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Printed in Bulletin of Peace Proposals vol. 23 No.2 June 1992

The Gulf War: New Challenges for Journalism


1. Introduction

Media coverage of the Gulf conflict, and in particular effective news management by US forces, provoked a rash of criticism. Some was justified. However, many critics made the task too easy for themselves. In the process, real challenges and opportunities facing today’s global media in war and peace situations were missed.

Most puzzling is the inadequate treatment of two interrelated questions: What important news or opinions did not reach the interested public? Did lack of information significantly impair public evaluation of relevant issues?

Beyond these there lies more fundamental new questions concerning the role of modern mass media during international conflict. With their global reach and capacity for instant communication of events, the news media have emerged as important trans-national actors. Simon Serfaty of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute uses the term ‘medialism’ for this ‘novel influence in international politics: an important and powerful international communications network capable of circumventing the control of any national government and supported by its own working ideology’.[i]

For traditional policy-makers, medialism is a challenge against their power. To conduct policy effectively some measure of control over the media is increasingly seen as a necessary requirement. Freedom of the press is based on a national contract that gives both duties and rights. If rights are to be strengthened or defended in a global context, then exhortation to news media on ‘finding out what is actually going on’ will not suffice.[ii] A new framework on rights and duties reflecting the global nature of medialism is an urgent task for the peace and conflict research community, too.

US media corporations, and Anglo-Saxon values on journalism, are dominant in medialism. The present study is thus based largely on research on the US media during the Gulf conflict.

2. A Well-prepared Conflict

Media performance during the actual combat operations should not be analysed in isolation. The Gulf War probably was the most analysed and debated conflict ever before shots were fired. Correspondents in Saudi-Arabia might, as the British journalist Robert Fisk claims, have been influenced by the notion that it was a just war, which gave correspondents in Saudi-Arabia ‘a moral context for our presence’.[iii] That observation can, as Fisk intended, be taken as a description of alleged media bias. But it should also be seen as a challenge to investigate the quality of preceding media coverage and public debate that gave rise to certain assumptions among correspondents.

Likewise, euphoria during the war caused by the apparent effectiveness of high-tech weaponry had been preceded by widespread disparagement of the very same weapon systems. The euphoric reports, partly caused by surprise, might have served as advertising for the US arms industry.[iv] But these reports have since been followed up with new criticism of the actual performance. And surely it is doubtful that governments will spend billions for acquisition of the famed weaponry purely on the basis of some high-tech videos. Aggressive marketing by US arms producers was to be expected anyway, due to major procurement cuts in the US defence budget.

2.1 Distinct Phases

Several distinct phases can be detected in media coverage.

Arguably, news media during the 1980’s paid scant attention to the emerging regional threat from Iraq. But the execution of the British journalist Farzad Bazoft in March 1990 and the attempted smuggling of technology useable in nuclear weapons triggered a major effort. On the other hand, neither public opinion nor political authorities paid much heed to the warnings.

Media critics have stressed the absence of a critical approach to US policy in the first months after the Iraqi invasion in August 1990. In fact, a broad consensus supported an approach based on UN sanctions and a military build up. Quite a significant precondition for criticism in the news media is sources or political leaders willing to voice sceptical opinions. But, it can be argued, journalists on their own in times of apparent unanimity in society should raise the uncomfortable questions. If the news media are to fulfil the role as independent watchdog, a Fourth Estate, such questions are of particular significance when war looms on the horizon. From October 1990 onwards, some efforts of this nature were made.

When on November 8 President Bush announced the dispatch of 200,000 additional troops to create a realistic offensive option, news media and top-level US politicians reacted with surprise. For several months it had been Saddam Hussein against the world; now for a while it seemed to be George Bush against most of his countrymen. The national elite were split, and the news media thus had ample material and legitimacy for a critical approach.

Thus, as reflected in opinion polls and votes in Congress, it was a very reluctant nation which finally went to war. This reluctant mood is at odds with the claim made by some, that the news media entered the war as a willing part of a military propaganda apparatus. 

