Media Coverage of the Persian Gulf War

The Persian Gulf War was the first major conflict involving the United States since Vietnam, and though its duration was brief its legacy continues to effect American war reporting to this day. Media coverage of the Gulf War has been criticized as an extended arm of the Bush Administration, plagued with censorship and unwarranted patriotism. At the time, the Gulf War seemed to be a catharsis for the American military and public, with its ostensibly effortless victory lifting the United States out of an embarrassed, post-Vietnam malaise. But historical analysis shows the corruption and duplicity of the government’s media campaign in support of the war, and the dismissal of the actual human and fiscal costs of the conflict.

Saddam Hussein ordered an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and his forces quickly seized control of the small nation. Almost immediately the Bush Administration launched “a hundred and sixty-six day campaign of coercive diplomacy” (Atkinson 1995) to gain international support. Soon over five hundred thousand Allied troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia. Bush then gave Saddam an ultimatum: withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991. When this deadline was ignored a massive air campaign was launched against Iraq, devastating their military. By the time the ground war began on February 23rd, the Iraqis were nearly defeated, and Bush called for a ceasefire on February 27, 1991. The war officially ended on March 3rd with an apparently resounding victory for the United States and the United Nations coalition.

Early on the Bush Administration influenced the media in both subtle and barefaced ways. According to Phillip Knightley, the government invited comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, encouraging the creation and spread of atrocity stories such as the infamous Kuwaiti baby-killing story. In an interesting chain of events, the government supplied the propaganda to the news media, influencing the media to support the war and depict it in a positive light, which in turn inspired U.S. Congressmen and the American public to support the war, providing more ammunition for the bomb-happy Pentagon. The Kuwaiti government also recognized the influence of the American media and aligned itself with a prominent public relations firm, hiring a young girl to testify before Congress to the validity of the baby story and sending out press kits to American reporters.

In order to investigate Knightley’s claims in his text The First Casualty I have examined issues of the popular magazines Time and Newsweek from January through March of 1991 to gain an understanding of the trajectory of the war coverage as well as specifically focus on the Ground War from February 23rd to February 27th. Newsworthy topics in these magazines were mainly scientific coverage of new military technology, the evils of Saddam Hussein and his regime, human interest pieces on soldiers who lost their lives and their families, and a self-conscious look at the way media outlets were covering the war as it happened. Articles about new technology stress the sterility of the war: “A cost-free victory. A push-button, remote-control war won without casualties. Surgical strikes that wipe out military targets while sparing civilians” (Thomas 1991). The articles describe the different types of technologies, including stealth planes, ATACMS, cruise missiles, and virtual reality helmets. These articles include graphics depicting exactly how these weapons are supposed to work, but don’t discuss the instances in which the best laid plans went awry and innocent people lost their lives. John Schwartz and Douglas Waller write that “Now the Tomahawk seems to be giving new meaning to the term guided missile, with an accuracy that the CNN-addicted public has found breathtaking. Of the first 52 Tomahawks fired, the military reported 51 hit home. By the end of the war’s third week, some 300 of the $1.3 million Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired at Iraq” (Newsweek 1991). It is evident that the press was cooperating with rather than questioning the word of the Bush Administration.

Examples of human interest pieces can be found in Time magazine, showcasing Lule’s myth of the victim and focusing on the surviving family members. “The last time Tom Jenkins saw his son alive was after drinking several cups of coffee with him at the breakfast table three weeks before he left for Saudi Arabia. Two days before the funeral, Tom paid a solitary visit to the funeral home in nearby Sonora. He propped Thom’s wooden-framed portrait in front of the gunmetal-fray steel casket, then stood quietly to one side, his eyes misting up. It was the first time he’d been alone with his son since Thom returned from the Persian Gulf” (Riley, 1991). Rather than offering larger statistics on total lives lost, both Time and Newsweek choose to highlight only specific casualty stories.

