The Illusion of Journalistic Neutrality
in Coverage of the Persian Gulf War
by Robert Jensen
[This is an edited version of the article that appeared in the Journal
of Communication Inquiry, 16:1 (Winter 1992): 20-32. All modifications
were made for stylistic purposes (i.e., to approximate the APA citation
of the public discussion about the mass media's role in the Persian Gulf
War focused on conflicts the press had with the military and politicians.
Should the Pentagon have controlled so closely the ability of reporters
to work in the field? Should Cable News Network have continued to broadcast
from Baghdad once the war was under way? Did reporters unnecessarily badger
Pentagon briefers at news conferences? Despite these criticisms, the public
gave the media generally good marks; more than 80 percent of respondents
in one poll rated news coverage of the war as good or excellent ("Public
gives media," 1991, p. 7).
But from a different perspective, opponents of the war saw the media as
engaging in "blatant Gulf War cheerleading and marginalizing of the peace
and justice movement" (Z Magazine, 1991, p. 2). Which view is the
most accurate assessment of the press' performance? Did the mainstream
media, struggling with a restrictive Pentagon system, do a good job of
providing objective coverage? Or did it help "manufacture consent" in support
of the war?1
This paper looks at the news media's role in the construction of the meaning
of some of the language surrounding the Persian Gulf War and uses the war
coverage to examine the limits of that canon of journalistic objectivity.
By looking at objectivity in war coverage, we can see more clearly how
the concept can't help but fail to live up to its promises.
The analysis begins with a discussion of Stuart Hall's concept of the politics
of signification and an application of it to the vocabulary used during
the Persian Gulf War based on an interpretive analysis of newspaper coverage.
A short review of the literature on objectivity and news-making conventions
follows, concentrating on Hallin's analysis of coverage of the Vietnam
War. From there I will examine the intersection of my personal opposition
to the war and my professional duties as an editor on the copy desk of
a metro daily during the war.2
LANGUAGE DURING WARTIME:
Scholars from many different disciplines have pointed out the fallacy of
viewing language as a transparent description of reality. This paper relies
on Stuart Hall's description of the politics of signification to ground
a discussion of the language constructed by the U.S. administration and
military that was used to describe the Persian Gulf War.
It is widely accepted that "reality [can] no longer be viewed as simply
a given set of facts: it [is] the result of a particular way of constructing
reality," as Hall (1982) puts it (p. 64). Hall examines how ideology and
power are part of that construction, how signification becomes a site of
political struggle. As he points out, however, the ideological orientation
that results may not be readily observable:
claim that the media become part of a system that creates and maintains
the hegemony of a ruling class or classes does not rest on showing direct
control of the media by those classes, and the media's claim to independence
need not be seen as wholly fictitious. As Hall (1982) sees it, the media
"must be sensitive to, and can only survive legitimately by operating within,
the general boundaries or framework of 'what everyone agrees' to: the consensus"
(p. 87). And the media become part of dialectical process of the production
of consent, shaping the consensus while reflecting it. The boundaries and
framework become part of the common sense of the society and usually go
Particular discursive formulations would, then, be ideological
not because of the manifest bias or distortions of their surface contents,
but because they were generated out of, or were transformations based on,
a limited ideological matrix or set. (Hall, 1982, p. 72)
Hall's analysis helps us understand the rhetoric of the United States'
latest war and the political implications of that rhetoric. That will be
illustrated with several examples from newspaper accounts of the war. This
interpretive analysis is based on a daily reading of the New York Times,3
the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, and the St. Paul Pioneer
Press, supplemented with less regular examinations of other papers
and major news magazines. The Times uses its own correspondents
almost exclusively. The Minneapolis paper supplemented wire service copy
with stories from its Washington bureau and from one of its own reporters
in the Gulf. The Pioneer Press relied on wire copy, including the
Knight-Ridder News Service. The intent is not to claim these papers are
strictly representative of the press or that my conclusions apply to all
media, but these papers are not atypical examples of the mainstream press
and can be used to reach insights about the coverage.