Others have highlighted the confusing signals on US resolve sent to Saddam Hussein. Barry Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has concluded: “In general, democracy thrives on debate, but once a policy of coercive diplomacy has been well and truly launched, debate can only reduce the odds of success’.[v] The period constitutes a very complicated case for the study of the impact of modern media on both diplomacy and decision-making processes in democracies.

3. New Management

US forces went to war well prepared for news management and afterwards could chalk up some notable successes. Relations to the news media were handled as an integral part of the battle plan. The news media, however, were far less ready. Because correspondents in Saudi Arabia were unable to cover the war on their own terms, many protested vigorously. Often they could not cut through the fogs of war; and the news media then in turn have been accused of being blind to some important truths, thus misleading the audience at home.

Cutting through the fog of what could be called the Battle of the Media is not an easy task. Attempts at analysis are often coloured by disagreement with the resort to armed force and despair because the publics supported the war. The logic sometimes seems to be: Since the war was wrong and protests were few, the news media must be at fault.

Boasts by the military or complaints by the media should in serious analysis not be taken at face value, since both originate from powerful institutions with their own only partly revealed agenda. The media fight under the banner of ‘the people’s right to know’ but media corporations are also struggling for advantages in a very tough market, while the individual correspondent aims for scoops in a no less competitive field. The pool system served to hamper such efforts.

4. The Pool System

The independent ombudsman at The Washington Post watching media performance, Richard Harwood, sounded a powerful warning against the media complaints when he attacked ‘highly publicized efforts to transform petty professional jealousies and minor inconveniencies into great issues of constitutional law’ as ‘absurd’. He called the problems created by the pool system ‘self-inflicted’, because the financially well-endowed communications industry had dispatched far too many people to cover the war. In their self-absorption, he continued, journalists did not appreciate their real achievements: ‘They have provided their countrymen – and the world – with the timeliest and most comprehensive war coverage in our history, sometimes more than we could absorb. Those who long for the “golden days” of the Vietnam War should visit the archives. They would find no historical precedent for the expansive and detailed Desert Storm coverage’.[vi]

Pete Williams, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, in a rebuttal to critics also justified the pool system by pointing to the number of reporters, 1600 on the eve of the ground war. Contrary to Grenada and Panama the pools assured a media presence when combat started. Williams explained:

‘This was not an operation [like World War II – JD] in which reporters could ride around in jeeps going from one part of the front to another, or like Vietnam where reporters could hop a helicopter to specific points of action. American ground units moved quickly – some of them by air. To cover the conflict, reporters had to be part of a unit, able to move with it’.[vii]

The intensity of modern warfare creates unprecedented security problems for observers. It is not evident that the public’s right to know is best assured by letting hundreds of journalists loose on such a battlefield. The nature of modern media also makes reference to Vietnam obsolete.

3.2 Live Coverage

Well in advance, news reports predicted ‘scenes of death and destruction broadcast almost as they happened’.[viii] The war’s immediacy would be magnified by the sharper images carried on videotape, as compared with the grainy film footage that had been the standard in Vietnam. Former television correspondent Marvin Kalb, currently director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard University, said:

‘What we in the business always knew was that one day soon we could have a live war. This could be as close as we’re going to get one. It will be a major factor in the creation of public perception of war and public reaction to casualties (…) Because it has never happened before, no one can predict what the American response is going to be. Because it will be as live as possible, the horror of it will be in your living room as it’s happening, in effect’.[ix]

Live coverage of a war has wide-ranging implications for the political sustainability of war on the home front and operational security. Media guidelines largely reflected such concerns. While news media can have a legitimate complaint on restrictive measures enacted purely for political reasons, it is hard to define the threshold after which legitimate military concerns must take precedence. 

