Journalism in the Gulf
From the beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis in August 1990, most of the mainstream U.S. media went into war mode: Their main mission was not journalism, but the creation of a national consensus in support of the U.S. military buildup.
The media acknowledged this mission as they begged to he allowed to report from Saudi Arabia: “A major military exercise cannot succeed without the sustained support and understanding of the American people, and it will not long he supported or understood without extensive and close-up news reporting,” Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times, was quoted in his own paper (8/10/90). Or as the Times editorialized more succinctly (8/11/90): “‘Desert Shield’ requires public support. Only credible information can assure that support.” (Emphasis added.)
Given the one-sided information provided by the elite media, it was no wonder that consumers of news would endorse the Bush administration’s policy in the Gulf. The adjectives “masterful” and “masterly”–not to mention “brilliant”–were repeatedly used to describe the president’s military mobilization. ABC’s Sam Donaldson (Wall Street Journal, 8/28/90) explained the softness of the coverage by saying, “It’s difficult to play devil’s advocate, especially against such a popular president as Bush.”
But much of the analysis simply glowed with admiration: “In a single stroke Tuesday, George Bush…brought the mantle of leadership back to Washington,” ran a front-page Chicago Tribune news analysis (8/8/90). “He has sent more troops, ships and planes into a trouble spot than any recent president. He has decided to act, setting himself eyeball to eyeball with a dictator–no puny leader of an obscure island but a tough militarist.”
“In forceful terms, Mr. Bush sought to prepare the whole American nation for the prospect of bloodshed,” wrote R.W. “Johnny” Apple in an August 12, 1990, analysis of the president’s speech on Iraq. Apple, one of the New York Times’ top domestic political analysts, wrote approvingly of Bush’s message that “American soldiers and American hostages may have to die,” referring to the president as “tough,” “determined” and “statesmanlike.” Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, was depicted by Apple in worm-like terms as “wiggling and squirming.”
With Saddam Hussein an unknown quantity to most U.S. citizens, the media made an all-out effort to turn him into a super-villain-not a mere human dictator, but a “beast,” a “butcher,” a “monster” that “Bush may have to destroy” (Washington Post, 8/7/90; U.S. News & World Report, 8/20/90; Newsweek, 8/20/90, 9/3/90). Saddam Hussein’s crimes had been well known–and underreported–for years, while Iraq was supported by the United States in its war against Iran.
Journalists, suddenly outraged by Iraqi atrocities, expressed little self-criticism for letting Washington decide when Iraq’s human rights record was worth reporting. The New York Post’s front-page headline (8/30/90) tagged Saddam Hussein “Child Abuser” for patting a young British hostage on the head. Iraq’s 1985 torture of hundreds of children to extract information about their relatives was documented by Amnesty International (see Alexander Cockburn, Wall Street Journal, 8/16/90)–but this was during the years when Baghdad’s crimes were not big news.
As if Saddam Hussein’s actual record weren’t brutal enough, the media turned to fictional atrocities: “I’ll hang a hostage every day!” exulted a U.S. colonel, pretending to be the Iraqi leader for an NBC Nightly News “war game” (8/8/90). Reporters eagerly relayed every U.S. government speculation about Iraq’s plan for terrorism: The only sources for one Christian Science Monitor article (9/21/90) were terrorism “experts” from the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Council, the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration–and, providing “balance,” one of the most extremist leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Portrayals of Saddam Hussein as the world’s arch-villain frequently shaded into anti-Arab racism. “Disconcerting Arab customs” was the caption of a Pat Oliphant cartoon depicting Saddam Hussein with a gun pointed at a captive “guest.” “Not every Iraqi is an evil dreamer of death,” was the most columnist A.M. Rosenthal was willing to concede (New York Times, 8/9/90). (Rosenthal, who considers himself an expert on Mideast politics, mistakenly referred to both Iranians and Kurds as “Arabs” in an October 26, 1990, column.)
The most powerful method of demonizing Saddam Hussein, however, was the Hitler analogy: Again and again, Hussein was equated with Hitler, Iraq with Nazi Germany and the ’90s with the ’30s–a metaphor that seemed intended to silence any debate or critical thought. The New Republic went so far as to put on its cover a subtly doctored photograph of Saddam Hussein with a Hitler-style mustache (9/30/90)–a decision editor Hendrik Hertzberg defended as a “joke,” but which came across more like subliminal propaganda. (“I’ll have to talk to my lawyer,” the photographer’s agent responded when informed by FAIR of the alteration. “It’s something for us to consider if we want to work with people like this…. This is very unethical.”)
