The media and the gulf war Administraion, military recall lessons of Vietnam

January 21, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

While allied forces fight in the Persian Gulf, the Bush administration worries about another important battlefield -- American public opinion.

So far, the administration appears to be winning on both fronts.

Results of a Gallup Poll published over the weekend show Americans strongly support President Bush's decision to go to war and believe the allies are winning.

But the administration isn't counting on uninterrupted military successes to sustain support. Haunted by the Vietnam War, administration and military officials are trying not to repeat past mistakes in providing information to the public.

Above all, the administration is emphasizing caution.

"In Vietnam, we kept predicting there was light at the end of the tunnel," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense now at the Brookings Institution. "So the American people thought we were winning the war. What they're trying to do here is downplay their accomplishments."

Instead of handing out deceptive "body counts" as occurred in Vietnam, military officials won't even estimate Iraqi casualties. While some journalists suspect that policy might be intended to avoid backlash in the Arab world, there are other explanations.

"How in the world can we count Iraqi casualties?" asked Fred Hoffman, a former Associated Press correspondent who covered Vietnam and later was a Pentagon spokesman. Hoffman and Korb said it is difficult to determine casualties because they are occurring in air attacks.

Another key change from Vietnam is the source of military news. The top commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and his deputies are taking the tough questions from reporters, not passing them all off to briefing officers or civilian officials.

"I think the higher-up guy you go to, the more credibility you have," Korb said.

This policy results in such extraordinary scenes as yesterday's televised interview of Schwarzkopf on ABC in which Sam Donaldson and others peppered the general with questions on his strategy.

Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have deftly handled the questions so far.

When a reporter said he wondered whether the allies' technological prowess was masking the grim reality of war, Schwarzkopf shot back: "This stage of the game is not a time of frivolity for anybody."

Another change from Vietnam is the military-devised system of pool reporting in which teams of reporters and photographers go to key locations with military escorts, then share their information with the hundreds of other journalists who aren't in the pools.

This system sharply restricts individual initiative and gives the military control without actually censoring stories. In Vietnam, reporters had greater freedom to travel and talk to field officers and troops.

The pool system, already breeding distrust among reporters, may face more criticism once the fighting shifts from air strikes to the ground.

"The real test of how well coverage of this war will go has not been reached because nobody is in position to see that air war," Hoffman said. "Like it or not, reporters [now] have to take official information from briefers. . . . The real test is going to come from the ground operation."

Hoffman believes the military has provided all the information it can without attempting to manipulate the media or public opinion. But he says reporters should be given more latitude.

"Although it might even be suicidal for reporters to head out across the desert, I don't think the command, the administration or [defense] department should say you shouldn't do it," Hoffman said.

The mistrust is two-sided: Administration and military officials criticize the media for speculative and inaccurate reporting.

Everyone agrees, however, that this is the first instantly televised conventional war, with satellite transmission and such anomalies as Cable News Network's live coverage of the first allied raids.

The presence of television, even in pools, puts pressure on the Pentagon, some say.

"I don't think the Pentagon has much of a choice but to release information much more timely than it would otherwise do," says Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, who as a member of Congress has received classified information on the war.

"I think [Bush] has been very forthright with the American people, that it's going to be very costly and take a lot of time," Cardin said.

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