Spinning Desert Storm: TV Coverage of a Pentagon ProductionRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: media, Desert Storm
Back in 1990-1991, my good friend Louis-Nicholas Davout [a pseudonym] and I debated the merits of the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. At the time, Davout was a graduate student in Political Science at a major research university, whereas I was a captain in the Air Force teaching at the USAF Academy. Davout was more critical of the war than I was, and he sent me a paper he had written in the immediate aftermath of coalition bombing raids, which had been advertised as a smashing success for the U.S. military and then-President George H.W. Bush. I saved his paper because I was intrigued by his probing (and remarkably prescient) critique of media-military relations. He saw early in 1991, as I didn’t see until much later, how completely the US military was spinning the war in the media.
Today, the US military is masterful at manufacturing consent among the American people for military interventions around the globe (as long as these interventions remain relatively pain-free for most Americans). That mastery was honed in 1991 during Desert Shield/Storm.
I distinctly recall in 1990 media stories warning Americans about potentially high casualties to US troops, including an alarming story on PTSD on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that I videotaped for my military students. When the bombing began in earnest in January 1991, the media line quickly changed to “euphoria” about the accuracy and decisiveness of US bombing. In those pre-Internet days, when Cable TV was still relatively new, the “Big Three” networks of ABC, NBC, and CBS truly drove the media narrative. This narrative, as my friend notes below, became almost entirely driven by Pentagon factoids and retired military talking heads. It was boosterism, pure and simple.
I asked my friend if I could post his old paper (vintage 1991) at this blog, and he graciously accepted. Here is what my friend, now a professor of political science, wrote back then about how war reporting—thoroughly compromised by military agendas—smoothed the way for more war. W.J. Astore
Spinning Desert Storm: TV Coverage of a Pentagon Production
(Written in 1991)
On January 22, 1991, six days after US forces initiated hostilities against targets in Iraq and Kuwait, the New York Times reported that “Allied officials are scaling back their earlier claims to have achieved air superiority over many areas of Iraq and to have disabled most of Iraq’s Scud missile-launching sites.” This came as a shock to some, considering the pro-Administration line—that US airpower was laying the groundwork for a total American victory—that was presented as news to the American public by major network TV coverage in the first few crucial days of the air war.
As part of its public relations strategy in the months before the war, the [George H.W.] Bush Administration had been putting out much brave talk about the necessity of a ground campaign and expected American casualties. The sober pronouncements by high officials of the Bush Administration, including Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were openly aimed as an inoculation for American public opinion, lowering expectations to preempt public backlash against long and bloody involvement.
However, no American public really wanted a costly war to liberate Kuwait. So it was important for the Administration, in the first days of war, to give an impression of quick and easy victory in order to get the right kind of polling results.
In this regard, the Administration could not have asked for better coverage from ABC, CBS, and NBC in those first days. The “news” reporting, analysis, and presentation all conspired to give an impression that overwhelming US military strength based on technological superiority would win the war quickly and with little loss of American life.
The news program formats mainly consisted of two kinds of interactions: anchormen speaking via satellite linkup with reporters at the White House, the Pentagon, or on military bases in Saudi Arabia and anchormen speaking with retired US military men in network studios. As far as news reporting went, there was no reporting of news (with the exception of CNN broadcasts from Baghdad); merely a recycling of Defense Department and Administration briefings and “leaks.” Those reports affirmed that American and Coalition bombers had enjoyed spectacular successes in targeting only military and industrial targets.
Despite a few feeble disclaimers, no serious questions were raised about the implications of the news networks’ almost total reliance on Defense Department and White House sources for information about the bombing. This apparently uncritical acceptance of the Administration line resulted in an impression of quick, clean victory.
The meaning of what constituted a “successful” bombing raid was never raised. Did it mean that the target was hit and destroyed or that the target was merely hit or only that the bombers returned safely to base? (At a Monday, January 21,  press conference, the press was told that the 80% success rate claimed by the US military referred to the percentage of pilots who returned from their missions and said that they had dropped their bombs as planned.) Did success mean that no Iraqi civilians were killed or only a few or many? How could the Pentagon or anyone definitively know? These kinds of questions importantly bear on what American soldiers can expect to face on the battlefield and what American citizens can expect to confront within their consciences.