The failure of the concessions made to Hitler at Munich was invoked as proof of Iraq’s intention to take over Saudi Arabia, and Washington’s prior relationship to Iraq was called “appeasement”–even though “alliance” would be a more realistic description for the way the United States supported Iraq during its decade-long war with Iran. “We can’t stand to see Iraq defeated,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage told Congress in 1987 (Middle East Report, 9-10/87). The Village Voice (12/18/90) reported that the Reagan administration used third-country cutouts to send sophisticated weaponry to Iraq, in violation of U.S. arms export laws.
Separation of Press and State?
In the black-and-white world of the media, if Saddam Hussein is evil, then the U.S. government’s goals and motives must be pure. A New York Times editorial (8/12/90) dubbed Bush the “leader of all countries.” While U.S. diplomats “appeal to high moral values and the lessons of history,” New York Times reporters wrote, “deep down the United States understands that many of its partners are in the coalition only because of a coincidence of interests, not because they share a common sense of moral purpose.” The hypothesis that the purpose of the United States might be more selfish than moral–that it might, for example, want to continue its disproportionate control over the region’s oil–was not entertained by the Times.
It was not easy to portray the U.S. force as defending democracy–Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been given identical marks for repressiveness by Freedom House, a conservative foreign policy group. Democracy was therefore downplayed as an issue. A Wall Street Journal article (10/8/90) took an approving look at Gulf monarchs and concluded that democracy might not only be bad for people in the region but also “could work against U.S. interests.” The article quoted a State Department official: “You can’t expect democracy to produce toadies to the U.S.”
Instead, the United States was praised in news reports for assuming the role of global policeman, “the only superpower…[able] to enforce international law against the will of a powerful aggressor” (Boston Globe, 8/20/90). In an assessment that could have appeared in a White House news release, Newsweek (9/3/90) declared that “the president’s grand plan for the post-Cold War world can be summed up simply: Stop International Bullies.”
The implication that the U.S. response to Iraq’s invasion demonstrated a commitment to international law was a media myth. In fact, the administration frequently acted without legal authority throughout the buildup, as when it unilaterally imposed a naval blockade without U.N. sanction. (Once the blockade was in place, the United States got partial approval of its fait accompli.) Bush attempted to stop food from entering Iraq and Kuwait, although the Geneva Protocols state that “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited” (Center for Constitutional Rights, 9/17/90). Religious groups like the National Council of Churches and the American Friends Service Committee strongly protested the use of food as a weapon. But their objections were rarely noted in mainstream coverage.
Praising Bush as a guardian of international law was particularly jarring, given that only seven months earlier Bush had launched an equally illegal invasion of his own. But the word “Panama” was almost never mentioned in relation to the Gulf crisis, either in news reporting or in commentary. Indeed, a comparison between the coverage of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. invasion of Panama illustrates clearly how completely the media elite adopts the agenda and perspective of the White House. The New York Times’ editorial response to the invasion of Kuwait (8/3/90) was called “Iraq’s Naked Aggression”; its editorial on Panama (12/21/90) was headlined “Why the Invasion Was Justified.” Iraq’s invasion was instantly recognized as a violation of international law, but CBS’s Rita Braver (12/20/89) declared that the invasion of Panama was legal “according to all the experts I talked to.”
Graphically displaying the different approaches taken to the two invasions, Time magazine’s logo on its Kuwait stories (8/13/90) was a caricature of Saddam Hussein as an octopus; for Panama (1/1/90), it was an American flag in the shape of a heroically flexed arm. Though charts comparing Iraq’s supposed “1 million-man army” with Kuwait’s 20,000 troops were everywhere, no one had thought to contrast the United States’ 2.3 million-member armed forces with the 4,000 combat troops in the Panamanian Defense Forces, or with the 700 Cuban construction workers in Grenada.
By one measure–the killing of civilians–the invasion of Kuwait appears to have been less devastating than the invasion of Panama. A New York Times article (10/17/90), entirely sourced to Kuwaiti refugees, gave an estimate of at least 300 deaths in the first days of the invasion, with another 225 to 300 executed later for resisting the occupation. The death toll in Panama was many times higher, according to human rights and health experts. A 60 Minutes segment–aired a full nine months after the Panama invasion (9/30/90)–presented estimates ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 civilians killed by “Operation Just Cause.”
