Re-Examining Reporting of the Gulf War

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A few weeks ago, Mark Crispin Miller dropped what he thought was at least a small bombshell, revealing in a piece written for the op-ed page of the New York Times that, despite many claims to the contrary during the Persian Gulf war, the United States destroyed none of Iraq's mobile Scud launchers and only a fraction of its fixed site launch facilities.

But, unlike the laser-guided devices that danced across our TV screens a year and a half ago, this bomb hardly made an impression on the public's consciousness. It was like an explosion in a vacuum. Dr. Miller heard mainly the sounds of silence.

The Times did a brief story in its news section. There was a short piece buried on the inside of the Washington Post. A wire service account was picked up by a few other newspapers. There was nothing on the broadcast network news programs.

A CNN reporter questioned Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams about the allegations, but no reporters followed up, even though the piece specifically alleged that many of these same reporters had been deliberately misled by a briefing during the war.

And, though Dr. Miller is a professor in the Writing Seminars department at the Johns Hopkins University, there was nothing about his findings in The Baltimore Sun.

To Dr. Miller, what happened to his revelations just confirms the thesis of the book he is currently writing. In "Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusion," he contends that the public's perception of the war was a carefully orchestrated symphony of propaganda in which the television and print press, consciously and unconsciously, played the parts written for them by the Pentagon.

The fact that a few words from Mr. Williams at a press briefing assigned his piece to relative obscurity simply provided a brief coda.

Dr. Miller's claims come at a time of increasing questioninabout the way the gulf war was packaged and sold through a press that was restricted and censored into submission. But, even as skepticism begins to surround the war effort, there seems to be a reluctance to take on the war itself, perhaps because in doing so the press would reveal its own shortcomings, or maybe because the public that backed the war so fervently just doesn't want to hear it.

There were three elements to Dr. Miller's op-ed piece. The first was to note that, through viewing tapes of CNN's coverage of the press briefings during the war, he found that the U.S. military said that Iraq had 50 Scud launchers -- 30 fixed and 20 mobile -- and then proceeded, in a series of subsequent briefings, to announce the destruction of 81 launchers.

This was contrasted with the findings of the United Nations Special Commission that is supervising the destruction of Iraq's weaponry which showed that no mobile launchers were destroyed and that of Iraq's 28 fixed-site launchers, two were untouched, 14 were slightly damaged and 12 were destroyed. Moreover, despite frequent Pentagon claims to the contrary, no Scud missiles were damaged by the air attacks.

Dr. Miller then took his readers through a press briefing in which Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Lt. Gen. Charles Horner showed a tape of a bombing run, telling all who were watching that it showed the destruction of mobile Scud launchers and their missiles.

However, Dr. Miller claimed that before the briefing there were a number of military types who did not think the tape showed Scud launchers, a fact that was subsequently confirmed by photo analysts. The bombs had actually hit fuel trucks.

When asked about the piece, Mr. Williams, whose face was so familiar during the gulf war, essentially confirmed Dr. Miller's facts, but then said, "This fellow is a little behind the curve in terms of what we've said publicly about the Scud operation."

He claimed that the Conduct of War report which was given to Congress in April cleared up this matter.

"That really is not the case," Dr. Miller contends. "If you read that report, what you find buried in the middle of hundreds of pages of tedious bureaucratic prose is an admission that they don't know how many Scuds they destroyed and that it was probably fewer than previously thought. That's not at all what I was writing.

"And even if what I had was in there, it had never been publicly reported, but somehow by Williams telling these reporters it was old news, it let them off the hook. They didn't feel they had to write the story.

"But the fact is, the gulf war is going to be a very important part of this presidential campaign and the American public should know these things. That's why I wrote the piece instead of saving it for the book."

"Let's face it, Pete Williams is a very intelligent man," said John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine and author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," a book critical of press coverage and the Pentagon's restrictions on it.

"He is very skillful at killing a story. He knows how to do it," Mr. MacArthur said.

