A Happily-Ever-After Story, Courtesy of PNN

RICHARD REEVES

July 06, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- You had to go to the real estate pages of the Los Angeles Times to find out some of what was really going on during the great American crusade in Arabia last year. Although the Times' coverage of the Gulf War was probably the best in the country, it was still dominated by our most expensive news operation, PNN -- the Pentagon News Network.

Once a week, appropriately in this big-dollar market, the Times publishes a column called ''Hot Property,'' titillating the masses with how many millions of dollars Goldie Hawn paid for her new digs -- that kind of thing.

A few months after the end of the war, ''Hot Property'' reported that a local anchorwoman named Colleen something-or-other had just bought a new home for a couple of mill with her new husband, Major so-and-so.

It was love at first sight, the column reported. The major was the anchorwoman's escort officer in the Gulf -- ''minder'' is the term of art -- and it turned out that she and many other local anchors had been flown to Saudi Arabia at government expense to report breathlessly back to L.A. on satellite uplinks provided and controlled by the military.

Harry Hotcombs and their sidekicks from around the country were being flown in as the Pentagon and the Saudi Arabian government were telling certain kinds of reporters, willing to pay their own way, that they could not get visas to Saudi Arabia because the place was just too crowded with news people. The certain reporters were those with combat experience, either as correspondents or soldiers, and they were being effectively vetoed by the Pentagon or the Saudis.

Choosing your own reporters is well within the new American military-press arrangement in our mini-wars around the globe -- an arrangement that included threatening to arrest or kill American reporters who tried to get to Grenada, and locking up the entire press pool in Panama for 48 hours. I do not blame the military for this -- to begin with, the pool was the press's own idea. And the press is a pain, though a necessary one in a truly free society.

I blame the leaders of the press -- publishers, editors and executives -- for refusing to boycott the new non-coverage policies. If we can't cover a war, we should not pretend we are. I would just print word for word whatever dispatches the government hands out, identifying them as what they are, handouts. If the White House and the military choose to lie, and they did, then put their names on the stuff, not mine.

I also blame the big press guys in New York and Washington for going right back to the Pentagon on their knees to beg to be used and abused the next time the White House declares war. What's going on now is a joke or an outrage, depending on your mood. The American people are being lied to, the press is being hijacked -- and everyone involved pretends nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

Almost everyone. I, for one, am delighted that John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, has written a book on the irresponsibility and incompetence of the press: ''Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.'' The opening scene is the pilgrimage of network television executives to the home of the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Prince Bandar, to beg for visas to cover the Americans ready to die for his monarchy and their friends across the border in Kuwait.

It's a very angry book, as it should be. Mr. MacArthur gathers his evidence that there was a deliberate and systematic attempt to guide the press into covering the war as an adjunct of the military.

A successful attempt, as it turned out. The symbol of the war to me will always be the big-time television anchormen -- no Colleens in that bunch -- talking of action and death and bravery in front of hi-tech-looking blue domes, as if Patriot missiles might zoom skyward at any second. Those domes were the roofs of the cabanas at the pool of the Hilton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Now, a year and a half later, we know some of the lies the press was being fed, waiting in line for scraps. The White House, it turned out, had effectively helped Iraq prepare for its invasion of Kuwait. The size of the Iraqi army, billed by the U.S. military as one of the great military machines of all time, was a fraction of what we were being told. American tanks with bulldozer fronts were burying Iraqi soldiers in the sand before they had a chance to run or surrender. Even the Patriot missiles were not actually working very well. What other lies? We'll never know them all.

The short story of ''Second Front'' is that the military succeeded and the press failed miserably. In general, Mr. MacArthur found that editors and such blamed everyone and everything else for that failure, or they simply refused to talk to him. It is beyond me why so many people are willing to talk to papers like the Washington Post under duress when its publisher, Donald Graham, refuses to be interviewed about subjects of obvious public concern.

Perhaps I should say limited public concern. Only 12,000 copies of Mr. MacArthur's book have been printed. The odds are that it will come and go in two weeks. Probably it will be forgotten by the next time the U.S. government takes the American press hostage.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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