On the rare occasions when the Panama-Kuwait analogy was raised, it was instantly rejected. Nightline’s Ted Koppel, called a “TV statesman” in ABC News ads, dropped all pretense of objectivity as he and Barbara Walters (8/17/90) lectured Iraq’s ambassador to the United States on the differences between our good invasions–Panama and Grenada–and their bad one: Kuwait. In Koppel’s language during that exchange, the fuzzy line between U.S. press and U.S. government faded away completely: “We did not go in and seize Panama. We did not go in and seize Grenada,” Koppel declared.
TV journalists spoke so often as though they were part of the government that even Jim Lehrer, not known for his distance from power, complained about the practice: “We never use ‘we,'” he told the Denver Post (9/12/90). “That’s just standard practice…. We don’t need to cheerlead.” (This “standard practice” was not in effect during the Panama invasion, when the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff–12/21/89–went on about how “not only have we done sway with the PDF, we’ve done away with the police force.”)
Who Got to Speak?
In the weeks after the invasion of Kuwait, the media played their traditional crisis role of defining and narrowing the range of viewpoints available to the U.S. public. To find out who was allowed to participate in the national debate on the Persian Gulf situation, FAIR analyzed the guestlists of programs dealing with the crisis on two of the most influential and in-depth TV news programs: Nightline and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. FAIR studied the first month of the Gulf crisis (August 1-31, 1990), when a wide-ranging debate–including both supporters and opponents of the military buildup–could have affected policy. But we did not find such a debate; not a single U.S. guest on Nightline, for example, argued against U.S. military intervention. Instead, we found the same narrow spectrum that FAIR had documented in its earlier studies of the two shows.
In August 1990, nearly half the U.S. guests on both programs were current or former government officials (48 percent for Nightline, 47 percent for the NewsHour); when international guests were included, the percentage of government officials was even higher.
The “experts” used by these shows generally came from conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with analysts from the centrist Brookings Institution providing the “left” boundary of debate. Never tapped were progressive think tanks such as the Institute for Policy Studies or the World Policy Institute.
Only 3 percent of total guests on Nightline and 4 percent on MacNeil/Lehrer were from nongovernmental public interest or activist groups; this category included a hostage advocate, who appeared on both shows, and conservative activist Midge Decter, who appeared on MacNeil/Lehrer to attack U.S. policy as too pacifistic.
The guest lists were unrepresentative of the U.S. population: European-Americans made up a startling 98 percent of Nightline’s U.S. guests and 87 percent of the NewsHour’s. (The difference results mainly from MacNeil/Lehrer’s inclusion of Arab-Americans.) Only 9 percent of MacNeil/Lehrer’s and 14 percent of Nightline’s U.S. guests were female.
FAIR’s earlier studies had been criticized by Ted Koppel, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer for focusing on discussion guests, rather than people who provided soundbites in video segments. But when we examined the video clips dealing with the Gulf crisis, we found they represented an even narrower spectrum of views: Soundbites came from current or former government officials 62 percent of the time on Nightline and 63 percent of the time on MacNeil/Lehrer (72 percent on the latter, if troops and reservists are included). Less than 2 percent of Nightline’s and less than 1 percent of MacNeil/Lehrer’s taped-segment subjects represented public interest or activist groups.
No anti-interventionist U.S. guest appeared in the first month of the crisis on Nightline, but one MacNeil/Lehrer program included a panel of Arab-Americans (including FAIR advisory board member Casey Kasem) who had sharp criticisms of U.S. policy. After our study period, the NewsHour featured strong critics like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and the Progressive’s Erwin Knoll. But these exceptions did not change the overwhelming government/establishment bias of the vast majority of the show’s coverage–especially in the crucial, early weeks after the invasion of Kuwait.
In some quarters, questioning the military mobilization was seen as dangerously unpatriotic: In a review of Bush’s September 11 address on the Gulf crisis (9/12/90), the New York Times’ R.W. Apple approvingly noted that Bush “made it plain that he would not countenance…a buildup of doubts and caveats at home.”
Meg Greenfield, who as editorial page editor of the Washington Post has great influence over who will and will not participate in the national debate, complained in her Newsweek column (9/20/90) that “the initial burst of national unity and collective confidence in the rightness of our purpose began to be assaulted” in the weeks following the Iraqi invasion. Referring to a radio talk show caller who argued that the homeless deserve money more than Saudi Arabia, Greenfield wrote, “The proper answer to the man was so complicated that it hardly stood a chance.” Perhaps this is why no column arguing against sending troops to Saudi Arabia had yet appeared on the pages Greenfield edited.