The aim of this paper is to look at the routine use of language and the
common frames used to describe the war. In general, newspapers avoided
some of the more blatant cheerleading and flag-waving that showed up on
television,4 confining most of their open support to the editorial
and op/ed pages. But, as Hall's analysis would suggest, newspapers' "straight"
news stories also are part of the production of consensus on the war.
The news media and American public were not unaware of the way in which
military language can construct reality a certain way. It didn't take long
for the term "collateral damage," a military euphemism for civilian deaths
and destruction of non-military targets, to become a common joke. But critical
analysis of the Pentagon's vocabulary in the mainstream press rarely extended
beyond that. Also, both the media and public were aware of the power of
the video of the alleged pinpoint accuracy of high-tech bombs; much was
said about the way in which the Pentagon had turned the war into a video
game. But there were countless other ways in with the military was much
more sophisticated, and successful, in framing the debate.
A few quick examples taken from two lead headlines in the Pioneer Press:
"Allies storm forward" (February 25, 1991). "Storm" was a popular verb
as well as part of a proper noun in this war. The news media rarely, if
ever, questioned the use of the dashing, romantic label of "Operation Desert
Storm" or its predecessor, "Desert Shield," and often played off the phrase.
Most commonly, the media wrote about Iraqi "aggression" against Kuwait,
while the United States swept through the war like a desert storm. These
labels are not only arbitrary, but have powerful connotations of good and
evil.5 The U.S. military action just as easily could have been
labeled aggression, and in fact was seen that way by many Middle Eastern
people as well as anti-war activists in the United States and around the
"Kuwait City freed" (February 27, 1991). This mirrors the media's description
of the U.S. military's campaign to "liberate Kuwait." Such terminology
implies that Kuwait was once free and then became subjugated. Although
news reports did bring up the absence of democracy in pre-invasion Kuwait,
the terms "liberation" and "freedom" were consistently used to describe
the ouster of the Iraqi army. From another view, again as seen by many
Middle Eastern people, the U.S. war simply replaced one occupying army
(Iraq's) with another (the Americans, in service of a corrupt family dictatorship).
Kuwait was "liberated," it could be argued, to be returned to a state of
There were times when this control of the construction of meaning became
almost absurd. For example, much attention was focused on the high-tech
weaponry the United States used against Iraq and of the importance of those
weapons in limiting U.S. casualties. The administration explained its heavy
bombing of Iraq as a tactic designed in part to save American lives. This
idea that high-tech weapons could save lives was also trumpeted by the
weapons industry, as seen in an ad that proclaimed "Stealth saves lives"
(Northrop advertisement, 1991). That same idea was the focus of a news
magazine cover story headlined, "The New Science of War. High-Tech Hardware:
How Many Lives Can It Save?" (Newsweek, 1991). In this case, "lives"
had been successfully defined by the government that uses, and the corporations
that make, these weapons as "American lives." The fact that the lives of
tens of thousands of Iraqis were not saved by these weapons is conveniently
ignored by these definitions.
The critical importance of controlling definitions can be seen in two other
examples: the use of the terms "atrocities" and "chemical weapons." One
of the oldest tricks in the wartime propaganda handbook is describing the
tactics of the other side as "atrocities." But when is the infliction of
pain or death an atrocity and when is it justified or, at least, forgivable?
In the Persian Gulf War, that depended on who was doing the inflicting.
The United States did its best to frame the actions of Iraqis in Kuwait
as atrocities, and I have no doubt that the label is fair for some of the
Iraqi acts against Kuwaitis.6
But, consider the following reports of events in Kuwait: "[doctors saw
people who were] burned with cigarettes, hit with typewriters and chairs
and had their fingernails pulled out ... a 22-year-old whose face was made
unrecognizable by coagulated blood. The victim said he had been beaten
for eight hours..." ("Kuwaitis beating Palestinians," 1991, p. A7). Also:
"Doctors ... treated scores of men who had been severely beaten, slashed
and in several instances shot ... execution style" (Lorch, 1991, p. A7).
