Pentagon triumphs in battle for public opinion Wartime censorship wins wide support in new poll WAR IN THE GULF

March 25, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Although the military and the news media clashed repeatedly during Operation Desert Storm, both are enjoying enhanced reputations in the aftermath of the war, a new poll has found.

It also indicates that the dramatic U.S. victory on the battlefield may have been equaled by the success of the military's public relations campaign.

The nationwide survey by the Times Mirror Co., which publishes The Sun and other newspapers, also indicates that the wildly popular military triumph appears to have increased, at least TC temporarily, the public's support for government censorship.

At the same time, there is less public support for letting the press gather news that it feels is in the national interest, according to the poll.

In the telephone survey of 1,857 adults conducted March 14-18, 60 percent said they had a "very favorable" opinion of the military, more than triple the number in a similar survey last spring. The margin of possible sampling error in the poll was plus or minus 2 percentage points.

A record 62 percent of those surveyed gave Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces in the gulf, a very favorable rating. Close behind was Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with 51 percent.

Those are the highest ratings in more than 150 tests of public figures in Times Mirror polls dating back to 1985. The previous high was 39 percent for President John F. Kennedy in the spring of 1987, nearly a quarter-century after his death.

Also benefiting from the public's new love for the armed forces is Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, whose name is now known, the poll found, to three-quarters of Americans, an unusually high figure. Mr. Cheney, a former Republican congressman sometimes mentioned as a possible 1996 presidential candidate, received ratings of "very favorable" or "mostly favorable" from 68 percent of those polled.

In a test of the effectiveness of the military's efforts to mold public opinion, the poll found that 49 percent of those questioned were very concerned about the amount of civilian casualties and unintended damage caused by allied bombing of Iraq.

But when the same question was put differently -- by substituting the term "collateral damage," the euphemism used by military briefers to refer to civilian damage -- 21 percent said they were very concerned. Two-thirds of those questioned, the poll found, could not define collateral damage.

During the war, the government imposed restrictions on the press's ability to gather and report news from the gulf, generating a bitter dispute between the Bush administration and the news media that continues to simmer.

But the survey found that the war's successful conclusion appears to have validated, in the minds of most Americans, the military's decision to limit the flow of information.

Most of those questioned -- 68 percent -- said the level of military censorship of gulf news was about right. Another 17 percent said they would have preferred more censorship.

When asked generally whether the government should be able to censor news stories it thinks threaten national security, 58 percent said yes, up 18 percent from a similar poll less than two years ago.

Meanwhile, only about one-third of Americans now believe that the news media should be able to report stories "they feel are in the national interest," down sharply from the 52 percent who backed the press in 1989.

The poll revealed sharp differences between two groups on the censorship question, with 70 percent of Republicans siding with the government's right to control the flow of news. By contrast, a majority of blacks, 51 percent, favored the news media.

Overall, more than 8 out of 10 Americans said news coverage of the war was either good or excellent, a considerably higher rating than the press received in late January, shortly after fighting began.

Public approval of wartime news broadcasts out of Iraq also has risen sharply in the postwar period. Controversial CNN reporter Peter Arnett, who remained in Baghdad to broadcast accounts censored by the Iraqi government, is now viewed favorably by 53 percent of those questioned.

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