Interesting newsworthy topics in both media outlets was the discussion of media’s role in the war, especially Saddam’s use of media for propaganda. “For centuries, wartime propaganda was executed over weeks and months. Now it’s more like minutes. Civilians dead in an American air raid in Baghdad? Iraqi authorities summon Western TV crews to spread the bloody message; American authorities summon spin doctors to staunch the message” (Alter 1991). The tone of this article suggests that only democratic governments have the right to use media to sway public opinion; in fact, Saddam’s actions are natural in a contemporary environment of media saturation. Time took a similar standpoint: “âÂ?¦last week Saddam Hussein discovered the power of images. Photographers were allowed access to the tragedy that resulted when the allies bombed a building in Baghdad where hundreds had taken refuge. Those pictures- and the ones on these pages from elsewhere in Baghdad and from Basra- put the human impact of the war into focus. But they cannot tell the whole story. They do no show Saddam’s destruction of Kuwait, where no photographers can go. And they do not show the large areas of BaghdadâÂ?¦ that have remained untouched throughout the carefully targeted air campaign” (Elmer-Dewitt 1991). Apparently, the American Press was incapable of hearing any horror stories about the destruction waged upon innocent Iraqis. Depictions of their suffering was considered pro-Saddam propaganda. This attitude effectively negates the civilian Iraqi lives lost by ignoring their equality to American lives. While the American press did examine themselves and their role in the war, they seemed blinded by national imperatives and did not allow for unbiased reporting whatsoever.

Images accompanying articles from Time and Newsweek during this period provide evidence for Knightley’s claims. The coverage is tightly focused on Allied military forces and the majority of editorials and columns support and encourage the war. My first impression of these two magazines was a simple observation of their cover stories and images. Not one image drew me in on a human level. The faces of Saddam Hussein and American generals and soldiers didn’t betray the alleged horrors occurring overseas. And while Saddam is obviously vilified and the American men (and men only, not women) glorified, I am left with a sense that the editors simply didn’t have much else to put on the cover. The January 7, 1991 edition of Newsweek showcases a lurid, color-altered image of Saddam’s face, proclaiming him “More Than Just a Madman”. The next week’s issue doesn’t proclaim the war as its main topic; instead, a cartoon family going over a waterfall illustrates the “Riding Out the Recession” headline, and only at the top of the cover is there a reference to “The Gulf Crisis: Last Chance for Diplomacy”. On January 28, 1991 the Newsweek Special Issue excitedly proclaims “America AT WAR” with red, white and blue text and a photo of an air force pilot giving the thumbs up. The week after is a similar photograph of a lone Marine aiming his rifle above the headline “HEAT OF BATTLE: The Showdown in the Sand”. During this entire period, the March 4, 1991 edition is the only cover to show more than one person, with a U.S. MP securing an Iraqi POW. The Time January 14, 1991 edition corresponds to its Newsweek counterpart, with a cover article on breast cancer and only a mention of the war. But on January 21st and 28th both copies of Time proclaim themselves as “Gulf Special[s]”, with a close-up of Saddam’s eyes on one cover and a nighttime explosion over Baghdad on another. Next week’s issue was lauded by a heroic image of General Schwarzkopf in camouflage with the headline “Stalking Saddam”. On February 11th the first daytime ground images of tanks were shown on the Time cover, entitled “Saddam’s Weird War.” And apparently Time didn’t realize, or at least failed to mention that the war had an impact of America and a human cost until February 18th, when a photograph of Lance Cpl. Thomas Jenkins, a twenty-one year old killed in action was accompanied by the headline “THE WAR COMES HOME”.

The January 28, 1991 cover of Time mentioned above displays an image of Baghdad being bombed which essentially shows only explosions and machines, no people. Most of the imagery published during the war stressed the idea that this was a new era of war, an age of technology in which human casualties were rare and inconsequential. In fact, pieces which dared to use photos of dead Iraqis were attacked as anti-American. The magazine cover also exemplifies the flashy “Star Wars” campaign that distracted Americans from the true cost of the war. Knightley does not mention this, but it is extremely strange that during a time when image technology was at its most advanced, there were fewer images from the frontlines than ever before.

