Spinning Desert Storm: TV Coverage of a Pentagon Production

Desert Storm: Let the Good Times Roll

Desert Storm: Let the Good Times Roll

L.N. Davout.  Introduction by William Astore.

Back in 1990-1991, my good friend Louis-Nicholas Davout [a pseudonym] and I debated the merits of the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait.  At the time, Davout was a graduate student in Political Science at a major research university, whereas I was a captain in the Air Force teaching at the USAF Academy.  Davout was more critical of the war than I was, and he sent me a paper he had written in the immediate aftermath of coalition bombing raids, which had been advertised as a smashing success for the U.S. military and then-President George H.W. Bush.  I saved his paper because I was intrigued by his probing (and remarkably prescient) critique of media-military relations.  He saw early in 1991, as I didn’t see until much later, how completely the US military was spinning the war in the media.

Today, the US military is masterful at manufacturing consent among the American people for military interventions around the globe (as long as these interventions remain relatively pain-free for most Americans).  That mastery was honed in 1991 during Desert Shield/Storm.

I distinctly recall in 1990 media stories warning Americans about potentially high casualties to US troops, including an alarming story on PTSD on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that I videotaped for my military students.  When the bombing began in earnest in January 1991, the media line quickly changed to “euphoria” about the accuracy and decisiveness of US bombing.  In those pre-Internet days, when Cable TV was still relatively new, the “Big Three” networks of ABC, NBC, and CBS truly drove the media narrative.  This narrative, as my friend notes below, became almost entirely driven by Pentagon factoids and retired military talking heads.  It was boosterism, pure and simple.   

I asked my friend if I could post his old paper (vintage 1991) at this blog, and he graciously accepted.  Here is what my friend, now a professor of political science, wrote back then about how war reporting—thoroughly compromised by military agendas—smoothed the way for more war.  W.J. Astore


Spinning Desert Storm: TV Coverage of a Pentagon Production

L.N. Davout

(Written in 1991)

On January 22, 1991, six days after US forces initiated hostilities against targets in Iraq and Kuwait, the New York Times reported that “Allied officials are scaling back their earlier claims to have achieved air superiority over many areas of Iraq and to have disabled most of Iraq’s Scud missile-launching sites.”  This came as a shock to some, considering the pro-Administration line—that US airpower was laying the groundwork for a total American victory—that was presented as news to the American public by major network TV coverage in the first few crucial days of the air war.

As part of its public relations strategy in the months before the war, the [George H.W.] Bush Administration had been putting out much brave talk about the necessity of a ground campaign and expected American casualties.  The sober pronouncements by high officials of the Bush Administration, including Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were openly aimed as an inoculation for American public opinion, lowering expectations to preempt public backlash against long and bloody involvement.

However, no American public really wanted a costly war to liberate Kuwait.  So it was important for the Administration, in the first days of war, to give an impression of quick and easy victory in order to get the right kind of polling results.

In this regard, the Administration could not have asked for better coverage from ABC, CBS, and NBC in those first days.  The “news” reporting, analysis, and presentation all conspired to give an impression that overwhelming US military strength based on technological superiority would win the war quickly and with little loss of American life.

The news program formats mainly consisted of two kinds of interactions: anchormen speaking via satellite linkup with reporters at the White House, the Pentagon, or on military bases in Saudi Arabia and anchormen speaking with retired US military men in network studios.  As far as news reporting went, there was no reporting of news (with the exception of CNN broadcasts from Baghdad); merely a recycling of Defense Department and Administration briefings and “leaks.”  Those reports affirmed that American and Coalition bombers had enjoyed spectacular successes in targeting only military and industrial targets.

Despite a few feeble disclaimers, no serious questions were raised about the implications of the news networks’ almost total reliance on Defense Department and White House sources for information about the bombing.  This apparently uncritical acceptance of the Administration line resulted in an impression of quick, clean victory.