Those accounts describe actions by Kuwaitis against Palestinians who had
been accused of being Iraqi collaborators or sympathizers. Not once in
the coverage examined for this paper were those instances of Kuwaiti brutality
described as atrocities. One New York Times story ran under the
tag line of "New Casualties," as if these killings were not distinguishable
from battle casualties. Another Times story explained the Kuwaitis'
actions as a "ground swell of anger and a desire for revenge" (Hedges,
1991, p. A11). If not admirable, that passage implies, the Kuwaitis behavior
was at least understandable. Time also used the term "revenge" carried
out by Kuwaitis who had remained in Kuwait during the occupation while
"Iraq pillaged and raped their land" (Kramer, 1991, p. 28). As Kuwaiti
retribution continued, major media did follow the story, including fairly
critical coverage of the kangaroo court trials for suspected collaborators.
But in all the coverage examined, the label "atrocities" was never applied
to any Kuwaiti action.
In constructing a picture of an evil enemy and good-hearted allies, such
subtleties in the use of language are important. The term "atrocity" takes
the killing to a new level, one in which strong retaliation is morally
justified. The wholesale destruction of a country, for example, would become
more acceptable if that country's soldiers were guilty of committing atrocities.
And this discussion of "atrocities," of course, leaves out the question
of whether the U.S. bombing of Iraq might not be considered an atrocity
The question of defining the term "chemical weapon" could have had far
reaching consequences, not only for building support for the war but for
amplifying the killing. Throughout the war, the U.S. government stressed
the threat of Iraqi chemical weapons, mainly gas, and made it clear that
the use of that gas would be justification for stronger action. For example,
after the Iraqi surrender, U.S. officials warned that if Hussein used chemical
weapons to suppress the rebellion within his own country, the United States
would resume its attack. "[W]e are right there in the country and I don't
think morally we could let [Hussein] do it and not do anything about it,"
one official was quoted as saying (Tyler, 1991, p. A1). Also, because President
Bush refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the war, it is relevant
to speculate about whether the administration would have responded to introduction
of chemical weapons by Iraq with tactical nuclear weapons. If that was
possible, then the definition of chemical weapon was, literally, a matter
of life and death for the Middle East, if not for the whole planet.
The emphasis on the danger of Iraqi chemical weapons was crucial to that
construction. Most Americans seem to have a hazy understanding that gas
was used in World War I and that it was bad. Playing on that conception
of chemical weapons, the government continually stressed the threat of
Hussein's chemical warheads, and Israelis were understandably concerned
about a chemical attack. But at least two key questions have to be asked
about the administration's framing of the issue.
First is the question of what is a chemical weapon. Is a fuel-air bomb
a chemical weapon? These bombs spray a mist of highly flammable fuel over
the target area. The mist is then ignited, which produces a huge blast
whose shock waves can level buildings and a firestorm that consumes all
available oxygen, even sucking the air out of people's lungs.7
Or, consider napalm, a mixture of jellied petroleum, thickening agents,
and chemicals that was used extensively in Vietnam. Napalm sticks and burns,
and also can remove so much oxygen from the air that it suffocates people
in the area. The United States military acknowledged using both fuel-air
bombs and napalm in Iraq, although contending that napalm was being used
only against structures and fortifications, not against Iraqi troops. Each
of these weapons uses chemicals to destroy enemy defenses and kill troops.
