After nearly two weeks of continuous live-action coverage on television and vast attention in the press, the startling fact about Operation Desert Storm is that the American public knows surprisingly little about what is taking place in the Persian Gulf.
Because of the restrictions placed on the news media by the Pentagon, rarely have so many labored so hard to convey so little.The restrictions are presented as necessary to protect the national interest, and few would argue in favor of media reports that place the troops in jeopardy. But the restrictions jeopardize national security in an equally critical fashion by preventing full reportage of the war from reaching the public and the policy community.
Ironically, the very restrictions ostensibly imposed to prevent distortion now contribute to creating it.
News, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any other information, journalists in the gulf have often reported little more than they have been told by governments. The result is an amplification of official statements that cannot be independently verified and rudimentary explanations for a war that is one of this country's most fateful undertakings.
Despite their valiant effort to do so, the media cannot serve the country well under such conditions.
The news vacuum has had yet another unexpected result. The media themselves have become the story. Viewers watch the high drama of journalists donning gas masks and hurrying to bomb shelters and CNN reporters ducking under desks.
Although the news-gathering process has been revealed, journalism itself has been short-circuited, and viewers have been treated to raw, unprocessed rumor as a result.
NBC and ABC reports of chemical weapons attacks on Israel, and CBS reports of Israeli retaliation, point up the worrisome consequences of such a process.
The credibility of the media - and the government - can only suffer.
Yet in the absence of efforts by the American military to confirm or deny such rumors, television cannot really be blamed for presenting the news in this fashion. For their part the print media have been able to avoid the fog of war by virtue of their slower production process, but because of the Pentagon restrictions they have not so much gotten the story right as avoided getting what they have of it wrong.
Media restrictions have further served to shift the debate questions - such as what the position of the United States in the Arab world will be when the troops have come home - toward wide-eyed wonderment at America's technological prowess.
As Deborah Amos of National Public Radio has remarked, "What we are seeing is too much of the war, and what we are not seeing is the context of the war."
The pieces of the puzzle do not yet fit; the public has been left to ponder a disjointed story knit together imperfectly by celebratory adjectives.
Yet for each successful "smart bomb" video publicized by the Pentagon, how many others reveal weapons that failed to hit their targets? What is the significance of a successful strike rate of 80 percent?
Although the Iraqi Republican Guard may not have been "decimated" as CNN's Wolf Blitzer reported early on, what actually has happened to it? And given the just-war traditions of the American polity, what has been the human toll of the attack on Iraq?
These questions will be of central importance to the outcome of the war. The networks have filled the hard-news gap with experts, maps and props. But these have only served to create the simulacrum of information where only speculation exists.