Prohibitions on showing one’s own casualties have clear political implications, but where does respect for privacy in suffering begin? The guidelines in urging restraint referred to a legitimate need for notifying next of kin first: ‘There have been instances in which the next of kin have first learned of the death or wounding of a loved one through the news media (…) The anguish that sudden recognition at home can cause far outweighs the news value of the photograph, film or videotape’.[x]

In his strategy Saddam Hussein was profoundly influenced by a reading of US public opinion as the Achilles heel of US power. To the US Ambassador April Glaspie he stressed US inability to stomach thousands of casualties in a single battle, while his power base – as demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war – easily could survive similar losses. Foreign Affairs Editor of the BBC, John Simpson, basing on his several months of reporting from Baghdad, concluded:

‘Saddam Hussein’s strategy was dependent on having American television in Baghdad who would see – and transmit – the terrible scenes he expected would take place. This was why he anticipated only two air strikes on the city: CNN would show the results to the American people, who would put such pressure on George Bush that the air war would be called off’.[xi] 

3.3 Operational Security

Restrictions largely protected the security of combat operations. However, actual media coverage still gave proponents of censorship good arguments.

In his book, Simpson refers to pictures shown on CNN from the apparently undefended town of Khafji, on Saudi territory just south of the border with Kuwait. Allegedly, Saddam Hussein, having seen the CNN report, then decided it should be the target for a counterattack. 

Ironically, the most potentially damaging security leak was allowed by military censors. A pool account written by a Los Angeles Times reporter on 23 January mentioned that allied engineers were working in the western Saudi town of Rahfa, more than 300 kilometres from where most experts expected the Allied assault. To attentive readers this was a tip-off revealing the actual battle plan, but Iraqi intelligence apparently was not so alert.[xii] A large media corps, left to its own good senses, might easily have provided similar tip-offs in live reports on the massive build-up in the far west. ‘It was very clear that the plan was to go around the Iraqis’, New York Newsday reporter Timothy M. Phelps later said. He found ‘most changes’ in copy made by military authorities ‘valid efforts to protect military security’.[xiii]

3.4 Restraining Influence

Despite sympathy for the Allied effort and the restrictions imposed, news media had a restraining influence on the use of armed force. As a report from Greenpeace states:

‘It is wrong to say that this war was unrestrained. The US military, and by example its allies, were constantly mindful of international public opinion. The fear of losing public support influenced military policy from the beginning. The war was to be short, with allied casualties kept at an absolute minimum. There would be no indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets or cities. A higher percentage of precision guided weapons would be used than ever has been used before in combat (…) Much effort was made to restrict “collateral damage” to non-combatants. In fact, aircraft hit their targets almost twice as often as they did in the Vietnam War’.[xiv]

Early on mass media let the US public identify with troops in the Gulf. In particular, television was effective in live reports connecting relatives at home with loved ones on the potential battlefield. These emotional encounters, for all to see, were perceptively commented on by a US military analyst, retired Colonel Harry Summers: ‘All-volunteer or not, our troops are flesh-and-blood Americans, not (as some politicians and armchair strategists would prefer) faceless automatons, who can be committed to battle without regard for public opinion’.[xv] Iraqi prohibitions on visiting troops prevented a similar portrait of the opponents, but in future conflicts, two-way televised ‘meetings’ involving soldiers from opposing forces could have an interesting impact.

When bombs hit a shelter in the Amiriya district in Baghdad, apparently causing hundreds of civilian deaths, mass media focused on the event, subjecting allied authorities to intense questioning. Targeting plans were changed as a result. The role of news media in this event is best put into perspective, if the massive bombardments of Dresden on the same date in 1945 are recalled. The deaths of 35,000 German civilians were then far less controversial. Mass media today ensure that if journalists and cameras are present the killing of non-combatants can touch hundreds of millions globally. In the history of wars this is not insignificant progress. Likewise, media reports on the apparent massacre of retreating Iraqi troops north of Kuwait City contributed to an early end to hostilities. Follow-up reports on the ground by electronic and print media rival horrifying stories from earlier wars that have strengthened anti-war sentiments in Western civilization.

