U.S. military wins information war PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

Television

February 25, 1991|By Michael Hill

When Defense Secretary Richard Cheney announced a news blackout on the ground offensive into Kuwait and Iraq, it was like the final assault on a television press already hammered into submission during more than a month of the air war.

That happened Saturday -- a day of mesmerizing intensity as the noon deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal came and went -- and that night on the networks, there was some gentle probing and prodding, but no one wanted to appear as if he were trying to endanger the troops.

After all, that was the reason Cheney gave for the blackout. But was it really? Why didn't anyone question the need for a no-briefings blackout? Couldn't the military briefers do just what they'd been doing all along -- avoiding saying anything that would endanger the troops while still providing information to a country obviously hungry for it?

Such questions weren't asked because, instead of trying to stand up to this overwhelming force that has won every battle in the field of public opinion, the networks simply adopted the same response apparently used by a lot of Iraqi troops -- they raised a white flag and surrendered.

Indeed, by yesterday morning, it seemed evident that the network news divisions were willing to go along with what you would think would be anathema to them: a no-news-is-good-news policy. NBC pretty much checked out completely. CBS had an expanded "Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt, but it was filled with analysts and speculation, not hard reporting.

Most surprisingly, CNN went along with this approach, only slightly modifying its regular schedule yesterday morning. Viewers who have become used to checking in with CNN and expecting the latest in war coverage could have tuned in the first morning of the ground offensive and found themselves in the middle of a half-hour sports report.

The network that distinguished itself yesterday morning was ABC, as it covered the story the way CNN had, as a breaking news event. And it found, of course, that despite the blackout, there was plenty of news to report.

First, Peter Jennings in the anchor chair, and then David Brinkley when it came time for his normal weekly show, nimbly touched bases with correspondents all around the globe.

So maybe there was nothing coming out of the Pentagon; you could find out the progress of the fighting from the British, and French, and even Saudis. There was plenty of international reaction to report -- and the ramifications in would-be peacemaker Moscow, as well as mood-of-Baghdad chronicles.

And, of course, there was news from U.S. officials, not only at the Pentagon, where ABC's David Zelnick seemed well-wired-in yesterday, but also in Saudi Arabia. Less than a dozen hours into the blackout, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf gave a briefing there.

Though there were no other on-camera briefings, the off-camera backgrounders apparently started up again right away. And, within a few hours, the first pool videos of the fighting, which were supposed to be held up for days, started trickling in.

By yesterday afternoon, CNN was the main beneficiary, as it returned to its format of constant war coverage and found itself the only outlet for these early electronic images of the war, which proved as compelling and immediate as you would expect.

ABC, NBC and CBS had decided that their regular menu of sports coverage was more important than the ground war. Indeed, after ABC and NBC had expanded evening news reports (CBS stuck with its half hour, plus some time in "60 Minutes") it was business -- and TV movies -- as usual for the rest of the night.

It was as if Cheney had, by imposing the blackout, in effect announced that he didn't want this ground offensive covered -- maybe because there was a good chance it was going to be much bloodier than the video-game air war -- and the networks had replied, "Right, Dick, whatever you say."

Of course, when things started going so well, and the flow of information from U.S. military officials picked up, the networks dutifully passed it along.

Indeed, it was clear from the reports that most of the information was coming out of sources at the Pentagon, right under Cheney's nose. Indeed, while NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather are both in Saudi Arabia, closer to the action, they were farther away from the news sources, and it showed in their awkward anchoring.

In some ways, Cheney's blackout announcement was reminiscent of the way some teachers begin the school year as tough disciplinarians and then slowly lighten up.

By first saying that there would be a blackout, which drew no on-air complaints, and then releasing selected information, Cheney had the networks grateful for the dribs and drabs of information and pictures that they were receiving, instead of kicking and screaming about lack of access to combat troops except via carefully monitored pools.

It was just one more brilliant tactical stroke by the Pentagon news managers, who have clearly won their war.

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