The meaning of what constituted a “successful” bombing raid was never raised.  Did it mean that the target was hit and destroyed or that the target was merely hit or only that the bombers returned safely to base?  (At a Monday, January 21, [2001] press conference, the press was told that the 80% success rate claimed by the US military referred to the percentage of pilots who returned from their missions and said that they had dropped their bombs as planned.)  Did success mean that no Iraqi civilians were killed or only a few or many?  How could the Pentagon or anyone definitively know?  These kinds of questions importantly bear on what American soldiers can expect to face on the battlefield and what American citizens can expect to confront within their consciences.

When not conveying Defense Department pronouncements, the anchormen turned to the “experts,” retired US military men.  The level of discourse shifted to speculations on weapons performance and hopeful commentary regarding the lack of initial Iraqi response to the American bombing.  This emphasis on the instrumentalities of war and the tactical problems of warfighting served to elide a whole series of pertinent questions about the lack of real news, the credibility of Defense Department pronouncements of success, and the response of publics in various American, European, and Arab cities.

If the networks, producers, editors, reporters, and anchormen had taken their principles of journalistic integrity more seriously, the discourse might not have been so shaped by military men and the initial impression of easy victory would have been replaced by a more sober understanding of the possible costs that war will entail for the US, Iraq, and the Middle East.  The idea that Saddam Hussein will fight the war the way the Pentagon wants him to, immediately pitting his outgunned and technologically inferior air and missile forces against overwhelming American forces in lopsided combat was the hope of the Administration.

CBS, framing its coverage with the motto, “Showdown in the Gulf,” exemplified this process of simplification and sanitation.  The metaphor, “showdown,” is hardly the right word to begin to capture the complexities of this war.  Instead, it conjured up morally uncomplicated and edifying images of Bush and Saddam Hussein, or individual American fighter pilots and Iraqi pilots squaring off in single combat.

Newscasters let puzzlement of Iraq’s political intransigence and initial lack of military response dovetail into inferences about Hussein’s irrationality, playing to Western stereotypes of Arab fanaticism.  NBC’s Tom Brokaw wondered about Hussein’s “capacity for evil,” falling victim to, and becoming a disseminator of, the kind of hypocritical, self-serving stereotypes that are instrumental to inciting an uncertain nation to fight an ill-considered war.

The total absence of dissenting voices in those first crucial newscasts also gave rise to the impression of a war consensus in this country.  Evidently, it was an impression shared by some newscasters themselves.  Reporting Iraq’s initial launch of Scuds into Israel, ABC’s Peter Jennings gravely intoned that this new development had checked the “initial euphoria” of the country.  Jennings hastily qualified the statement but it was clear that the dominant image in his mind was of a nation enthusiastically in support of Bush’s war policy.

In the midst of this coverage, the networks reported polling data results yielding majorities in favor of Bush’s war.  Admittedly, there is a tendency for public opinion to swing behind a president during a crisis.  However, the wholesale recycling of the Defense Department line constituted the best kind of public relations that an administration bent on pursuing a policy of precipitous warmaking could ask for in the first crucial days.

No better indication of the TV network/Administration symbiosis could be found than President Bush’s parroting of Peter Jennings’ comment about the “initial euphoria” of the country.  In a press conference the next day, President Bush seized on Jennings’ metaphor.  By that time, Bush had gotten his “war consensus”—approval ratings in the mid-eighty percentiles.  He could assume the mantle of statesman, calling for an American public to temper its “euphoria,” and allow that the conflict, whose ultimate outcome—victory—was not in doubt, would not be quick and easy.

Defenders of the networks’ inaccurate and slanted coverage of this televised war argue that the pace of events and the nature of broadcasting technology erode editorial control over the multiple and instantaneous flows of information.  Saturation coverage via satellite linkup, they say, shrinks to seconds the time available to evaluate information.

If the network news organizations are serious about maintaining high standards of integrity and professionalism they should reject this excuse, for that is what it is.  They did not have to be prisoners of Administration innuendo and rumor in those first few days.  The networks could have been clearer about their absolute lack of independent information and they could have raised doubts about the credibility of their sources.  And there is something insidious about the idea that once a president initiates a war, then military men are the only source of information about the reliability of weapons performance, the credibility of Defense Department claims of success, and the likely effects of weapons use on the ground.

