Printer Friendly

The Media and the Gulf War: The Press and Democracy in Wartime.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the news media -- a pillar of the American democratic system -- were constrained by government censorship and exclusionary tactics. These events created exceptional tensions between the two institutions and generated a heated discourse on the role of the media in wartime. In The Media and the Gulf War, Hedrick Smith sets out to explore "...the continuing tensions between the clashing demands of discipline and freedom, secrecy and honesty, cohesion and dissent, the military and the press, the First Amendment and national security," as exemplified in the Gulf War. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times presents the critical aspects of this conflict through articles written by many of the war's participants, from government policy makers, military spokesmen, media critics and journalists.

Smith has tried to assemble a balanced collection of voices to discuss these issues. His objectivity and use of writings by those who were on the frontlines are refreshing; many of the earlier articles and books on the media and the Gulf War were written by pundits who tend to advance particular ideologies or political positions, usually from the detached comfort of an ivory tower. Smith's attempt at objectivity, however, draws him into a trap common to journalists: The book only touches on the surface of these issues, whetting the reader's appetite without delving more deeply into analysis.

The book consists of 63 articles -- most of which were previously published in establishment publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and various military or media reviews, as well as transcripts from speeches made in Congress and at the National Press Club. Most of the authors are American, including such household names such as Pete Williams, Walter Cronkite, Peter Arnett and Dick Cheney. It is interesting to note that one of the few articles by a non-American, noted British journalist Robert Fisk, was also the only article to be. included from an alternative publication, Mother Jones.

Smith divides the book into two rather disparate sections, the first of which looks at the reactions to and the effects of the Pentagon's press policy. The second section takes a critical look at the performance of the media. The first half, which attempts to address the general dynamics of the press-government relationship in wartime, requires deeper analysis than Smith can provide in this format. The second is more compelling in that it looks at the performance of the press during this particular war, a narrower topic that thus can be analyzed more succinctly.

The first section lays out the dynamics of government policy and press reaction, as embodied by a memo from Pentagon official Pete Williams, and the subsequent protest by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. This central debate reverberates throughout the text. Smith then explores various aspects of the Pentagon's policy, including the government's rationale and the pros and cons of the policy. Interestingly, this section offers as much information about media coverage and government policy during the Vietnam War as during the Gulf War and demonstrates the enduring legacy of Vietnam on both the military and press corps. In Vietnam, the media had virtually unlimited freedom of movement and experienced no formal censorship. Many of today's top journalists had their first taste of war in Vietnam, while many top military figures, such as joint Chiefs of Staff Commander Colin Powell, rose through the ranks of an institution scarred by the Vietnam debacle. Many view the negative media coverage of the Vietnam War as contributing to the failure of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, and this attitude was important in the military's formation of a media policy during the Gulf War.

Smith's survey of the relationship between the media and the government demonstrates an evolution from one in which the military felt undermined by the media in Vietnam to one where the media felt subverted by the military during the Gulf War. As Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, U.S. Army (retired), wrote for the New York Times: It is a clash between "one of the great virtues and elements of a democracy" and an institution that "is the antithesis of democracy -- and must be so in order to be effective."

Although Smith's expansion on the precedents to and effects of U.S. policy generally illustrates this basic conflict, the section points to a major shortcoming of the book: Smith cannot properly address the dynamics of the relationship between the media and the government through a point-counter-point presentation of views. The actual hostilities were too brief to measure accurately the effects of the media policy and provided little empirical evidence for or against the pool system. Hence the essays present largely theoretical arguments, and the book's repeated condemnations of and justifications for the pool policy are repetitive and become tiresome. An analysis of this debate requires a more unified and broader format than this book's piecemeal style.

Smith's presentation of the performance of the media in the Gulf War, however, strikes a different tone. The section's succinct and biting analyses of the media's performance are a welcome breath of fresh air. These articles generally take an unfavorable view of the media's performance: Journalist Michael Massing argues that the coverage might have been the same even without government restrictions, due to a lack of independent thinking among the journalists. Scholar Ebqal Ahmed condemns the media for not being more observant of trends in the region that presaged the war. One underlying message emerges from this chapter: While the government restrictions were reprehensible, the news media were in fact their own worst enemy and should not blame the Pentagon for their shortcomings in coverage.

The subsequent articles turn to the concept of media neutrality and the actions of Peter Arnett, the CNN correspondent who broadcast from Baghdad during the war. These chapters highlight the impact of CNN and raise thought-provoking arguments concerning reporter impartiality. The inclusion of Arnett's real-life experience lends substance to the exchange in this section of the book.

The final chapter explores whether the U.S. government policies toward the media that were instituted during the war are here to stay. This section also touches on the legal rights and obligations of the media in wartime and offers some context to the arguments of the first section. Smith includes excerpts from a law suit filed against the Pentagon by members of the media during the war. The plaintiffs argued that limitations in access to a battlefield violate journalists' First Amendment rights. While Judge Leonard B. Sand's opinions are included, he made no final ruling because the war ended too quickly. Furthermore, his published conclusion is ambiguous: "[Al final determination of the important constitutional issues at stake should be left for another day when the controversy is more sharply focused." This is how the book leaves the reader -- it provides a clear idea of the issues, but lacks an analytical framework and offers few thoughts as to the future. As Sand suggests, perhaps only another war will resolve these questions.

The book also has a few glaring weaknesses in formatting. Smith does a great disservice to the reader by identifying the contributor only at the beginning of each article, forcing the reader to look to an index for more information about the author. The original venue and publication of each article are available only in the sources and permissions appendix. Furthermore, by organizing the book according to topics, Smith creates large temporal jumps between pieces, further confusing the reader. Footnotes with the relevant information would have helped to alleviate these problems.

Smith's structure also fosters repetition, making the book tiresome at times. For example, the author includes two similar transcribed speeches by Pete Williams, one before a Senate Committee and the other to the National Press Club. While this may illustrate the degree to which Williams cannibalizes his speeches, the repetition does little to further the reader's knowledge of the media and government policy. Many articles also referred to a media censor's change of a reporter's description of pilots from "giddy" to "proud." Repeated references to this lone instance of censorship make the media and their defenders look petty in comparison to the broader implications of the war and the news media's coverage of it.

This compilation of essays -- albeit unwieldy -- serves as a resource of thoughts and opinions about the coverage of the Gulf War and the media's relationship with the military. While The Media and the Gulf War is not a probing analysis, it thankfully does not purport to be so: Hedrick Smith provides the reader with a broad but shallow understanding of the media and the Gulf War. In sum, this book provides the student of wartime-press relations with a solid -- though introductory -- step to tackling the far-reaching issues it raises.

Rod Benson is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Annika Thunborg is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Lund, Sweden. Steven Johnson, Mark Dennis and Ken Brown are May 1993 graduates of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. (SIPA). Sudarsan AL Raghavan is a May 1993 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and presently a student at SIPA, and Jay Chaudhuri and Greg Dalton are currently students at SIPA.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Columbia University School of International Public Affairs
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dennis, Mark
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:1541
Previous Article:Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat.
Next Article:The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters