The media's thirst for blood

THE MEDIA drum roll to advance the war may enhance headlines and ratings, but it is tough on home front families of the men and women serving in the Persian Gulf.

As the mother of a Marine on the Saudi-Kuwait border, I am convinced that some of the responsibility for a ground war must be borne by the media.


A recent headline screamed: "Not Yet." An NBC newsman reported: "Talk of a ground war grows louder," without explaining that those talking it up the loudest are the correspondents themselves.

An ABC reporter has spoken of "press obsession" with a ground war -- as if he were making a new discovery, as if parents and HTC spouses of military personnel in Saudi Arabia hadn't noticed.


I wonder whether the CBS anonymous announcer heralding "Countdown to Confrontation" back in January, complete with blaring brass usually reserved for Super Bowl highlights, might have been almost as big a factor in getting us into this war as anything that went on in Baghdad or Washington.

Certainly dramatic pictures of ground action and destruction in the tiny, abandoned town of Khafji made for better television than the 130th photo of a remote flash of light signifying an encounter between a Scud and a Patriot. That ground "skirmish," which for several days provided the most graphic TV pictures of the war so far, also marked the deaths of 11 Marines, most of whom were killed by "friendly fire," to use the military's bone-chilling phrase.

Reporting the first Marine casualties, Ted Koppel on Nightline speculated how soon it would be before 11 or 12 deaths of young Americans would be so routine that it wouldn't even be reported on the nightly television news. Anticipatory boredom was afflicting the news even as it was occurring. Never let it be said that Koppel isn't one step ahead of the story.

Television has stirred up events in the gulf since last August, when President Bush first noticed that Saddam Hussein had swallowed Kuwait for breakfast.

While the country and the world struggled for peace, and phone calls to the White House were running 10-to-1 against going to war, Rather, Donaldson and company told us nightly that we were on the brink of war, and speculated on how soon it would break out.

When war started, it was almost a self-fulfilled air waves prophecy. Only one thing was lacking. TV had promised us, night and day, that it would be a bloody war and that we would be staggered by the number of body bags coming home.

You can imagine what such predictions do to families of Persian Gulf troops. And if you can't imagine it, there is the TV camera in a soldier's home, asking how do you feel, Mrs. Motherovich, about Saddam Hussein having four of your nine sons targeted in his gun sights?

Whatever one might think about the wisdom of entering this war, now that we are in it, it is clear that air power has saved American lives. But less than a fortnight into the air war, television got bored.


Journalists prodded, "When will the ground forces go in?" like kids watching a video, shouting, "Fast forward to the good part, where he gets blown apart."

Eager reporters didn't seem to realize how dangerous their behavior was to my son. I know they didn't mean to push so hard that, prematurely, our troops would move into the killing grounds of Kuwait largely to satisfy press pressure. I am sure the press also wants proper precaution taken to see that enemy forces are weakened, that mines have been routed out, that few surprises lie in wait.

But I can't help feeling that press preoccupation endangered our troops. It is my son being pushed into the quagmire of land mines and poisons and artillery shells and "friendly fire."

We are all aware that military censorship limits the amount of news available to reporters each day. Even so, alternatives exist to howling for a bloody body count.

Americans are in a part of the world where everything is extremely unfamiliar to us. Yet I have learned more about the culture, geography and people of Saudi Arabia from my son's letters than from the hundreds of television hours devoted to the war. Troops stationed in the gulf share their insights in letters home, but all of us need to know much more. The culture, the history, the terrain, the weather, the religion, what people do, how they live, what they think, how they communicate with each other, what they wear, how and what they teach their children -- most of us know nothing of any of this.

Instead of constantly raising our anxiety levels (which are too high by now to be measured anyway), television could do a masterful job of reporting about the places where half a million Americans now find themselves.


Is there still an old city of Baghdad? Who lives there? What is it like? Tell us about Dhahran and Riyadh, which many of us had never heard of six months ago.

We have heard that American troops may be in the Middle East anywhere from 30 to 100 years. We had better learn more about the area and its diverse people. Television could do a great service showing us more about the land where our sons and daughters are. Knowing more about the Middle East enhances our understanding of what is gong on, and ultimately might save some lives -- of friend and foe alike -- in the viewing.

Roma Connable writes from Roslyn, N.Y.