L.N. Davout is a pseudonym for a professor of political science whose pointed criticism of US politics, culture, and empire make him a certified contrarian.

12 thoughts on “Spinning Desert Storm: TV Coverage of a Pentagon Production

  1. CNN had a reporter on the ground after we attacked Iraq with our “shock and awe” air action. They showed live pictures of bomb and missile strikes in Baghdad and later this reporter (Peter Arnett) toured the city and showed buildings in which civilians had sheltered and were killed by the attack when the building was hit. He continued his job with integrity for several weeks while the Bush gang maintained that the Iraqis were just misleading him about civilian casualties implying that he was naive. If I recall correctly the Bush administration were successful in painting him as a traitor and a fool and it ended his career as a reporter.

    From Wikipedia: Peter Arnett’s reports on civilian damage caused by the bombing were not received well by the coalition war administration, who by their constant use of terms like “smart bombs” and “surgical precision” had tried to project an image that civilian casualties would be at a minimum. White House sources would later state that Arnett was being used as a tool for Iraqi disinformation and CNN received a letter from 34 Members of the United States Congress accusing Arnett of “unpatriotic journalism”.
    Two weeks into the war, Arnett was able to obtain an uncensored interview with Saddam Hussein. The Gulf War became the first war to be seen truly live on TV, and Arnett was in many ways the sole player reporting from the “other side” for a period of five weeks.
    About halfway through the war the CIA approached Mr. Arnett. They believed that the Iraqi military was operating a high-level communication network from the basement of the Al Rashid Hotel, which is where Mr. Arnett and a few others from CNN were staying. The CIA wanted him out so the Air Force could bomb the hotel, but Mr. Arnett refused. He said he had been given a tour of the hotel and denied there was such a facility.

    Obama is following the same playbook today in his attacks on whistle blowers who expose the administration’s malfeasance on many issues and if they are unlucky enough to stay in this country they end up in prison. This did not happen to Peter Arnett. He just was blacklisted.

  2. Bravo, “Mr. Davout”!! Mr. Astore’s intro neglected the role of CNN, however. I clearly remember how their Bernie Shaw was stationed, with camera crew, atop a high-rise hotel in downtown Baghdad when the US “smart bombs” started falling on that city. Bernie let out a nervous chuckle that was almost a cackle. You can bet he was praying those bombs really would steer clear of his location, as doubtless pre-arranged with the Pentagon. As for SCUD missiles, their notorious inaccuracy served as a good symbol for the effectiveness of Saddam’s military. It goes without saying that the situation of journalists having to be “embedded” with US military units has just made the situation more shameful in the intervening years.

    I participated in a 4th of July parade in 1991 in a small Connecticut city “wearing” a barrel around me (marked “Crude Oil 42 GLS.”)–old-time symbol of desperate impoverishment. My authentic Uncle Sam hat sat atop my head. On the front of the barrel I had placed a sign reading: “OK, so I’m broke. But wasn’t it a lovely war?” This referred to the dawning realization that G.H.W. Bush’s little Middle East adventures were running up the national debt at an alarming rate. (I even offered to accept federal tax payments from onlookers, but found no takers.) Surprisingly I encountered no serious hostility from the crowd. Perhaps they had failed to fully grasp my message. Gulf War One was the first war in my lifetime that caused massive numbers of people to fly US flags from their motor vehicles, and of course soon followed the “Support Our Troops” magnetic “ribbons.” It seemed like at least one-third of the vehicles where I live sported these pro-war symbols. And of course the same phenomenon occurred during Gulf War Two. And it will recur every time US bombs and missiles start landing on foreign soil unless there’s a tremendous, long-overdue awakening here that these wars are fought in the interests of the 1% and are uniformly harmful to the 99%.

    US Army, 1967-71

    • b. traven and Greg make good points about CNN. I recall the “real-time” coverage of CNN in 1991 and the controversy surrounding that coverage. Interestingly, I think CNN learned from this. They learned that “unpatriotic” coverage didn’t sell, so in 2003 their coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom was much less critical and much more pro-military. They learned to self-censor, in other words.

