News from the war

Tom Wicker

May 09, 1991|By Tom Wicker

PALO ALTO, CALIF. — Palo Alto, Calif.

NO NEWS was manufactured" by the Pentagon or the armed services during the Persian Gulf war. "None, period."

There was no real dispute about this statement by Navy Capt. Michael T. Sherman at a California Forum of the First Amendment Congress, meeting this week at Stanford University.

But was "manufactured" news the real question? Carl Nolte, a veteran reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, thought not. In his 10 weeks covering the gulf war, he said, the government succeeded instead in censorship by "access and delay."

Nolte explained that the military ground rules that "really counted" during Operation Desert Storm were those that organized reporters into supervised pools, then provided access to operational areas only to the pools, and later imposed military review on the pool reports.

Under such a system, he made clear, the military did not have to "manufacture" news to control information going to Americans at home.

A retired Army colonel, Darryl Henderson, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a graduate of the National War College, argued against the necessity for such censorship. He said the reason most often given for the strict military control of gulf war information -- operational security, the need to protect military secrets, was "false."

The actual reason, Henderson suggested, was a "Vietnam syndrome" within the military that blamed the press for the erosion of public support for that earlier war.

As a result, he said, the military started years ago to study and train personnel in the techniques of "marketing the military viewpoint," primarily by seeing to it that only "upbeat" reports went out to the public. This planning, and the performance of public information officers trained in marketing techniques, paid off for the military in the gulf war, he said.

Judith Coburn, a reporter who covered wars in Central America and the Middle East as well as the Vietnam war, and who now lectures on mass communications at the University of California at Berkeley, disputed the validity of the military attitude toward the press' responsibility for defeat in Vietnam.

She argued that press coverage of that war had been largely favorable until home front support for it began to wane in the late '60s. Thus, she said, the public did not follow the press into disillusionment with the war; it was the other way around.

Coburn also addressed herself to the question of operational security. She cited the fact that correspondents in Vietnam, including herself, were briefed well in advance of the forthcoming U.S.-supported invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces.

Reporters in Vietnam, she said, did not expose this military secret. Instead, officials in Washington leaked the information there.

Coburn drew a distinction between British and American press performance in the gulf war. British correspondents, she said, "didn't enlist in the war effort" -- as she said too many American reporters did.

She pointed out that Iraqi refugees were questioned by British journalists in Jordan, enabling them to arrive at Iraqi casualty estimates -- more than 100,000 -- long before official estimates were available.

Nolte also was critical of some American reporters in Saudi Arabia. Few tried to stretch "pool rules" and most "took handouts and standard briefings" from the military, he asserted. He reserved his strongest criticism, however, for the American journalists who organized the press pools for the military -- mostly by "favoritism," as Nolte saw it.

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