Journalists justified their role as distributors of government handouts in different ways. Asked on Day 1 why U.S. opponents of the invasion were virtually invisible on-the-air, a CBS producer (who declined to give her name) told Extra!: “When American troops are involved and taking losses, this is not the time to be running critical commentary. The American public will be rallying around the flag.”
Some TV reporters claimed they were forced to rely on official U.S. versions because they had nothing else. As Newsday reported January 14, “Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning combat journalist, was reduced to reporting on Noriega’s alleged pornography collection. ‘They [the Pentagon] got away with it again,’ Arnett said of the initial press blackout.”
Arnett, who covered the invasion for CNN, was complaining that Pentagon officials failed to provide photo opportunities of wounded soldiers, suffering civilians and general bang- bang. Naturally the Pentagon did everything possible to prevent such shots, keeping with its belief that the Vietnam War was lost in American living rooms. “Two things that people should not watch are the making of sausage and the making of war,” Newsday (1/4/90) quoted an Air Force doctor as saying. “All that front-page blood and gore hurts the military.”
Experienced combat journalists like Arnett should know that the Pentagon’s aim is to manipulate the pictures and stories that get out. “If you just looked at television, the most violent thing American troops did in Panama was play rock music,” political media consultant Robert Squier told Newsday. “They feel if they can control the pictures at the outset, it doesn’t make a damn what is said now or later.”
Unhappiness with the Pentagon did not keep reporters from promoting the U.S. Army-approved image of Noriega as a comic strip arch-villain. The Southern Command told reporters soon after the invasion that 110 pounds of cocaine were found in Noriega’s so-called “witch house,” and this played big on TV news and the front pages. When, a month later, the “cocaine” turned out to be tamales (Washington Post, 1/23/90, page A22), the government’s deception was a footnote at best. The initial headlines of Noriega as drug-crazed lunatic had served their purpose: to convince the American people that he represented a threat to the Canal.