TV newscasts continue to shoot first, retract later WAR IN THE GULF

February 16, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Americans awoke yesterday to television screens full of news that Iraq had agreed to pull out of Kuwait and pictures of celebrations in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia.

Later in the day, President Bush called the Iraqi offer a "cruel hoax" because of the conditions attached.

Some viewers surely came to see those early television reports as similarly painful in the way they raised hopes by reporting sketchy information that was not analyzed or fully understood.

Shoot-from-the-hip reporting has made watching news of the war an emotional and confusing experience.

The first report of the Iraqi offer came at 6:41 yesterday morning on CNN, when Atlanta anchorwoman Molly McCoy said, "This report apparently comes from Iraqi radio. Iraq is ready to co-operate with U.N. Security Council Resolution 660 . . . including withdrawal from Kuwait. We have not personally heard that from Iraqi radio."

At 6:45, both ABC and NBC were on the air, reporting Iraq's withdrawal offer. At 6:52, CBS joined the hunt, with Harry Smith reporting that there "appears to be a cease-fire offer."

Again, it was CNN leading the pack. In this case, however, it may not have been for the better.

By 6:48, the cable network reported Baghdad Radio as saying that "Resolution 660 was accepted" by the Iraqis. At 7:06, Peter Arnett said, "Yes, there is a celebration here. . . . There have been guns firing for the last 10 minutes. This is the Iraqi way of celebrating."

Much of the 7 to 9 a.m. news block and beyond was filled with prime-time anchors taking over the morning shows, reports from correspondents in the Middle East, and more pictures of celebration.

Only later, after translators, Middle East experts and editors had analyzed the full Iraqi statement, was it put in the proper context: There was plenty of fine print and little cause for celebration.

The initial reports were another case of television abandoning the traditional editorial function of analyzing news before it is aired or published. Viewers were given only bits and pieces of the raw data that constitute an authentic news report.

Television newscasters have continually failed to provide thoughtful analysis throughout this war. The four major networks have essentially been airing reporters' notebooks as stories and correcting them later, starting with erroneous reports Jan. 17 that chemical weapons had hit Israel. A month later, the trend continues unabated, with words and pictures yesterday suggesting peace had broken out in the Middle East.

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