evidence in front of their own eyes. On Jan. 20, NBC‘s Tom Aspell in Baghdad marveled over accuracy of Tomahawk cruise missiles—”accurate to within a few feet.” He had just finished saying that one such accurate missile had hit “the hotel employees’ housing compound.”

The ultimate in weapons fetishism came in discussion of the ultimate weapon—the nuclear bomb. During the Gulf Crisis, journalists gave serious, sometimes sympathetic consideration to the use of atomic weapons against Iraq. “Should a Nuclear Bomb Be Used Against Iraq?” was one of the “ethical dilemmas” Time magazine examined in its February 4 issue.

In a lengthy segment that considered whether to use nuclear bombs against Iraq “to save U.S. lives,” CBS‘s Robert Krulwich marveled over the advances made in tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons: “You can drop one over the Empire State Building and control the blast within five blocks and there’d be almost no significant damage in the rest of Manhattan. Even fallout is less of a problem.” Krulwich’s nonchalant attitude perhaps stems from the fact that CBS headquarters is more than 25 blocks from the Empire State Building.


Bringing the Facts to Light: GE/NBC

M61 Vulcan (cc photo: Thomas Fedor)

The M61 Vulcan, a GE-produced machine gun used in the Gulf War (cc photo: Thomas Fedor)

Most of the corporate-owned media have close relationships to the military and industry: The chair of Capital Cities/ABC, for example, is on the board of Texaco, and CBS‘s board includes directors from Honeywell and the Rand Corporation. But no news outlet is as potentially compromised as NBC, wholly owned by General Electric.

The Boston-based corporate watchdog group, INFACT, reports that in 1989 alone GE received nearly $2 billion in U.S. military contracts for systems employed in the Gulf War effort. Conflicts-of-interest at NBC were an ongoing problem, as when the network aired a laudatory segment on the Patriot missile (1/18/91), for which GE produces parts. Brokaw called the Patriot “the missile that put the Iraqi scud in its place.”

NBC‘s potential conflicts go beyond weaponry. The government of Kuwait is believed to be a major GE stockholder, having owned 2.1 percent of GE stock in 1982, the last year for which figures are available (OPEC’s Investment and the International Financial System, by Richard Mattione).

Having profited from weapons systems used in the Gulf, and anticipating lucrative deals for restocking U.S. arsenals, GE is also poised to profit from the rebuilding of Kuwait. GE told the Wall Street Journal (3/21/91) it expects to win contracts worth “hundreds of millions of dollars.”


How Could We Have Ever Doubted Him?

George H.W. Bush“The mission of our troops is wholly defensive. Hopefully, they will not be needed long.” —George Bush, 8/8/90

“Our jobs are our way of life. Our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if all the world’s great oil reserves fell into the hands of that one man, Saddam Hussein.” —George Bush, 8/15/90

“Some people never get the word. The fight isn’t about oil, the fight is about naked aggression.” —George Bush, 10/16/90

“We in the media have been slow to catch on on this issue of the Gulf crisis: For months, the president has meant what he said and done what he said he would.” —Brit Hume, Nightline, 2/22/91


Who Appeased Saddam Hitler?

New Republic: Furor in the GulfThe New Republic was one of the first magazines to call for war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait, and in the shrillest possible terms—it even retouched a cover photo to give Saddam Hussein a more Hitlerian mustache. But the magazine’s antipathy to Saddam Hussein does not have deep roots: In 1987, following the Reagan administration’s taking Iraq’s side in the Iran-Iraq war, the New Republic (4/27/87) published an article calling for even stronger support: “Back Iraq: It’s Time for a U.S. Tilt,” by Daniel Pipes and Laurie Mylroie. Highlights of the article follow:

Ironically, helping Iraq militarily may offer the best way for Washington to regain its position in Tehran. The American weapons that Iraq could make good use of include remotely scatterable and anti-personnel mines, and counterartillery radar….

Many argue that a tilt to Iraq might drive the Iranians into the Soviet arms…. A more serious argument against a tilt toward Iraq is the danger that a victorious Baghdad would itself turn against pro-American states in the region—mainly Israel, but also Kuwait and other weak states in the Persian Gulf region…. But the Iranian revolution and seven years of bloody and inconclusive warfare have changed Iraq’s view of its Arab neighbors, the United States, and even Israel. Iraq restored relations with the United States in November 1984. Its leaders no longer consider the Palestinian issue their problem. Iraq’s allies since 1979 have been those states—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco—most threatened by revolutionary upheaval, most friendly to the United States, and most open to negotiations with Israel. These allies have forced a degree of moderation on Iraq…. Iraq is now the de facto protector of the regional status quo….

If our tilt toward Iraq is reciprocated, moreover, it could lay the basis for a fruitful relationship in the longer term.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote by ABC consultant Anthony Cordesman to ABC anchor Peter Jennings.