3.5 The Alleged Myth

Some critics accuse the news media of having created an illusion of high-tech warfare that involved few human casualties. This is not sustained by research, however. The Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC looked at 42 days of armed conflict as depicted on the three main US evening newscasts. The networks brought 594 pictures of the air war, mostly camera shots from Allied planes, or Patriot missile launches over Israel or Saudi Arabia. The number of air combat visuals virtually equalled the number of images of Iraqi civilian damage (590).[xvi] In a poll conducted in March 1991, The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press reached interesting results on audience reaction. One question was: ‘During the war how concerned were you with the number of civilian casualties and other unintended damage caused by allied bombing of  Iraq?’: 29 % answered ‘very concerned’, 33% were ‘fairly concerned’ and only 17% ‘not concerned’.[xvii] A poll covering the early days of air warfare found the most prevalent reactions to viewing the war on TV were feelings of sadness (74%), fear (67%) and sometimes confusion as to what was going on (65%).[xviii]  

Media reports during and shortly after the war probably exaggerated the number of military casualties. Figures on the scale of 100,000 to 160,000 were common. After a post-war visit to Iraq, John Simpson of the BBC got the impression of ‘much lower’ figures, ‘maybe thirty thousand killed’.[xix] In a year-after investigation US News & World Report found military casualties during the air war to have been in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 and during ground combat between 3,000 and 7,000 ‘most likely’.[xx] Inflated estimates of the original troop strength and widespread desertion during the air campaign pushed the perceived casualty figures up.

Public concern as to civilian casualties might have been caused by unjustified distrust of high-tech precision images and footage from Iraq focusing on destruction. Both Simpson and Greenpeace researcher William Arkin, after a post-war visit to Iraq, find the official Iraqi listing of about 3,000 civilians killed credible. ‘The country as a whole did not suffer as seriously as most people in the West assumed’, Simpson writes. ‘There was no “carpet bombing” either in the cities or in the countryside’. After visits to several cities, among them the key military command centre Basra, he concludes: “For the most part damage was limited to a few clear targets in each city (…)’.[xxi] Arkin, in briefings for media and US military personnel, found the strategic bombing of targets in Iraq to be ‘clean on a certain level’, because it caused few immediate casualties. But he also called this observation ‘irrelevant’. The strategic bombing ‘didn’t have any impact on the defeat of the Iraqi army’, which was caused by tactical bombing in the Kuwaiti theatre, he said. And the strategic bombing did damage civilian infrastructure causing 70,000 to 90,000 deaths after the ceasefire, Arkin stressed.[xxii] Pentagon analysts in response blamed these civilian deaths on the Iraqi government allocation of resources after the war.[xxiii]

A US peace activist, Erika Munk, after a visit to the area called attention to quite new challenges in such a high-tech war ‘that is not just a figment of Pentagon propaganda and can’t be countered as if it were’. At home she found anti-war activists unwilling to hear the good news that Baghdad wasn’t razed. ‘What they seem to fear is that a bombing whose toll is long term and still invisible isn’t useful for mobilizing antiwar sentiment. They may be right’. Bombs had severely damaged the infrastructure sustaining civilian life, but a photograph of what was described as untreated sewage water pouring into a river from which people draw drinking water was just a picture of water flowing into a river.[xxiv] Also for news media this is a problem when the true consequences of war are to be depicted.

4. New Challenges

What role can a free press play in conflict resolution? Media coverage of the Gulf War, its prelude and aftermath, has many aspects of both a conflict-restraining and a conflict-promoting nature. It is necessary to stimulate development of new standards for journalism in the emerging international ‘culture of the press’ on security issues. Central to such research and debate is a re-examination of the concept of national security.

There is a general need for media coverage to contribute to confidence and security building. In times when war is imminent, and during war, there will be massive pressure on the mass media to abandon basic ideals of objectivity and in-depth reporting. To defend freedom of the press during such times the news media must effectively articulate the case in a manner that can be understood by the general public.[xxv]

4.1 Openness

At the dawn of the post-war arms build-up the Danish nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr argued, in his open letter to the United Nations (1950), that ‘the promises and dangers involved in the technical advances have now most forcibly stressed the need for decisive steps towards openness as a primary condition for the progress and protection of civilization’. As the Cold War is dying we might finally be within reach of this open world.

