Questions on war may get you truth as well as disfavor


Journalists ask questions for a living. It's what we do.

The theory is that if you ask enough questions of enough people, you eventually may arrive at that elusive thing called the truth.

Sometimes, however, the very act of asking a question can get you in trouble. And these days it can get you accused of being a traitor to your country.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater thinks there are some things about which reporters should not ask. Like about civilian casualties of U.S. bombing raids in Iraq and Kuwait, for instance.

He said this week that when reporters ask questions about this subject, it represents a "disturbing" propaganda "success" for Saddam Hussein.

"I think if you look at the transcripts of the last two or three briefings in this room," Fitzwater said in the White House briefing room, "you'll find about 60 percent of the questions went to the issue of civilian damage. That would indicate to me that he's having some success."

In other words, when an American reporter dares to ask a question about the war, he can become an agent of the enemy.

There is a warning in Fitzwater's words: "You guys better dummy up before the American people think you're the enemy, too."

More disturbing to the White House than certain questions about the bombing are certain pictures of the bombing. The military videos of U.S. smart bombs precisely hitting military targets are the kind of pictures the White House likes. The pictures the White House does not like are the ones of dead and injured Iraqi children being taken out of rubble or treated in hospitals.

These pictures are, of course, cleared by Iraqi censors. Which might qualify these pictures as propaganda.

But the pictures coming out of Israel are cleared by Israeli censors. And the pool pictures coming out of Saudi Arabia are cleared by Saudi or U.S. military censors. So doesn't that make those pictures propaganda, too?

The United States emphasizes that it is not targeting civilians, and that when civilians are killed and injured it is an unfortunate accident.

I personally believe this, and I think most American reporters believe this, also.

But believing that our intentions are good is not the same thing as ignoring civilian casualties when they occur. And it is not the same thing as refusing to ask questions about the magnitude of civilian casualties.

U.S. forces and their allies have made more than 65,000 sorties over Iraq and Kuwait, and about half of these have been bombing missions. That's a lot of bombs, and that figure will go much higher before this war is over. Civilians are going to get killed by those bombs, just like civilians always get killed during war.

So what's the point of trying to sweep it under the rug or minimize it?

And what's the point of making the press the enemy when the press dares to ask a question about it?

Actually, that last question is easy to answer: Reporters can be intimidated, and so can news organizations.

According to a story in Newsday, CNN has received more than 37,000 phone calls and letters since the war began. Of those that deal specifically with war coverage, most have been critical. "One of the constant themes has been the nature and the quality of questions being asked at the briefings," said Bob Furnad, CNN vice president and senior producer.

Anyone who listens to talk-radio can confirm this. I have been on about a half-dozen call-in radio and TV shows, both local and national, since the war began, and most of calls were from people questioning the motives of the press.

Our entire nation has been rallied for war. And people can't figure out why the press isn't rallying, too. People can't understand why reporters are asking questions, and this makes them upset with the press.

The White House is not entirely unhappy about this. While George Bush likes certain reporters on a personal level, on an institutional level he views the press as something to be "handled" or kept at bay.

This is the way the press was dealt with during his campaign and this is the way the press is being dealt with during this war.

Reporters who have been overseas for a while probably have little idea how little sympathy the public at home has for them these days.

"ABC World News Tonight" carried a piece Monday in which Bill Blakemore, reporting from Baghdad, talked about how tight military censorship was in Iraq. Then Morton Dean followed with a piece on how tight military censorship was in Saudi Arabia. And there seemed little difference between "our" side and "their" side when it came to controlling the press.

Chris Hedges of the New York Times was interviewed and he really unloaded about how the news was being managed. "You never see any problems," he said. "You're never allowed to report. Nothing's ever wrong. The entire war has become videotapes of planes always hitting their targets like giant Nintendo games. And soldiers up front are eating turkey and waving flags. And it's a lie."

Which is about as blunt as any reporter has ever been about this war. Some reporters, both in the Persian Gulf and at home, clearly do feel they are being lied to.

Others feel they are merely being misled. And many feel that they are being handled and "massaged" by the best handlers and massagers the U.S. military has.

To which the public says: So what?

To which the White House says: Just shut up about it.

To which the reporters say: OK, OK, but we still have one more question. And then a follow-up.

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