      • If Bernie Shaw (who was a CNN anchor, not a “mere” reporter), is the individual “b. traven” was trying to remember, I am very surprised to learn that his disappearance from that network was a result of running afoul of the military establishment. My point about his “cackle” was that I believe he was enjoying being in his privileged position. But there’s a good reason I would have missed any critical CNN reporting on the war: after their initial flag-waving endorsement of this ridiculously one-sided “war” I ceased watching most MSM coverage, being absolutely nauseated by what I was seeing and hearing.

  3. I DO NOT disagree with this article, and succeeding comments, by offering this side note.

    1) The “reporters” assigned in the Gulf area were generally young men with no military service and little knowledge of the Armed Forces. This lends to uninformed and uncritical reporting,

    2) CNN breathlessly reported the locations of each SCUD missile that struck Riyadh, allowing the gunners to adjust their “aim” (SCUDS were notoriously inaccurate and unreliable). They had to be ‘requested’ to desist. This shows a lack of awareness of elementary military principles, another example of ignorant “reporting”.

    3) At one news conference, a reporter actually asked the Air Force spokesman which targets were to be struck next! When an answer was refused (of course), the same young man asked which KIND of targets were to be struck – again unknowingly seeking to provide Baghdad with timely tactical intelligence. When the spokesman rightly demurred, the screen abruptly shifted to an angry Bobbie Batista who snapped, “As usual, the miltary is refusing to provide enough information….” To our opponents, As an aircrew flying in-and-out of the AOR, I was disgusted enough to stop watching CNN for the duration of the conflict.

    The media includes few veterans, who have heard enough smoke blowing to provide wiser coverage.
    This sidenote may inform the discussion above (?).

    • That makes sense, TSgt. No military is going to answer specific tactical questions in a public forum, e.g. where you’re attacking, what kind of targets you’re selecting. Unless that military chooses to answer such questions as a way of deceiving the enemy.

      But the larger question, as you know, is the issue of one-sided coverage and the perception that any question that’s even slightly critical of the military is unpatriotic and un-American. In 2003 at CNN, Christiane Amanpour admitted that the network practiced self-censorship, refusing to challenge the narrative being put forth by Bush/Cheney. See here: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/columnist/mediamix/2003-09-14-media-mix_x.htm

      When reporters simply become stenographers and cheerleaders for the powerful, our democracy is compromised.

  4. Also in 2003, the journalist Ashleigh Banfield was demoted and confined to a desk because of her thoughtful criticism of Iraq war coverage. She described US media coverage as amounting to a highly sanitized 3-week TV show, and had the following to say about the blind spots of this coverage:

    “That said, what didn’t you see? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.”

    For this burst of honesty, Banfield’s promising career was derailed at MSNBC, supposedly a more “liberal” news network. See her entire speech at http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/landonlect/banfieldtext403.html

    • Yes, and Chelsea Manning sits in a cell in the United States Disciplinary Barracks (don’t you love military lingo??) at Ft. Leavenworth for the “crime” of shining light on what happens to civilians on the ground when bloodthirsty helicopter gunship operators will themselves to mistake camera tripods for AK-47s. Just as with My Lai in Viet Nam, this incident was doubtless NOT “an aberration,” but policy.

      • To quote my friend Davout: “Corporate news, no matter how liberal it presents itself, will always pull back when it comes to critiques of American politics or society that threaten its bottom line.”

  5. John.. as I read your comments I thought there was a contradiction between your opening statement and your itemized complaints about the press. But I then realized you were talking about two different things: 1. the reporters who hung around headquarters and 2. An experienced reporter like Peter Arnett, who had seen more wars than most of our troops on the ground in that venture.
    That’s why the military likes “embedding” reporters and what passes for news operations now in our country are happy with that arrangement because they can send “green” reporters who will be happy to do the job of transmitting only the information the military wants them to as Bill Astore points out.
    Thanks for your comments.

  6. Pingback: Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars | The Contrary Perspective

  7. Pingback: America's Phony Middle East Wars | Everyday News Update

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