But he pointed to another reason for the lack of attention paid to Dr. Miller's findings. "I think the three biggest revelations after the war were the stories about burying Iraqi troops alive under sand, mine revealing that the woman testifying to Congress that babies died after Iraqi troops took their incubators was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and Mark's piece."

"But the fact is, the gulf war is going to be a very important part of this presidential campaign and the American public should know these things. That's why I wrote the piece instead of saving it for the book."

"Let's face it, Pete Williams is a very intelligent man," said John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine and author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," a book critical of press coverage and the Pentagon's restrictions on it.

"He is very skillful at killing a story. He knows how to do it," Mr. MacArthur said.

But he pointed to another reason for the lack of attention paid to Dr. Miller's findings. "I think the three biggest revelations after the war were the stories about burying Iraqi troops alive under sand, mine revealing that the woman testifying to Congress that babies died after Iraqi troops took their incubators was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and Mark's piece."

Mr. MacArthur said that the burying of Iraqi troops story got the most attention because it was reported by a journalist as a news story, Patrick Sloyan of Newsday who won a Pulitzer prize for it.

Mr. MacArthur said that his piece on the incubator babies got some notice because, though it also ran on the Times' op-ed page, he has some journalistic credentials as a magazine publisher and former reporter. But Dr. Miller was handicapped because he comes from academia.

His point was that journalists are willing to report on what academics say when they stay in the laboratory and library. But when they start doing the type of digging that a good reporter might have done, then the press starts protecting its turf. Mr. Williams, perhaps instinctively, recognized that and gave the press a way to ignore Dr. Miller's findings by dismissing "this fellow" as "behind the curve."

And, it must be remembered, as much as some of the reporters in the Pentagon briefing room might be expected to be outraged by having been misled during the war, if they had followed up on Dr. Miller's article, they would be giving publicity to claims that their work was less than stellar.

John J. Fialka covered the war for the Wall Street Journal and wrote a book about it, "Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War." He said that the constant presence of television caused particular problems for war coverage.

"The Scud destruction count reminds me of the body count in Vietnam that the military gave every afternoon in Saigon at those briefings they called the Five O'Clock Follies," he said. "But in Vietnam, the print press, in particular the ones who had been in the field and knew what was going on, could filter that stuff out by the time it reached the United States.

"But in the gulf, it was like the Five O'Clock Follies were live on TV. Every press briefing was on CNN. And no reporters were let out in the field to get independent information during the air war.

"The Pentagon's control of that briefing room was Orwellian. They even got these avuncular, folksy types to handle the briefings,which made reporters asking tough questions look ridiculous. Once the Pentagon put their spin on it, it was very difficult to un-spin it."

Mr. Fialka, whose book claims that the Pentagon's press restrictions actually kept news favorable to the military out of the papers during the ground war, contends that journalists did a good job during the actual fighting, but thinks that they fell down on the job when the fighting ended.

"When the war was over, reporters, especially the print press, had no excuse for leaving the battlefield," he said. "They headed for the next event,which was the liberation of Kuwait City. That was really just a photo op.

"That's when reporters could have been finding out about the effectiveness of our weapons and the performance and morale of our troops which, in the long run, are much more important stories than marching into Kuwait. But we were all on the CNN timetable. And that was the next stop."

Lack of journalistic initiative might not be the only explanation for the absence of resonance for Dr. Miller's story. It may also be that the gulf war has become part of our national mythology and that no one wants to hear anything that contradicts that status.

"I think that's exactly what has happened," said Paul Fussell, author of "The Great War in Modern Memory," a study of the impact of World War I on cultural media.

"The difference with the gulf war is that it happened so quickly," the University of Pennsylvania professor said. "Usually it takes a while, it waits for the publication of some popular fiction, other events like that.

"But everything was speeded up in this war. There was no considered writing about it, just spot news that was overtaken by whatever happened the next day. That meant there was no continuity that led to people's understanding of it, no considered debate and rebuttal.

"What is vulgarly called the electronic media changed the whole process of turning a war into an accepted myth."

After his piece ran, Dr. Miller did get calls from papers in England, France and Israel. "I think it's ironic that people overseas might know more about what we did in the war that people in this country do."

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