The government and news media exchanged fire in a growing fight over the availability and accuracy of information about the course and cost of the Persian Gulf war.
A Cable News Network report, cleared by Iraqi censors, that allied forces had bombed a baby formula plant in Baghdad triggered the latest in a series of skirmishes over the nature of information reaching Americans.After military officials in Saudi Arabia moved swiftly to counter with allegations that the plant was in fact a front for biological weapons, the White House suggested CNN had been used to dispense Iraqi propaganda.
"This is not a case of taking on the media," White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater asserted Wednesday, "it's a case of correcting a public disclosure here that is erroneous, that is false. It hurts our government and it plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein."
Reporters, meanwhile, continued to complain here and in Saudi Arabia that the Pentagon's reluctance to detail the results of allied bombing raids made it impossible to confirm upbeat assessments of the progress of the war.
And in a speech in Florida to military personnel and their families, Vice President Dan Quayle accused the media of paying more attention than deserved to anti-war protests.
Quayle insisted Bush had overwhelming support for his decision to wage war after Saddam Hussein "refused to yield to the force of logic." Now, he said of Saddam, "he will have to yield to the logic of force."
The tiff over the CNN report underscored the challenges confronting both sides - government and the media - in managing and covering the first war to be televised live via satellite into American living rooms.
Fitzwater warned that because of CNN's unique position, "any reports coming out of Iraq are in effect coming from the Iraqi government." Much the same might be said of the information coming from allied capitals.
From Riyadh and Jerusalem to Washington, television has brought Americans instantaneous if often partial and even incorrect snapshots of the war, only after being cleared by military censors.
Just as reporters have been frustrated by the difficulty of covering the war from afar, , government officials worry the real time war, with its absence of combat scenes and few casualities, will make Americans impatient for victory.
The war, Fitzwater said, is "not going to be over in time for the weekend talk shows." He admitted the military was withholding details in part to prevent Saddam from knowing where the allies are devoting their resources.
The military's tight control on information is not likely to change soon. Though government officials have promised to try to deliver it as timely as possible, the onset of war had brought out deep suspicions and distrust.