Other journalists marginalized dissenters by ignoring rather than attacking them: “Exceptional Consensus Backs U.S. Intervention,” a Washington Post news analysis by E.J. Dionne was headlined (9/8/90). Although the article alluded to progressive critiques of the mobilization, its discussion of these views focused on the McCarthyite innuendo that “Soviet support for U.S. moves has quelled criticism on the left.”
The pro-intervention consensus alleged by Dionne did not include African-Americans, who had been much more skeptical than whites of Bush’s Persian Gulf policy from the beginning. Even though blacks were more at risk in the Gulf crisis, given their overrepresentation in the armed services, dissenting African-American leaders were rarely given an opportunity to have their views heard. In many forums, right-wing hawks like Edward Luttwak or Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had tactical reservations about U.S. intervention in this particular context, provided the only questioning of U.S. policy. Patrick Buchanan, who has long protested the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, was often singled out by commentators as the leading “dove” on Iraq, in a manner that seemed calculated to tar opponents of military action as anti-Semitic.
Relegated to the margins of the debate were consistent critics of U.S. intervention. Unlike Ted Koppel, the New York Times and most mainstream media, which had applauded the invasion of Panama, these analysts could condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait unhypocritically. The Donahue show (10/2/90) featured three strong critics of White House policy: Ralph Nader, columnist Alexander Cockburn and Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies. But these appearances were exceptional; White House supporters were featured in almost every forum with drumbeat regularity.
Beating the War Drums
It would not be fair to say, however, that mainstream news outlets were totally supportive of Bush administration policy toward Iraq; much of the press was strongly critical of the U.S. government–for failing to immediately launch an attack against Baghdad. In fact, sometimes this was the only kind of “critic” the media recognized: “Critics of the Bush administration’s goals in the Gulf say that unless Saddam Hussein is removed and his nation’s military capacity is destroyed, he will continue to intimidate his neighbors, even if he withdraws from Kuwait,” a Christian Science Monitor article read (9/10/90).
While many columnists seemed to compete over who could produce the most bellicose rhetoric, advocacy of military violence was by no means limited to commentators. One of the most startling examples was Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview with Secretary of State James Baker (9/9/90), whom she badgered for a commitment to attack Iraq:
FAIR’s scrutiny of months of network news failed to reveal any example of equally hard-hitting interrogation–from a pro-peace perspective. Obvious questions went unasked: Why has the United States instantly rejected every proposal for a negotiated settlement? How is the Kuwait invasion illegal if the Panama invasion was legal? Why is the administration calling Saddam Hussein “Hitler” when it was lobbying to stop congressional sanctions against Iraq days before the invasion of Kuwait? Stahl’s questioning showed that correspondents do know how to hold officials’ feet to the fire–but only seem to do so from a hawkish perspective.
Some journalists pushed for the assassination of Saddam Hussein, which would violate both U.S. and international law: “The easiest way for the United States to end the Persian Gulf crisis might be to have Iraq’s Saddam Hussein removed–and don’t think the idea hasn’t occurred in Washington,” wrote Mike Feinsilber of the Associated Press (9/4/90). “Assassination is a much-discussed topic in Washington because diplomacy seems to have such a scant chance of getting Iraq out of Kuwait and because the full-blown military alternative could result in the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis.”
New York Times diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman, speaking on the CBS Morning News (8/4/90), called on the CIA to blow up Iraqi pipelines and then deny that it had done so–a rare case of a reporter actually asking to be disinformed. Whatever military solution to the crisis journalists envisioned, the actual human costs to both Iraq and the United States were seldom calculated. “A bombing campaign that shatters Saddam’s military and secret-police apparatus can succeed without necessarily stirring resentment within the Iraqi nation,” Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland opined (9/26/90).
Writing Off Negotiations
Although their colleagues in Washington may have called for war, journalists on the ground in Saudi Arabia bent over backwards to depict the U.S. military presence as a force for peace. Even when the United States sent F-16 and F-l3 ground attack aircraft to Oman and Qatar, hundreds of miles from Iraq, New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon (9/4/90) simply interpreted this as an extension of “the commitment to defend against an Iraqi attack.” Gordon’s complaint about military censorship (8/28/90) was that it prevented reporters from covering the real story–“how, or whether, the American military can fulfill its mission of defending Saudi Arabia.” Questions like, “Was there ever a real danger that Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia?” or “Is the U.S. force designed for defensive or offensive operations?” were apparently not on Gordon’s or other reporters’ agendas.
