The war is over, and the networks lost

Television

February 12, 1991|By Michael Hill

What was a few weeks ago the source of intense, groundbreaking television has now, seemingly so quickly, settled into a daily routine.

Coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf interrupting prime-time programming is almost a distant memory. Aside from CNN, it's now one-minute updates between sitcoms.

The status of war coverage on television can in some measure be credited to the complete victory by the Pentagon in its battle to control the flow of information out of the gulf region.

It's not just that the Pentagon won, it's that the networks quickly surrendered. Indeed, thus far the Pentagon strategy has been as effective as, and has met less resistance than, the coalition air campaign over Iraq.

The most important part of the victorious strategy is not the obvious one, to keep military secrets secret, but in essence to determine exactly how the war is covered, the rules of engagement if you will.

And what the Pentagon has managed to do, with its selected access to military personnel, with its careful briefings and with its release of spectacular videos of the so-called "smart" bombs hitting their target with stunning precision is to reduce coverage of the war to the level of coverage of a sports event.

It's all strategy and tactics and sorties and such, with the networks calling upon military experts who respond with high praise for this latest in destructive technology.

The anchors then confidently throw around military terms like a bunch of would-be jocks in the fitness center locker room on Monday afternoon after a big Sunday game.

The experts who provide the networks' analysis of these developments are almost all recently retired military officers. Anyone who rose in the ranks of the armed forces in the last few decades has been totally enveloped in the system that emphasizes expensive high technology.

So, it's about as surprising that they praise the performance of these weapons as it is when the networks' ex-astronauts praise the performance of their former colleagues while providing analysis of space missions.

What's missing is any word from those who might differ, who might point out that we're seeing video of only the successful hits of these bombs, that they also miss fairly frequently.

Indeed, on a CNN talk show a few days ago, former Navy secretary John Lehman, who was full of praise for the laser-guided weapons, noted that they work only about 60 percent of the time, that smoke or clouds could cause them to "go ballistic." But we haven't heard about that other 40 percent of the bombs used in Iraq.

And those who have spent years questioning the efficacy of weapons like the TOW anti-tank missile or the Army's front-line tank and helicopter are now rarely called upon for their opinions.

But even more important, the narrow focus of war coverage has virtually eliminated any political discussion of the war.

The only voices of dissent heard are those of protesters shouting in the streets. And basic questions, such as exactly how much money is involved in holding the coalition together, or what happens if, say, tomorrow Saddam Hussein withdraws from Kuwait and remains in power as a hero to many, are rarely, if ever, talked about, lost in the play-by-play accounting of the tactics and strategy of warfare.

The Pentagon has been aided in its press strategy by the common acceptance of the revisionist portrayal of Vietnam in which the press' reporting of perceived problems is blamed for causing actual problems that led to the defeat.

Certainly the networks are going along in part because they are afraid of being branded as anti-American. If you report that a weapons system doesn't work, you're not "backing our troops." And the war in the gulf is extremely popular; any reporting seen as negative might cause people to change the channel.

But it may well be that in a matter of months, when the war gets tougher, or years, when peace in this tumultuous region proves elusive at best, the American public will ask why no one warned us of what was to come. And the answer will be that the networks surrendered without a fight.

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