Yet neither was defined as a chemical weapon, by the military or the news
media. A New York Times writer did observe that, "some opponents
of its use have argued that napalm should be classified as a chemical weapon
and banned" (Browne, 1991, p. A1). This was one sentence in one brief story
that ran on the bottom of an inside page. In Time, the point was made even
more clearly. In a take-out box about weapons, the "chemical weapons" heading
included a discussion of Iraqi and U.S. weapons, emphasizing the fact that
the United States had no chemical or biological weapons in place in the
Middle East. A separate heading followed for "napalm," suggesting that
it was a separate category from chemical weapons, deserving different consideration
(Beyer, 1991). The United States downplayed its use of these arguably "chemical"
weapons, concentrating instead of the high-tech wizardry of "smart bombs"
and laser-guided bombs. The media, as a rule, didn't question the military
on this point.
The second key question concerns the rationale for the importance of the
chemical/non-chemical dichotomy, which allowed the military to frame Iraq's
chemical weapons as a new level of threat that would require a new level
of U.S. response. That framing took attention away from some of the horribly
destructive non-chemical weapons that the United States used in the war,
such as cluster bombs, which are canisters that open and spread hundreds
of smaller projectiles over an area as large as a football field, literally
shredding anyone in the area. The media did not seem interested in asking
why a cluster bomb is more humane than nerve gas. Why would the use of
nerve gas by a country that had been leveled by "conventional" weapons
and ripped apart by cluster bombs be an escalation of the level of violence?
This is not to suggest, of course, that the use of chemical weapons in
the war would not have been cause for great concern. But the administration
and the military controlled the definitions and the framing, manipulating
the discourse for their own purposes, and that the news media rarely, if
ever, challenged those basic definitions or frames. This was made painfully
obvious by a story after the cease-fire that discussed the atrocities committed
by Iraqi troops trying to quell the revolt against Hussein. Those "atrocities"
included the use of napalm and chemical weapons, although it was unclear
what type of chemical weapons were at issue (Kifner, 1991). It appears
that U.S. use of napalm is not an atrocity, but Iraqi use of it is.
A recitation of examples of the administration's control over the language
of the Gulf War could go on indefinitely. At this point, the paper will
turn to the canons of journalism that gave the administration that control.
OBJECTIVITY DURING WARTIME:
Much has been written about the conventions of news-gathering and the attendant
professional ideology of objectivity. Those works include: Tuchman's (1978)
work on the news net and the web of facticity; Fishman's (1980) exploration
of the relationship of bureaucratic structures and the news; Gans' (1979)
examination of values and the news; and Gitlin's (1980) discussion of the
persistent patterns in news frames.
This paper will concentrate on Hallin's (1986) study of news coverage of
the Vietnam War, which is especially relevant to the project at hand. In
fact, if one were to replace geographical references to "Southeast Asia"
with "the Middle East" and ideological references to "the Cold War" with
"protection of America's interests in oil and support for the new world
order," many of Hallin's observations are as applicable to the Persian
Gulf War as they are to Vietnam. A case in point:
describes the professional ideology of the journalist as a type of false
consciousness that allows those holding political power to shape the news.
That power, Hallin (1986) says, "is exercised indirectly, through the manipulation
of symbols and routines of working life that those subject to it accept
as their own" (p. 24). The conventions that grow out of that ideology,
as identified by Hallin, are: (1) reliance on official sources and deference
to their authority; (2) a focus on the president, with the assumption that
his newsworthiness overrides any other story; (3) an absence of interpretation
or analysis in straight journalism, supplemented by "analysis" pieces that
have little more to offer and are usually based simply on better access
to better sources; and (4) a focus on immediate and discrete events (1986,
pp. 71-75). From the coverage of the Persian Gulf War, it appears little
has changed in 20 years.