The news media can in this context play a significant role as a confidence- and security-building measure, if the ideals of a free press as a ‘government watchdog’ are practised in the security field. One aspect of the Helsinki process (CSCE) actually is that, although common security in the military field and assistance for economic development were earlier tied to more rights for journalists, these aspects have been overshadowed by other issues.

For stable security in Europe a free press is a necessary precondition, but it might not be enough. A change of attitude to national security reporting in the press and among authorities is also needed. Enforcement of new standards for openness could be a task for information media, in cooperation with a responsive public. And such a European model could provide guidance on a global level in countering the challenge of emerging military powers. The prelude to the Gulf War raised the issue of arms and technology transfers without sufficient public control. Especially transfer of dual-capable technology creates a controversial need for control with end-use. Government restrictions have apparently been less than satisfactory. Restrictions enabling the press to check how the recipient uses dual-capable technology should be a legitimate demand, because, as the Gulf war has shown, the public in countries supplying the technology might be asked to contribute money and relatives to straighten out the mess which merchants and irresponsible officials have wrought.

4.2 National Security  

Especially in the Anglo-Saxon press tradition, the news media ideally strive for a status as a watchdog for the public against concentrations of power in society. However, in journalism on military and international issues, protection of national security often subverts this ideal.

This is true to varying degrees depending on country, media, and even individual practitioner. The main common obstacle is the ‘national-security mystique’, as the New York Times editor Tom Wicker phrased it.[xxvi] The demise of the Cold War has created an opportunity for sober reassessment, and new global common challenges are changing even the basic concept. Some have begun to talk about ‘The Borderless World’.[xxvii] How can journalism handle a possibly growing conflict between the components of national security: ‘security of the state’, ‘security of civil society’ and ‘global security’? Will the apparent demise of the nation-state make mass media more attentive to the other two security aspects?

The obstacles facing the media are both external and internal. In some countries freedom of speech is constitutionally not the same as a right to information. Strict laws often excessively guard secrets – according to many former officials, for domestic political reasons. Disinformation and various other kinds of news management are also obstacles.

Karl Manoff, director of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media (New York University), has linked the development of journalism to the history of warfare – in one period serving the state for mobilization purposes, later in the nuclear age serving through promoting mass passivity. This is an interesting idea which many journalists will object to. However, it is possible to identify ‘statist voices’ and ‘civil voices’ in the press coverage of security issues. During the Gulf conflict both voices were heard, but on balance the restraining, ‘civil voice’, might have been stronger.[xxviii]

The ‘statist voice’, limiting the independent watchdog role of the mass media, is still strong, and not just due to external considerations (legal restrictions and sanctions of various forms). Confusion among journalists as to the proper role of the press also inhibits international security reporting. Often, the goal seems to be to function as a transmission belt for official information to the public, making it more digestible.

4.3 Democracy and Security

We are living in an era of expanding participatory democracy, also in national security affairs. During the Vietnam War we saw the US press freeing itself from largely reflecting state interests, and giving vital information to grass-roots movements. This was repeated also in Western Europe during the late 1970’s and 1980’s over nuclear issues. In the Soviet Union the media played a late role in creating public revulsion against the war in Afghanistan. Then, after being freed of some official control, it has often with a vengeance attacked the military-industrial complex, actively destroying the high reverence many Soviet citizens actually had for the armed forces. During the Gulf crisis the press in many countries became involved to an unprecedented degree.

Parliaments and national assemblies also play a larger role in security issues today. This has long been true for the US Congress, but in many other countries the involvement has grown considerably of late. Often the most important source of information for members of parliament is the press.

