(NOTE: Please read the update to this alert.)
The fraudulent story of Iraqi soldiers throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators during the occupation of Kuwait in 1990 is depicted as if it were true in Live from Baghdad, the HBO film premiering on the cable network this Saturday that purports to tell the story behind CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War. HBO and CNN are both owned by the AOL Time Warner media conglomerate.
In the months before the Gulf War began, media uncritically repeated the claim that Iraqi soldiers were removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators. The story was launched by the testimony of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in October 1990. Eventually, as repeated in the media by the first President Bush and countless others, it blossomed into a tale involving over 300 Kuwaiti babies.
What was not reported at the time was the fact that the public relations company Hill & Knowlton was partly behind the effort, and the girl who testified was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington. Subsequent investigations, including one by Amnesty International, found no evidence for the claims (ABC World News Tonight, 3/15/91).
In the film, the story is turned upside down, portrayed as a deft public relations move by the Iraqi government, who grant CNN access to Kuwait in a calculated attempt to discredit the rumors that their soldiers were pulling babies from incubators. CNN reporters are ushered to a hospital in Kuwait, where a doctor, under obvious pressure from Iraqi soldiers, tells the reporters that no babies had been pulled from the incubators.
The CNN team does not believe the obviously nervous doctor is telling the truth, and the Iraqi officials pick up on this, promptly cutting the interview short. The scene ends with the doctor being led away by Iraqi officials. Moments later, the CNN crew listens to a BBC report on the radio that suggests that CNN had debunked the story of Iraqi soldiers killing Kuwaiti babies, and CNN’s reporters are upset that they’ve been used by the Iraqi officials.
The key exchange happens as follows:
Doctor: I have heard these stories.
CNN producer Ingrid Formanek (whisper): This sucks. He’s scared.
CNN producer Robert Wiener (whisper): Yeah, this is bad.
Doctor: I can tell you, nothing has happened at this hospital… that I know.
Correspondent: But at other hospitals?
Doctor: I cannot tell about other hospitals.
Iraqi handler: Finish! Finish! We go now!
Formanek: To the other hospitals?
Handler: No, back to Baghdad!
Wiener: Hey, hey, that was part of the deal!
Handler: That is story.
The clear implication is that the CNN reporters were used by the Iraqi government to make a true story of atrocities seem false. A review of the movie in the Indianapolis Star arrived at that very conclusion, noting that CNN “played into the Iraqis’ hands on a couple of occasions, including an ill-fated trip to Kuwait where the Iraqis used the CNN crew to counter reports that their soldiers had been removing Kuwaiti babies from hospital incubators and leaving them on the floor to die.”
Live From Baghdad is a dramatization, not a documentary, but it is being presented by HBO as a “behind-the-scenes true story” of the Gulf War and is being released at a crucial political moment. HBO‘s version of history never makes clear that the incubator story was fraudulent, and in fact had been managed by an American PR firm, not Iraq.
Curiously, however, the truth seems to have been clear to Robert Wiener, the former CNN producer who co-wrote Live from Baghdad. As he explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (11/21/02), “That story turned out to be false because those accusations were made by the daughter of the Kuwaiti minister of information and were never proven.”
Unfortunately, HBO viewers won’t know that when they see the film.
ACTION: Let HBO know you are concerned about the revision of history in their movie Live From Baghdad. With another war with Iraq looming, HBO could better serve viewers by debunking wartime propaganda, instead of reairing it.