The windbags of war

Television’s gung-ho coverage of the Persian Gulf situation

The television networks have done their best to whip up war fever. It may make good ratings, but it’s lousy journalism.

By David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr

David Zurawik is TV critic for The Baltimore Sun. Christina Stoehr, formerly TV critic at the Detroit Free Press, teaches writing and criticism at Southern Methodist University.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 7 (October 1990), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Here’s the storyline. The windbags-of-war embrace kissing-the-generals-journalism. And almost everything television should have learned from coverage of Vietnam seems lost in the sand.

That might seem like too harsh an assessment of television coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis. But consider the saber-rattling and cheerleading tone and texture of what the networks have been offering since Iraq invaded Kuwait.

“CBS Evening News With Dan Rather,” reveling in its “scoop” interview with Saddam Hussein, takes to using the graphic, “CBS Evening News With the 24th Infantry” against a background of sand and desert sky, when going to commercials. In the week following the interview, CBS can’t show enough of Rather in the sand. Rather’s own vocabulary becomes peppered with military terms, like “in-country.”

Rather’s storyline for a series of interviews the first week of September with members of the 24th Infantry, begins, “Some believe, just believe, that they may be preparing for one of the greatest battles of all time.” Rather follows that by interviewing a young soldier. “You want it to blow or not?” he asks the soldier who looks so young he is having trouble growing a mustache.

“I don’t want to sound like a warmonger,” the young soldier replies. “But I say we’re here, (so) let’s do it. Then maybe we won’t have to be back again.”

The message (from both television’s Ernie Pyle and the kid in the trenches): Let’s do it. Let’s start “one of the greatest battles of all time.”

Sam Donaldson, David Brinkley and George Will are offering what is supposed to be analysis of the Persian Gulf situation on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley,” a Sunday morning show that is generally a model of informed discourse.

“Now we have a real general,” Donaldson says, referring to Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf, the commander-in-chief of the Central Command.

“Stormin’ Norman is a general like we haven’t seen since George C. Scott in ‘Patton.’ . . . He arrived and said we will kick butt . . . I’m sick of those (other) generals with their Ph.D.s from Berkeley.”

The message: Donaldson might have taken off the bush jacket since returning from Saudi Arabia, but he hasn’t put down the sword. He’s still a man of action ready for battle (even if he is starting to have trouble, like Ronald Reagan, separating movie characters from real-life persons).

NBC’s Katherine Couric goes “Top Gun,” puts on an Air Force flight suit and flies in an F-16 with a fighter pilot at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. The highlight is Couric showing viewers her air-sickness bag and informing them that she had to use it twice. This report gets more time than any other Mideast report that day on “Today.”

The message: Couric and NBC are on the team. We here at NBC have got the right stuff.

For all the money spent and anchor talent deployed covering the Gulf crisis, the results have generally not been very good. Too much of the coverage has been of the kind described above, while the less pleasant journalistic jobs of questioning official policy and providing perspective were all but abandoned.

The gung-ho postures and one-dimensional rah-rah coverage were not happenstance. The networks were reading the polls that showed widespread initial support for the military action. The networks had also started receiving record ratings for their coverage of it from Day One. Some broadcasters, though, left themselves open to charges of exploiting the situation with the manner and extent of their pursuit of the story.

Coverage around the dial the first few weeks in August consisted of packaging virtually everything in the inflammatory rhetoric of confrontation and an action-adventure narrative: There’s a madman with horrible weapons heading this way, and we’re drawing a line in the sand; stay tuned. It was potential war packaged as prime-time entertainment right down to the made-for-TV movie titles. CBS called its coverage “Showdown in the Gulf.” On NBC, it was “Crisis in the Gulf.”

Once the anchors arrived in the Mideast, the narrative took on another dimension. Rather — in a bush jacket posed in front of the minarets in Amman, Jordan — gave the story an added flavor of the exotic and unknown with the suggestion of our anchorman braving danger to bring us news from the front in our safe and comfy living rooms.

That suggestion was further reinforced when anchormen and women back in studios in the United States interviewed their colleagues in the Mideast and concluded by saying something along the lines of, “You take care of yourself now” or “be careful over there.”

By the time President Bush called up the reserves, NBC was going all out to push the buttons of blind patriotism — like a Ronald Reagan campaign commercial. There was much talk of “sacrifices on the home front,” with endless pictures of yellow ribbons, weeping spouses and teenage soldiers saying hello to “mom and dad” courtesy of NBC’s cameras.

Typical of NBC’s simple-minded “posturings of patriotism” (to use George Washington’s words) was a Keith Morrison report on Sept. 9 (1990) from Burbank on the mood of the country concerning the Mideast. Morrison dismissed suggestions that Americans don’t know enough about the history and cultures of the Mideast as “the stuff of seminars,” and said “everyone shares” what he called a “patriotic mood” for the U.S. to take action against Hussein.

On one hand, NBC’s coverage was most like coverage provided by local stations where the complicated politics of the Mideast were also reduced to those emotionally-hot pictures of yellow ribbons and tearful spouses, with reporters and anchorpersons looking and saying how concerned they were and how much they shared in the suffering, even if it was only at the gas pump.

On the other hand, NBC was also employing some of the more sophisticated techniques of propaganda. Tom Capra, the son of legendary filmmaker Frank Capra, is the executive producer of “Today.” One Friday, the show closed with a montage of GIs in the sand that was shown over a soundtrack of spouses saying how proud they were of their husbands and wives who were serving in the desert. It was moving stuff– in the same way Ray Charles singing “America, the Beautiful,” with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and all those red, white and blue balloons at the close of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas was moving stuff. The close of the “Today” show was a direct descendant of the great propaganda films the elder Capra made for the government during World War II.

But this was not World War II, and the only war effort the young Capra was serving was the morning rating war.

Part of the overall problem initially was that too much network coverage on the Iraq story had been built upon the personalities of anchormen and star reporters and which countries they did, or did not, receive visas to — instead of journalistic expertise and judgment.

ABC’s best call was keeping Peter Jennings back at the anchor desk in New York. For several weeks, Jennings seemed like the lone voice of reasonable questions about U.S. policy, as the drums of war were being sounded elsewhere.

But why did it take three weeks for television to start reporting the backlash against Arab-Americans — incidents which the reports said had been happening two weeks before? Was it because we were too caught up in the empty-headed rhetoric of belligerence and “madmen,” too busy bashing Arab guests on talk shows or proving our reporters had the right stuff?

If Arab-bashing sounds too harsh, consider Barbara Walters’s performance as host of ABC’s “Nightline” August 17. She ignored the usual courtesy afforded a diplomat and insisted the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. was lying when he said he did not know where all the hostages were. She then proceeded literally to mock the man through the rest of the show at the expense of any hope of rational discourse.

And, if empty-headed rhetoric of belligerence sounds unfair, consider this from CBS’s Allen Pizzey in Amman, Jordan: “Saddam Hussein thinks he’s a knight. But, as someone here has said, someone should tell him that a real knight doesn’t hide behind the skirts of women and the diapers of children.”

It is as if television news has no memory. If there was any lesson learned from coverage of Vietnam, it would seem to be that the best TV journalism is that which refuses to accept official policy blindly, which asks questions even when asking questions is unpopular; which seeks all points of view and reports them, even the most distasteful; which seeks to learn and share that learning with its audience. Being a television journalist is more than putting on a jumpsuit and using the air-sickness bag in an F-16.