This expansion of democracy into the security field, historically the preserve of kings and a select elite, is one of the greatest achievements of the past few years, almost a revolution. For national security managers this revolution creates many problems, but also new opportunities. On the one hand, some see a need for protecting secrets – as reflected in attempts in the USA to limit the Freedom of Information Act and a new Official Secrets Act in Great Britain. But greater openness in formerly closed societies is also a confidence-building factor – verification of arms control agreements in Europe is of less significance now that reporters are roaming almost everywhere.

4.4 Ethical Guidelines

Closely related to this re-examination is developing ethical guidelines for news media reflected in the realities of medialism. That news media should ‘serve the public’ is a generally accepted guideline. The media should also avoid causing ‘unnecessary damages’. During war these ideals can conflict with a third ideal – the ‘truth-seeking’ role. As the Gulf War illustrated, the public will condone some limitation on the freedom of the press, because it fears the media can also endanger the lives of sons and daughters.

The doctrine of ‘just warfare’ developed over a course of 1600 years by theologians can provide a guideline for mass media in societies based on a Christian ethic. As heads of state are obliged to meet  the requirements of ‘just war’, the task of news media is to ensure that the public has the necessary information to judge for itself the ‘justness’ of imminent war.

Thus the mass media should, before a war erupts, examine whether the cause is just, whether competent authorities are behind the use of arms, whether the declared intentions are real, whether war really is the last resort, whether the goals can be obtained and whether the principle of proportionality (the good to be achieved should not be exceeded by probable costs) is observed.

During a war the mass media should inform the public on how the warring parties respect the principles guiding ‘just war’. Again proportionality is significant – are the methods used in reasonable accordance with goals? Discrimination is another key principle – is a distinction made between combatants and non-combatants? Since no goal can justify evil deeds (like execution and torture of prisoners), the just war doctrine calls for restraint and the mass media should report on violations. Journalists should also examine whether the parties show good will in seeking an end to hostilities.

These guidelines for ‘just war’ are reflected in international law. By tying their reporting to such principles the mass media can base their activity on a morally higher level than merely a search for scoops and purely national interests.




[i] Simon Serfaty (ed.), The Media and Foreign Policy (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990), p.2

[ii] Rune Ottosen, ’The Media and the Gulf War Reporting: Advertising for the Arms Industry?’, Bulletin of Peace Proposals, vol. 23 (1), 1992, pp.. 61-73.

[iii] The Independent, 6 February 1991

[iv] Ottosen, ibid

[v] Boston Globe, 25. November 1990

[vi] Washington Post, 3 March 1991

[vii] Washington Post, 17 March 1991

[viii] Boston Globe, 2 December 1990

[ix] Boston Globe, 2 December 1990

[x] Operation Desert Shield Ground Rules and Supplementary Guidelines, Revised 14 January 1991. (Washington, DC: Department of Defense.)

[xi] John Simpson, From the House of War (London, Arrow Books, 19991), pp. 281-282

[xii] Los Angeles Times, 2 March 1991.

[xiii] New York Newsday, 26 March 1991

[xiv] William Arkin, Damian Durrant and Mirianne Cherni, On Impact. Greenpeace, May 1991, p.7

[xv] Deadline. A Bulletin from the Center for War, Peace and the News Media. New York, January 1991, p.9.

[xvi] Media Monitor, April 1991

[xvii] The People, the Press and the War in the Gulf: Part II (The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press). 25 March 1991, p. 21

[xviii] The People, the Press and the War in the Gulf. 31 January 1991

[xix] Simpson, From the House of War, p.xv.

[xx] Berlingske Tidende, 2 February 1992

[xxi] Simpson, From the House of War, p. 5

[xxii] Inside the Air Force, 17 January 1992.

[xxiii] Aviation Week and Space Technology, 27 January 1992.

[xxiv] The Nation, 6 May 1991

[xxv] The Media at War: The Press and the Persian Guld Conflict. A Gannet Foundation Report, New York, June 1991.

[xxvi] Tom Wicket, On Press (New York: Viking Press, 1978).

[xxvii] Kenichi Ohmae, The Borderless World (New York: Harper, 1990)

[xxviii] Also note the arguments in John Mueller, The Retreat from Doomsday. The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

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