With the benefit of hindsight, we can safely say that the mobilization of U.S. troops in Vietnam, Grenada, and Panama have taught us a rather sobering lesson: When armed conflict is on the horizon, press skepticism is the first casualty. The Gulf crisis indicates that the press has still not learned its lesson.
What is plain is that many journalists became so carried away by the blare of the bugles in Saudi Arabia that, instead of being the honest, skeptical brokers of information they should be, many fell into that unseemly role of Pentagon cheerleaders.
Perhaps this jingoistic abdication of journalistic responsibility is not surprising, but to those who believe that the press is supposed to serve as an adversarial check-and-balance on the government, it is distressing.
As in Panama and Grenada, journalists and news executives took their cues from government officials, rather than thinking for themselves. Surprisingly, Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams concurred, admitting that, “the reporting has been largely a recitation of what administration people have said.”
Meanwhile, dissent from official policy was all but nonexistent in news coverage. In the opening weeks of the crisis, the media focused on the two major questions: “Will we go to war?” and “Will we win?” Far less attention, however, was paid to two other equally vital concerns: “Should we go to war?” and “Can war be avoided?”
While the press was busy christening Hussein as “the new Hitler,” they were slow in uncovering the fact that just days before the invasion of Kuwait, the White House was lobbying Congress not to apply sanctions against Iraq, and that U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, was telling Hussein that the U.S. had “no position” concerning Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait. Nor was there any coverage of the August 23 secret offer by Iraq to pull out of Kuwait and release all hostages (which Bush rejected).
President Bush told the nation that there was no decision more difficult than sending young Americans into a combat situation. The press should feel an equally grave obligation – to scrutinize such a decision and make clear its human and political costs. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard points out that “in our democracy, the press should be responsible above all to the people, not to the president. A journalist who loves his or her country therefore has a duty to question the dictates of the armed forces and the wisdom of going to war.”
In the final analysis, if we do go to war, and the body bags begin coming home to America, journalists will be among the first to say, “We should have asked the hard questions.”
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: DENISE MUSSETTER
SOURCE: IMAGE MAGAZINE, 925 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103, DATE: 10/14/90
TITLE: “The First Casualty”
AUTHOR: MARK HERTSGAARD
SOURCE: EDITOR & PUBLISHER, 11 West 19th St., New York, NY 10011, DATE: 10/20/90
TITLE: “Storytelling from the Persian Gulf
AUTHOR: DEBRA GERSH
SOURCE: THE QUILL, 53 West Jackson, #731, Chicago, IL 60604, DATE: October 1990
TITLE: “Imperial Thoughts”
AUTHOR: MIKE MOORE
SOURCE: THE SPOTLIGHT, 300 Independence Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003, DATE: 10/8/90
TITLE: “Saddam Was Bush-Wacked On Invasion”
AUTHOR: JOHN McBRIEN
COMMENTS: The issue raised by this story, selected by the judges as the top undercovered subject of 1990, is whether the American public was sufficiently informed about what was happening in the Persian Gulf area prior to the non-declaration of war. Mike Moore, former editor of The Quill, summed it up as follows: “In the weeks following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, there was ample coverage of military and political events in the Middle East and elsewhere. The shipping of men, women, and tanks to the Gulf was news, after all, as were the intense high-level efforts to round up international support. If one listened closely, one also could hear war drums in the press, particularly on the opinion pages.” But, Moore, concluded, there was virtually no investigation of “the extent to which a U.S. president can commit a nation to war (or commit the nation to a chain of events that could lead to war) on his own hook.”