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Persian Gulf changed war reporting, journalists say

By Christy Mumford Jerding


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James Webb, left, and Morley Safer before panel discussion for War Stories exhibit opening last night at the Newseum.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The news media don't report wars anymore, they chronicle them without analysis, a longtime journalist and war correspondent says.

Morley Safer, the "60 Minutes" correspondent who covered Vietnam and other conflicts, said that live, 24-hour news coverage of the Persian Gulf War by CNN sounded the death knell for incisive, independent war reporting.

"If you want to blame someone, blame CNN, with its live coverage of the (military) briefings," Safer said. "By the second or third briefing, I'm sure the Pentagon realized what a coup this was. They could have total control of the news, as they have in the briefing. (Gen. Norman) Schwarzkopf could select (to describe) the aerial attacks and the weapons that worked and only those.

"Most importantly, he was talking past the reporters and past the editors right to the public. That's not journalism that CNN was doing; it's something else."

Safer spoke yesterday at a panel discussion on War Stories, the Newseum's new exhibit on how the news media have covered war from the mid-19th century to today. The exhibit includes artifacts, historic newspaper front pages, photographs, newsreel footage, radio and TV broadcasts and firsthand accounts of war correspondents.

Safer said that the military was savvier than the journalists during the Persian Gulf War, and that military leaders manipulated the news media to produce the story they wished.

"[The military] realized they [didn't] have to deal with screwball reporters, with an antagonistic, leftist bunch of nosy [journalists]," he said. "You lock them in a room and you talk to the people" back home watching the live briefing on television.

Associated Press correspondent Edith Lederer, who covered Vietnam and the Gulf War, also said the military's handling of journalists in the Gulf was extremely restrictive. "Gen. Schwarzkopf put a news blackout on the ground war. ... This got broken in some ways, but basically the U.S. government policy was no reporting of the ground war."

In contrast, Lederer and Safer said they enjoyed nearly total freedom in Vietnam.

The military was "extraordinarily open with extraordinary access," Safer said. "The only rules were not naming casualties until next of kin was notified, obviously. And no reporting on the moving of the units until they had been engaged. Beyond that it was remarkably open."

Lederer said she was even allowed to join the crew of an aircraft carrier — although she and other women ended up spending the night in the brig along with an armed guard "to keep us away from thousands of sailors who obviously were not used to seeing women!"

James Webb, a former secretary of the Navy who is now a writer, said the circumstances of each conflict change the way the military handles the media.

"In the Gulf War you had another set of circumstances that were pretty unusual. [Saudi Arabia] had a lot of extremely rigorous governmental controls even on its own people. The combat operations were clearly on the other side of [the Iraqi border]. It's not as easy" to take reporters to those unsecured areas, he said.

"In Vietnam units were all over the place," Webb said. "If you were reporting for the 'Dallas Shopping Center News,' you could get certified and you could wander around. You [cannot] take these two [wars] and compare them equally."

U.S. journalists have it pretty good, Webb said. "The United States is the most open of the major nations with media."

But Safer said, "The clamps have gone down, the iron doors are down and the stake is through the heart of any kind of open access in warfare."

Webb — who admitted that even he has had some problems dealing with the military since jumping the fence to journalism — said a key issue is credibility. "There is a core group of very talented and responsible people who cover the Pentagon and who cover the military," he said.

But during wartime, the flock of journalists — many of whom don't have the most basic knowledge of military matters — exasperates military leaders and government representatives. They become reluctant to provide information because they fear it will be represented inaccurately, he said.

The military also bears some responsibility for the tension because it has become "disconnected in many ways" from the public. The fact that the armed services are now voluntary also has an effect, Webb said. "If you don't have someone at risk in a place like Bosnia, you're not going to want to see it on TV at night. It's going to be a passing issue."

Both institutions have a vested interest in working out any problems they may have, Webb said. "The military needs the media to articulate itself to the country — particularly since there is such a small percentage of the country now who have served."

Perhaps it will be different next time, Lederer said. "At the end of the Gulf War, every reporter who had been there for a significant period of time was asked to write a critique of the whole pool system. We all took this exercise very seriously. There was a commission set up to study all those criticisms," she said.

The War Stories exhibit will run through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01

America's Team: Media and the Military
A report on the relationship between the media and the military.  05.24.01