The end of saturation coverage of the Gulf War has left some journalists feeling nostalgic. “Mark Thompson, defense correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, says his days feel shapeless without the comforting rhythm of the morning briefing from Riyadh and the afternoon session at the Pentagon,” according to the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (3/25/91).
“There’s nothing better for a journalist than to know what the story of the day is,” Thompson told Kurtz. “The worst thing for reporters is to mope around sifting through ashes looking for a story, and that’s what everyone is doing now.”
Thompson should be pleased with coverage in March and April: Reporters were generally able to avoid ash-sifting in favor of dutifully reporting the story of the day. The main theme was the violence being inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Iraqi government — somehow a more interesting subject than the violence inflicted on the Iraqi people by the U.S. government.
“Americans are appalled by the spectacle of Iraqi forces slaughtering Kurds and Shiites,” wrote New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb (3/31/91). Why were they appalled by those killings, and not the several-times greater death toll inflicted by U.S. bombing? Was it because mass media outlets played down reports by refugees fleeing U.S. bombs, and played up those featuring Iraqi guns? Or because commentators like Gelb scrupulously avoided using words like “slaughter” to describe damage caused by their own government?
NBC‘s John Chancellor (3/20/91) similarly lamented that Saddam Hussein was “slaughtering his own people” — an act presumably much worse than slaughtering someone else’s people, since Chancellor managed to not use the word “slaughter” during the six weeks that U.S.-led forces were killing as many as 30,000 Iraqis per week. CNN Crossfire co-host Patrick Buchanan displayed concern for Iraqi victims only after the U.S. quit doing the killing: “Is George Bush going to stand by while Saddam Hussein kills tens of thousands of Iraqis?”
A news analysis in the New York Times (3/31/91) carried the headline “‘Clean Win’ in the War With Iraq Drifts Into a Bloody Aftermath.” “Clean win,” a quote from Colin Powell, was not used ironically — the lead used the phrase “clean win” as an accurate description of a victory that “was being soiled by the bloodbath it had unleashed inside Iraq.”
Reporting on atrocities by Iraq has been specific and graphic, while accounts of damage caused by the U.S. were vague and abounded in euphemisms. Maintaining the embargo with the aim of causing famine and epidemic in Iraq was described by the New York Times (3/22/91) as a policy of “making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people,” in order to “encourage them to remove” Saddam from power.
A chart titled “Re-examining the Toll” (New York Times, 3/25/91) included detailed breakdowns on Iraqi losses of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers — but no mention of human life. The Iraqi people also disappeared in a Washington Post chart listing U.S. casualties (Americans killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner) along with “Iraqi losses” (2,085 tanks, 962 armored vehicles, 1,005 artillery pieces, 103 aircraft destroyed).
To find the human toll caused by U.S. weapons, one often had to look in the nooks and crannies — like U.S. News & World Report‘s “Washington Whispers” page (4/1/91), which featured this one-paragraph item, captioned “The Grim Math”:
Although top U.S. commanders last week estimated that Iraq suffered at least 100,000 military deaths during the war, other sources in the Gulf say the final total — including civilian fatalities — will be at least twice that. These sources say the allied aerial attacks inflicted far more casualties than previously thought.
The report of a possible 200,000 dead took up little more than an inch of space. At that rate, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews would take up about 30 inches — and could almost be contained on one page in U.S. News & World Report.