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Between The Lines
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A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
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for release Dec. 23, 2002
U.S. Media's Timid Role in 1991 Gulf War Likely to Repeat in Any New Conflict with Iraq
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Interview with John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, conducted by Scott Harris
Since the White House campaign to make Iraq "public enemy number one" was launched this summer, the nation has been
riveted on the Bush administration's charge that Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction
justifies a U.S. war against his nation. The corporate broadcast media seemingly welcomed the talk of war, creating news
programs, elaborate sets, logos and theme music dedicated to the topic of a future conflict with Iraq.
In reviewing the U.S. media's conduct during the 1991 Persian Gulf War under the first President Bush, John MacArthur,
author of the book, "Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," examined the ways in which the White
House at that time easily manipulated public opinion through the use of blatant propaganda with the eager collaboration
of a compliant press corps. As President Bush's son George W. now plans a new war against Iraq, MacArthur finds that the
same brand of lies and half-truths are being employed to assemble national support for a pre-emptive strike against
Baghdad that most of the world opposes.
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, who discusses his fear that
Pentagon censorship combined with a timid brand of corporate journalism will deprive the American people of the truth in
any future war with Iraq.
John MacArthur: I don't know whether people are aware of the fact that the press in 1991 was rounded up and placed into
what they called "pools" of reporters to allegedly cover the war in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The pools were by
definition a kind of pre-emptive censorship. In other words, once you agreed to participate in the pools and play by the
rules of the Pentagon and the White House, you were essentially guaranteed that you would see nothing and there would be
nothing worth censoring because no one got anywhere near any combat -- nobody saw any corpses, nobody saw anything you
would describe as battle. And this was by design, because the Pentagon, the White House and their public relations
experts had figured out from past conflicts, particularly Vietnam, that ugly pictures of dead soldiers and civilians
upset people back home and might weaken morale. Some went so far as to say that the press lost Vietnam, which is
preposterous. Even the most extreme hawks in W! ashington and the military know that's nonsense. But they'll say it to
get people riled up against the press. In any case, they said, "either you agree to the pool system or you get nothing."
And the media by and large agreed to the pool system and we got nothing. The only really good reporting on the Gulf War,
the actual fighting, occurred 10 years later. Seymour Hersh finally broke a piece, wrote a long, long piece in the New
Yorker, about Gen. Barry McCaffrey's rampage after the cease-fire was declared in which he killed thousands and
thousands, untold thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were really just trying to flee back to Iraq. But we saw none of that
at the time.
The propaganda side of the war, which I detailed (in my book), was very sophisticated. The piece de resistance was the
"baby incubator atrocity" that never happened. The famous testimony by "Nayirah," who no one knew was the daughter of
the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington, saying she'd seen babies pulled from incubators left to die on the cold floor of
Kuwait City hospitals so that the Iraqi army could loot the incubators. None of it ever happened, not one incubator was
looted, not one baby was killed in that manner and it had a tremendous impact on public opinion. And was very effective
in changing the subject from oil and Middle East politics and so on and so forth, to simply human rights, which is not
an issue that the first Bush administration ever showed much interest in, just as the second Bush administration has
very little use for it.
Between The Lines: The media's conduct since the Persian Gulf War and -- maybe we can look at the most recent conflict
in Afghanistan -- the pool reports, the restrictions that the Pentagon placed on journalists. Were they in evidence and
pretty much following the old Bush administration model in 2001?
John MacArthur: Well, actually it's even gotten worse because they didn't even bother to form the pools this time. The
government has gotten so aggressive and (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld particularly, is so aggressive that they
mock the press. They mock the whole idea of open coverage of anything that they don't want covered and as a result, we
didn't even have the pool system invoked. We did have instances where American reporters tried to go into villages in
Afghanistan after they'd been bombed by the United States, and in one well-known case, the Washington Post reporter Doug
Struck was stopped at gunpoint by an American soldier who put an automatic weapon to his chest and he just held him
there and wouldn't let him into the village. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this next war could be the
first war -- if it does occur -- where an American soldier deliberately kills an American reporter, although the
American press has been pretty well trained ! and heeled now so that they don't make much trouble.
Between The Lines: What is your greatest fear about the media's capability of doing justice in covering a future war
with Iraq? What's your biggest concern?
John MacArthur: My concern is that they will do nothing, it's almost a certainty that they will do nothing in this next
war. Whatever images we get of combat will be from Al Jazeera or the BBC, I suppose. But probably from Al Jazeera and
that will be until the American Air Force bombs the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad, the way we bombed it in Kabul. It's
the same thing we did in Belgrade. We bombed the Serbian state television headquarters because they were broadcasting
genuine images of the results of the bombing, which were turning up on American television. More and more, we're going
to have to subcontract our sort of First Amendment rights to know what's going on in a war to foreigners because our
press and our television networks just aren't going to do it anymore. So my concern is more resignation now. Harper's
will try to get somebody into Iraq and we'll try to get somebody to report back the news. But we're a monthly and that's
not going to be immediately and urgently! effective the way a daily newspaper or a television network can be.
"Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" by John MacArthur is published by University of California
Press. Visit Harper's Magazine Web site at http://www.harpers.org. AOL users: Click here!
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning,
nationally syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (www.btlonline.org), for the week ending Dec. 27,
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