News bias in these two magazines is slanted towards the American side, with a hyper-positive attitude present in almost all articles. Saddam’s errors and miscalculations are stressed again and again, while praise of the United States’ foresight and power is frequent. “So disastrous a mistake was Saddam’s invasion, in fact, that even his admirers in Jordan and among the Palestinians find it impossible to justify. “We have pinned our hopes on the man and the regime,” says a 64-year-old resident of Nablus in the Israel occupied territories, “and we are sorry he has made mistakes. Someone should have said to him, ‘You are a leader. You should wait and prepare rather than indulge prematurely in such an adventure’.” Even some of his detractors believe he must have been tricked” (Dickey 1991). There are however some instances of factual reporting on the Iraqi side. “Saddam Hussein may have figured it right if he was calculating that he could win on the Arab street even while losing in the skies and the sands of the gulf. Each day that the allies throw their best punches at him and leave him standing, Saddam’s prestige among ordinary Arabs grows” (Beyer 1991).

As discussed above, casualties from the ground war are not discussed in detail and rather portrayed in terms of their civilian lives and through the words of their surviving friends and family members. In an eight page Time article, mentions of Iraqi casualties are brief, such as a caption above a photo of a dead soldier reading “A fallen foe: allied officials said 67 Iraqis were killed or wounded and 500 were captured” (Church 1991). Coverage of American deaths are also limited: “Eleven Marines were killed in the fighting around Umm Hujul, the first known American battle dead of the war” (Church 1991). Overall these articles downplay death in order to keep the emphasis on the Star Wars campaign which had claimed to herald an end to innocent death.

Knightley presents evidence of the extreme censorship practiced both on and off the battlefield which clearly inhibited the freedom of the press to report accurately and intelligently. Initially President Bush banned war correspondents from Saudi Arabia, and when they were allowed access they were forced to travel in pools to specific locations determined solely by the military. Reporters who wanted to ask tough questions were sent unspoken threats that doing so would cost them their visas, and reporters whose ideas were aligned with those of the governments were granted free travel and escorts to assist them in any way necessary. Ultimately Knightley impresses upon his reader the intentional dishonesty of the Allied governments and the disappointments of their media. When the press should have done their research, found experts and questioned the statements of officials, they swallowed their words instead and spit them back up to a public hungry to believe that this new kind of war was free from violence and ethical consequences. The press reinforced government reports with misleading imagery which ingeniously served to not only reinforce the beliefs of those who already supported the war, but to turn environmentalists and pacifists against the Middle East as well. The poor performance of the press gave the United States government a victory not only in the Persian Gulf, but in the homes of American citizens as well. The government learned that, during war time, no lie would go punished, and no breach of civil liberties was without justification.

Studies of articles appearing in Newsweek during this time also support Knightley, leading me to agree with his interpretation of media during the Persian Gulf War. The media’s patriotism is almost jingoistic, and their lack of images of humans and bodies creates a sterile effect. Of all of their photos, there were only seventeen total images of dead or wounded Iraqis. Considering the fact that at least 100,000 Iraqis died during this time, Newsweek has done its public a grave injustice. Knightley’s argument is extremely valid, and vital in determining what can be done about media coverage during war time. A comparison of Persian Gulf War coverage to the coverage of Iraq today shows many similarities in reporting techniques. Casualties are most often discussed in terms of facts and figures, except for a handful of human interest pieces. Censorship continues to hinder journalists from reporting equally on both sides of the war. Technology is still emphasized, although today’s public does not naively believe that these new military developments will stop the loss of human life. Media also continues to be highly aware of its presence, role, and impact on international conflicts.

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