The conversation was about the gulf war coverage, and the question was put to me very gently:
"I have a great deal of respect for your profession, but honestly, those reporters ask the stupidest questions. . . . Don't they ever listen?"After weeks of non-stop CNN-watching, and spending days trying to sort out literally hundreds of Persian Gulf and gulf-related stories, I've concluded that the military not only won the battle, but also scored a direct hit with its sanitized news coverage.
Journalists were relegated to pools or confined to hotel rooms in the region. The military learned its lesson well from Vietnam - both on the field and over the airways and in print. The one minor gnat in the ointment was CNN's Peter Arnett, who was in the enemy's capital with news crew and satellite transmitter.
Had Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times taken a camera crew and satellite link to Hanoi in 1971, would the Vietnam coverage been different? I don't think so. Salisbury, like Arnett, was accused of only reporting enemy propaganda.
This time around, the military simply deflected questions arising from the live television coverage and it bottled up reports, videotape and film until much of the material was outdated or "overtaken by events." The military chose to ignore reports of incompetence or allied mistakes until it could put its best face forward.
What was ironic to me was that Americans witnessed how the high-tech stuff worked - the cruise missiles going past Iraqis on the ground, the bomb going into the Iraqi defense ministry building. What we rarely saw was the horror of civilians fleeing the bombs, or a pilot falling from his MiG after being blown apart by a U.S. "top gun." We may as well have had a video game on our TV screens instead of the war.
Only when Palestinian infiltrators tried to breach the Israeli border did television start showing bodies lying out in the fields. Few TV reports were prefaced: "The following scenes depict graphic evidence of war."
Twenty years ago, the television war - Vietnam - was in our living rooms nightly and the disclaimer was used frequently. This "clean" war we just won makes me wonder if Americans have truly forgotten how horrible war is and can be.
We had no chilling reports from London by Edward R. Murrow, no Ernie Pyle at the front sending back copy about the GIs. We had only polished military public relations people putting out day after day their own propaganda while America stayed home and changed channels and railed against "stupid questions."
Locally, the military units wouldn't even let the media report on what country our Utah people were in, even though the troops in the gulf handed out their phone numbers and called us frequently. Talk about ridiculous.
One day I was watching Channel 14's CNN feed when the station broke away from the war to put on the afternoon cartoons - "G.I. Joe." It's almost as if the Pentagon wanted to do the same - show us a lot of flash and firepower and nobody gets killed or hurt.
To my friend who wonders if reporters ever listen to Pentagon answers, I can only respond: "Did YOU listen to what they were telling you? And more importantly, did you hear what they WEREN'T telling you?"