When not conveying Defense Department pronouncements, the anchormen turned to the “experts,” retired US military men. The level of discourse shifted to speculations on weapons performance and hopeful commentary regarding the lack of initial Iraqi response to the American bombing. This emphasis on the instrumentalities of war and the tactical problems of warfighting served to elide a whole series of pertinent questions about the lack of real news, the credibility of Defense Department pronouncements of success, and the response of publics in various American, European, and Arab cities.
If the networks, producers, editors, reporters, and anchormen had taken their principles of journalistic integrity more seriously, the discourse might not have been so shaped by military men and the initial impression of easy victory would have been replaced by a more sober understanding of the possible costs that war will entail for the US, Iraq, and the Middle East. The idea that Saddam Hussein will fight the war the way the Pentagon wants him to, immediately pitting his outgunned and technologically inferior air and missile forces against overwhelming American forces in lopsided combat was the hope of the Administration.
CBS, framing its coverage with the motto, “Showdown in the Gulf,” exemplified this process of simplification and sanitation. The metaphor, “showdown,” is hardly the right word to begin to capture the complexities of this war. Instead, it conjured up morally uncomplicated and edifying images of Bush and Saddam Hussein, or individual American fighter pilots and Iraqi pilots squaring off in single combat.
Newscasters let puzzlement of Iraq’s political intransigence and initial lack of military response dovetail into inferences about Hussein’s irrationality, playing to Western stereotypes of Arab fanaticism. NBC’s Tom Brokaw wondered about Hussein’s “capacity for evil,” falling victim to, and becoming a disseminator of, the kind of hypocritical, self-serving stereotypes that are instrumental to inciting an uncertain nation to fight an ill-considered war.
The total absence of dissenting voices in those first crucial newscasts also gave rise to the impression of a war consensus in this country. Evidently, it was an impression shared by some newscasters themselves. Reporting Iraq’s initial launch of Scuds into Israel, ABC’s Peter Jennings gravely intoned that this new development had checked the “initial euphoria” of the country. Jennings hastily qualified the statement but it was clear that the dominant image in his mind was of a nation enthusiastically in support of Bush’s war policy.
In the midst of this coverage, the networks reported polling data results yielding majorities in favor of Bush’s war. Admittedly, there is a tendency for public opinion to swing behind a president during a crisis. However, the wholesale recycling of the Defense Department line constituted the best kind of public relations that an administration bent on pursuing a policy of precipitous warmaking could ask for in the first crucial days.
No better indication of the TV network/Administration symbiosis could be found than President Bush’s parroting of Peter Jennings’ comment about the “initial euphoria” of the country. In a press conference the next day, President Bush seized on Jennings’ metaphor. By that time, Bush had gotten his “war consensus”—approval ratings in the mid-eighty percentiles. He could assume the mantle of statesman, calling for an American public to temper its “euphoria,” and allow that the conflict, whose ultimate outcome—victory—was not in doubt, would not be quick and easy.
Defenders of the networks’ inaccurate and slanted coverage of this televised war argue that the pace of events and the nature of broadcasting technology erode editorial control over the multiple and instantaneous flows of information. Saturation coverage via satellite linkup, they say, shrinks to seconds the time available to evaluate information.
If the network news organizations are serious about maintaining high standards of integrity and professionalism they should reject this excuse, for that is what it is. They did not have to be prisoners of Administration innuendo and rumor in those first few days. The networks could have been clearer about their absolute lack of independent information and they could have raised doubts about the credibility of their sources. And there is something insidious about the idea that once a president initiates a war, then military men are the only source of information about the reliability of weapons performance, the credibility of Defense Department claims of success, and the likely effects of weapons use on the ground.
L.N. Davout is a pseudonym for a professor of political science whose pointed criticism of US politics, culture, and empire make him a certified contrarian.
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