Criticism of media coverage of war finds wide sympathy across country WAR IN THE GULF

February 19, 1991|By Peter Osterlund and Peter Honey | Peter Osterlund and Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- At last, press coverage of the Persian Gulf war has attained the status of parody.

NBC-TV's satirical "Saturday Night Live" recently showed a make-believe Marine colonel briefing a make-believe press conference on the progress of the war -- depicting a scene familiar to regular television war-watchers.

"I'm happy to take any questions that you might have," said the officer, "with the understanding that there are sensitive areas that I'm just not going to get into -- particularly information that might be useful to the enemy."

Then it was the reporters' turn: "Sir, what date are we going to start the ground attack?" shouted one. "Where would you say our forces are most vulnerable to attack, and how could the Iraqis best exploit those weaknesses?" asked another.

The press's deliberately insensitive clamor drew hoots of laughter from the studio audience. But in the context of America-at-war, there was a sense of derision, too.

As some critics see it, the real media's relentless pursuit of news threatens to compromise U.S. military secrets, undermine the morale of its troops and boost Iraq's hopes that its adversaries in the multinational coalition will lose stomach for their fight.

Recent polls suggest broad public sympathy with that point of view.

A Times-Mirror survey taken last month showed that 78 percent of the population believed the Pentagon was not trying to conceal embarrassments from the public's scrutiny, but was sharing as much with reporters as it responsibly could. Moreover, 57 percent said they thought defense officials should increase their censorship of press reports, although 72 percent called press coverage objective.

Still, suspicions about press intentions linger. Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., stirred a hornet's nest recently when he complained that journalists reporting on the Persian Gulf from within Iraq's borders were not only hurting the allied cause but could even be considered enemy sympathizers.

His observations, shared with an Associated Press reporter last week, followed a complaint he had made earlier to a lunchroom-full of reporters that CNN's Peter Arnett, who has been filing daily censored reports from Iraq, should be regarded as an Iraqi sympathizer. Mr. Simpson also cast doubts on the integrity of Mr. Arnett's reporting for the Associated Press out of Vietnam in the 1960s, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

In a telephone interview later with The Sun, the senator repeated his opinions, saying he did not believe any reporter would be allowed to remain in "an enemy country . . . unless there was some sympathy or a willingness to be used."

Mr. Arnett's coverage -- and CNN's dominant coverage within Iraq, where it was the only Western news organization allowed to report during the early stages of the war -- has attracted brickbats from other critics as well.

A group of conservative organizations last week circulated a petition asking CNN to withdraw Mr. Arnett, an effort that came on the heels of a letter to CNN signed by 39 House members calling on it to cut back on censored coverage from Baghdad.

"I see the same hospital scene, the same doctors, the same injured children night after night after night," said Representative Lawrence Coughlin, R-Penn., the letter's author. "That's not news."

Like Senator Simpson, Mr. Coughlin said television should carry prominent disclaimers and qualifying messages with every censored report from Iraq.

In his regular column in the New York Times, the newspaper's former editor, A. M. Rosenthal, took CNN to task recently for overplaying Iraq's accounts of civilian-only casualties.

"Constant repetition of old, official and insufficient information is a definition of propaganda, not news," Mr. Rosenthal wrote. He urged the network: "Tell the reader always that Mr. Arnett is not just being 'monitored' but prohibited from seeing or reporting the military damage needed to put the civilian story into any wartime perspective."

Other critics were more blunt.

"Peter Arnett is doing nothing but serving the propaganda purposes of Saddam Hussein," said Reed Irvine, founder of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group. "I do a lot of talk shows, and the public is very incensed at the media. They are really teed off."

Indeed, Mr. Arnett and his employer, CNN, appear to have become a lightning rod for what many observers believe is a deeper public antipathy toward the press.

"Simpson is just popping off; he's been popping off for years," said Stephen Hess, a media analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But to most people, on this one, the press does seem to be on the wrong side."

Mr. Hess believes that incessant and repeated news accounts of the difficulties reporters encounter while trying to cover the Persian Gulf conflict -- the censorship by the Pentagon, for example -- fall on deaf, or at least unsympathetic, ears.

"Listen to yourselves. You sound like a bunch of petulant children -- like you guys weren't raised very well," he said.

At least one pundit believes, however, that the public's attitude toward the press could change if the war drags on and U.S. casualties mount.

"There's no support for ripping open tents and throwing a spotlight on U.S. troop columns -- just yet," said political commentator Kevin Phillips. "But if things start to go badly and the Pentagon tries to cover up, it'll be a new ball game."

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