A look at how the press and the Pentagon joined forces to present the war

July 26, 1992|By Dan Fesperman

SECOND FRONT: CENSORSHIP AND

PROPAGANDA IN THE GULF WAR.

John R. MacArthur.

Hill and Wang.

260 pages. $20.

Up until the last decade or so, writing a book about press coverage of a war would have been pretty straightforward stuff. Review the newspaper clippings and newsreel footage, talk to the reporters who were there, assess the historic implications and battlefield judgments as they began to sort themselves out, then figure out which reporters got it wrong, which ones got it right and which ones got snookered or silenced.

But today, when the nightly merging of news, public relations hype, entertainment and popular culture are turning big world events into miniseries docudramas, the old approach would be fatal.

Fortunately, John R. MacArthur realized this as he plotted out his new book, "Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War." The result is a brilliant look at the way images are shaped today under the pressures of deadlines and jingoistic war fever.

For sure, Mr. MacArthur -- the publisher of Harper's Magazine -- rounds up all the usual suspects, culling clips and videotapes and interviewing reporters, TV anchormen and Pentagon press officers. His writing about those traditional aspects of wartime journalism, while a trifle shrill and unfair at times given the short span of most of the shooting (how does one adequately cover a huge armored sweep across hundreds of miles of desert that lasts only four days?), is brilliant when it zeros in on the new aspects of war propaganda and coverage.

The first of these chapters is a look at the expensive pre-war propaganda effort of the Kuwaiti government, in which a giant Washington public relations firm stocked with ex-politicians and respected names took millions to peddle a pack of lies, half-truths and revisionist history. Particularly revealing is how the campaign cooked up the most damning tale of the war concerning Iraqi atrocities -- the supposed snatching of Kuwaiti babies from hospital incubators.

But even more intriguing, and disgusting in its way, is his look at how the television networks went to war against each other with their barrages of computer graphics, compelling logos and wartime theme music. It was a production to rival the fictional "War and Remembrance," and equally sanitized.

As for the press coverage once the shooting started, it is no secret by now that most of the American news media were led by the nose by Pentagon handlers for much of their tour of duty in the Gulf. The Pentagon orchestrated this tight control driven -- by its most cherished myth about the media -- that reporters with unlimited access and freedom of movement had somehow "lost" the Vietnam War for the good guys.

American news organizations have unwittingly abetted this wrong thinking by glorifying a handful of correspondents -- the New

York Times' David Halberstam, for one -- as having gotten everything right from the get-go in Vietnam. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Mr. MacArthur nicely points out in one of the book's better chapters. Mr. Halberstam and friends, while accurately documenting many of the early military goofs that helped draw the U.S. deeper into the fight, nonetheless bought into the argument justifying U.S. involvement and the need to rub out the enemy at whatever the cost in firepower and destruction.

That said, Mr. MacArthur then shows how the media did the same thing during the buildup to the Gulf War. Newsweek, for example, turned over its cover and a large chunk of pre-war space one week to President Bush, who penned (through a ghostwriter, of course, although the magazine led its readers to believe otherwise) his argument for why the use of force against Iraq was justified.

The book has its faults. Mr. MacArthur's review of the military pool system that corralled reporters is justifiably critical, both of the military and of the media's mild protests. But he misses an important element: Had the ground war lasted even a week longer, the pool system was doomed to break down, if only because of the small but significant number of journalists who had journeyed into the desert beyond the system's control. Usually they did so by hooking on with Saudi or Egyptian units whose commanders didn't give a hoot about press restrictions, leaving them free to roam and file uncensored accounts.

Except for a mention of the Iraqi capture of CBS correspondent Bob Simon, Mr. MacArthur glosses over the persistent efforts of these

"unilaterals" and their disregard for the pool system.

He also ignores or glosses over significant stories reported during the war that ran against the jingoistic, gee-whiz tide, such as those reported by several major dailies that suggested that the United States had indeed bombed an Iraqi baby milk factory, as Saddam Hussein claimed. The networks simply dismissed the claim as out of hand, apparently only because of the source, and even CNN's Peter Arnett exhibited a palpable scorn.

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