Pentagon Limits on Coverage Created Gaps in War Knowledge WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Frank Starr | Frank Starr,Chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Washington. The recorded story of the Persian Gulf war, with very few exceptions, exists in only two versions -- the Iraqi government's version and the U.S. government's version.

There was no independent confirmation of either government's story.

If public opinion polls are a guide, this lack of confirmation is a circumstance found acceptable to the American public and to the military, who wrote the rules. It was unacceptable only to the reporters, who like to think they represent the public's interest.

The public position, said Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was that "first, they are drowning in news; second, reporters are engaged in self-serving griping; and third, the military makes very good points about national security."

Under rules devised in a series of late summer meetings between Pentagon officials and newspeople, reporters were prohibited from doing any battlefield reporting except in officially sanctioned and guided groups, called pools, whose reports were subject to censorship, called security review, and transmitted, often days late, to all the news organizations for their general use.

Only a small percentage of the total number of reporters were selected for pools, and the remainder had no choice but to report what they were told at daily military briefings in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

While not denying the military's need for security, many reporters refused to accept such strictures, and some paid a high price. In the very first days of the war, a four-man CBS News crew led by correspondent Bob Simon headed alone toward the Kuwaiti border and disappeared, to be released in Baghdad only after the war was over.

Though the 1,300 reporters swarmed into Saudi Arabia, many unanswered questions remained when the war was over. There has never been even an estimate of Iraqi casualties or the extent and nature of allied bombing of troops.

One of the war's biggest stories was the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including children, in allied bombing of what the U.S. military said was a "command and control facility" and Baghdad called an urban bomb shelter. In the absence of independent reporting, however, there was no way to resolve the conflict or explain the tragedy.

Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, was asked during Senate hearings whether a relatively accurate picture of the war was being conveyed nonetheless. "I'm not sure," he replied. "That's the point. I don't know because the American press is not able to go everywhere."

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