Perils of news management

Jack W.Germond & Jules Witcover

January 24, 1991|By Jack W. Germond& Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Reporters understand that there are valid military reasons for censorship in war situations. But they also understand that there are usually political reasons as well.

And the suspicion that there may be more than military security involved in the way the "guidelines for the news media" are being interpreted is causing tension between the press and the administration.

The White House has an obvious stake in trying to make war reports as positive as possible. Accounts of glowing successes encourage support for the war policy at home and help hold together the international coalition carrying out the assault on Iraq. More to the point, however, the lack of hard information about what is happening in Iraq forestalls any possibility of serious debate of the Bush policy in Congress or the political community.

But the administration's policy is not without hazards. At some point down the road, the White House inevitably will be obliged to deal with any discrepancies between the picture it is presenting and the facts the press finally assembles. If those discrepancies are significant, a backlash against the war policy may be inevitable.

The first problem so far has been an apparent and understandable tendency toward exaggeration. To cite the most obvious example, military briefers first trumpeted an 80 percent "success rate" in the bombing missions in Iraq and Kuwait and reported 12,000 air sorties in a way that suggested all were carrying out attacks on the Iraqis. The preoccupation with scorekeeping inevitably recalled the briefers in Vietnam whose "body counts" totally missed the point of who was winning and who was losing.

In the last few days, the military spokesmen have been obliged to concede that the number of sorties included all the support operations conducted by allied aircraft -- reconnaissance and refueling, for example -- as well as those involving firing bombs and missiles. The "success rate" was redefined to mean cases in which the pilots delivered their weapons as planned but not necessarily with total success in destroying the targets.

These are still impressive figures, but their weight may have been reduced by the necessity for backing and filling.

Similarly, it now appears the early reports tended to exaggerate the inability of the Iraqis to strike back. The allies had established "control" of the air war and the Iraqi missile capability had been largely destroyed, we were told. The allied planes already were directing their attention to attacks on the Iraqi ground troops -- and especially the "elite" Republican Guard -- with an eye to softening them up to make a ground offensive less onerous and perhaps even unnecessary.

But what has been lacking all along has been hard evidence of the effectiveness of the bombing. It may be there, but the supporting data have been in short supply. Meanwhile, the picture of the Iraqis as still menacing has been reinforced by missile attacks on Israel and by revised estimates of how many planes and missiles Saddam Hussein may still have at his disposal. Even if the military had not toned down its claims, the pictures of the captured American pilots being displayed on Iraqi television would have been sobering enough.

The information policy is not directed solely at the debate at home, however. One of the prime concerns is the way the military operations will be viewed in the Middle East and what that can mean after the shooting war ends.

There is, to cite the most obvious example, the question of civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of those 12,000-plus sorties // flown by the aircraft of the United States and its allies in the coalition. Although the press may accept the premise that the targets of the bombing have been military and industrial, it is patent nonsense to imagine that substantial numbers of civilians have not been killed and wounded. Reports from Iraqi refugees alone make it clear there have been more than the handful to which the Iraqi government admits.

The White House stake here is political in its broadest sense -- the fear that a picture will emerge of the United States conducting genocide against Arabs that could evoke a reaction at home now and abroad later. But at some point, we will find out just how many Iraqis have been killed.

The administration's concern with controlling information from the Persian Gulf is predictable and perhaps understandable. But it is not a policy without risk.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.

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