A few outlets provided coverage that was less blinkered. “The U.S. mobilization shows clearly that the aim all along has been to deploy offensive forces,” according to an analysis in the London Observer (9/9/90). In the United States, New York Newsday provided consistently independent reporting: “The Bush administration has decided against pursuing its own diplomatic efforts with Iraq to end the Persian Gulf crisis and is planning instead massive military attacks, mostly by air, if, as most officials expect, the economic embargo and U.N. initiatives fail,” the paper reported on August 31, 1990.
Most of the media downplayed the Bush administration’s rejection of negotiations as an option. When Iraq offered proposals, not only were there few calls from the press for Bush to test the proposals’ sincerity, but there was very little recognition that such offers had even been made. Saddam Hussein’s claim that he would leave Kuwait with Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the Occupied Territories was generally ridiculed. “Unless you solve all the problems of the Middle East, we’re going to stay in Kuwait,” was how Barbara Walters characterized Iraq’s position (Nightline, 8/17/90).
When a front-page story by New York Newsday’s Knut Royce (8/29/90) disclosed another offer by Baghdad, made August 23, 1990, to withdraw from Kuwait in exchange for control of the disputed Rumaila oil field and access to the Persian Gulf, the New York Times reported the proposal on page 14, buried near the end of a story (8/30/90). The Times story featured a U.S. diplomat dismissing the proposal as “baloney,” and noted that “a well-connected Middle Eastern diplomat told the New York Times a week ago of a similar offer, but it, too, was dismissed by the administration”–and so was considered unworthy of reporting. During the week that the New York Times suppressed news of Iraq’s overture, the mass media were repeatedly telling the public of Iraqi intransigence.
Given the way these proposals were buried, it is not surprising that the New York Times could claim–in an editorial warning against offering “face-saving formulas to Saddam Hussein” (10/1/90)–that “he has proffered none himself, and he shows no signs of looking for a face-saving exit from Kuwait.”
Iraq’s unwillingness to negotiate was only one of many myths that became “truth” through force of repetition. Another myth was the notion that Iraq’s move against Kuwait was unexpected.
The New York Times editorialized on August 3, 1990, that Iraq invaded Kuwait “without warrant or warning.” The editorialists would have bad plenty of warning if they had read their own front page: On July 28, 1990, a Times article on the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies) dispute over oil quotas reported that
This myth was convenient for the Bush administration, which had signaled prior to the invasion that it might tolerate some sort of military action against Kuwait. A week before the invasion, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, emphasized to Saddam Hussein that the government had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreements with Kuwait.” Administration officials told the Washington Post only six days before the invasion (7/26/90) that “an Iraqi attack on Kuwait would not draw a U.S. military response.”
Despite the pro-administration puffery that characterized coverage of the Gulf crisis, some critics actually suggested that the media had been too “pro-Iraq.” Newsweek (9/3/90) “balanced” Bush’s call for “objective reporting” instead of “Iraqi cheerleading” with a CBS executive’s claim that “the reporting has been very fair and very accurate.” A true opposing viewpoint, that the cheerleading was all in Bush’s favor, was not represented.
When Nightline (8/28/90) ran a program on whether the TV networks were being used for “propaganda,” the guests were conservative columnist Fred Barnes, conservative Senator Trent Lott (R.-Miss.), and ABC News president Roone Arledge. Since progressive media critics were excluded by Nightline, it was no wonder that Baghdad was the only source of propaganda seriously considered. Following his debate with the Iraqi ambassador to the United States on Nightline (8/17/90), Ted Koppel referred to the exchange as “a propaganda war that is being waged on American television, where the Iraqi government is trying to go over the heads of the American government, directly to the American people, and hoping that it’s going to sow some seeds of dissension.”
The footage Iraq produced of Saddam Hussein mingling with hostages obviously was propaganda and was labeled as such when rebroadcast on U.S. television. But the media constantly disseminated material carrying the U.S. government agenda, based on government sources and often reported under conditions of U.S. military censorship. It was this propaganda, much more skillful than Saddam Hussein’s, that made up the bulk of reporting on the Gulf crisis. Unfortunately, it carried no labels.