[T]hose reporters also went to Southeast Asia schooled
in a set of journalistic practices which, among other things, ensured that
the news would reflect, if not always the views of those at the very top
of the American political hierarchy, at least the perspectives of American
officialdom generally.... [And] the reporters also went to Vietnam deeply
committed to the "national security" consensus that had dominated American
politics since the onset of the Cold War, and acted as "responsible" advocates
of that consensus. (Hallin, 1986, pp. 8-9)
Hallin also argues that the prevailing ideology that dictated the course
of the Vietnam War can be seen in the assumptions about the value of war,
which he says were formed primarily in World War II, and the language used
to describe the war. Those assumptions include: (1) war is a national endeavor
that requires unity; (2) war is a grand American tradition; (3) war is
manly; (4) winning is what counts; and (5) war is rational (1986, p. 142).
Again, those assumptions seem to accurately describe the atmosphere in
which the United States prosecuted the war against Iraq.
Hallin argues that contrary to the mythology about Vietnam, the press did
not lead the nation away from support of the war, either by negative coverage
or presentation of the violent reality of war. Instead, the press simply
covered opposition to the war when it could no longer ignore the deep divisions
in society. In the short Persian Gulf War, such large-scale opposition
with representatives from powerful institutions never formed, as politicians
ran to jump on the pro-war bandwagon and the anti-war movement struggled
against an overwhelmingly pro-war citizenry.
I now want to turn to my own experiences as a copy editor to add an account
that illustrates the problem of the canon of objectivity. My argument goes
like this: Stories came in from the field that were written in accordance
with the rules of objectivity; those stories were rife with pro-war bias,
both subtle and overt; from a decidedly non-objective position, I edited
those stories to remove the pro-war bias and make an oppositional reading
more possible; the result was stories that, it could be argued, were more
"objective" than the original version. So, by actively drawing on my anti-war
bias, I was able to better meet the standards of the canon I rejected.
In summary: Objectivity's objectivity is illusionary. Objectivity is easily
manipulated. Objectivity left unexamined does more to obfuscate than to
First, since I am using a personal narrative in a scholarly pursuit, I
should set out my position on the war. I believe that the reasons given
by President Bush for our involvement in the Gulf "crisis" were at best
obfuscations, and probably out-and-out lies. I believe that the "new world
order" is an embarrassing rhetorical device intended to mask old-fashioned
Western imperialism in the Third World. I believe that the United States
created the climate for a war, pushed for a war, avoided alternative solutions
to war, and then prosecuted a war with a brutality that surpasses anything
that Iraqi troops did in Kuwait. I believe Hussein is a repressive and
ruthless dictator, but I believe he was in some sense set up by the United
States. I reject the assertion that opposition to the war means that one
supports Hussein. I also reject the implication that opponents of the war
do not care about the Americans sent to the Gulf to fight, and I refuse
to play the "support the troops" game. With the war over, I mourn the tens
of thousands of Iraqi dead just as much as the tens of Americans who died.
Those are the political convictions I took into the St. Paul Pioneer
Press newsroom on the night of Feb. 25, 1991, from which the following
examples are drawn. I made no attempt to hide them from my co-workers or
supervisors, and no one (to the best of my knowledge) scrutinized my editing
with any special care, probably for two reasons. First, because of the
extra copy being processed, no one had time to police a possibly deviant
editor. Second, the unstated assumption was that I would not let those
opinions affect my work. Indeed, in years gone by, I would have contended
that I had kept those opinions out of my editing. But in this war, I openly
took sides, at least partly because the copy I saw coming in over the wire
seemed so slanted to the administration line.
My job on the desk that night was as a "rim" editor, which meant I edited
stories, made any trims in length necessary, and wrote headlines and cutlines.
The stories I read had been selected by a wire editor and positioned in
the paper by a news editor. From my computer terminal, the stories went
to the slot editor, who reviewed my work, made any additional changes deemed
necessary, and sent them to the production department.
While I tried to change the slant of these stories, I am painfully aware
of what a minor effect my editing had. My tinkering at the editing stage
accomplished little, since the stories were constructed within the administration's
framing of the story and within the limits imposed by that administration
on independent reporting. But I worked hard at my task, partly to make
whatever little contribution I could, and partly to keep myself from exploding
in anger. What follows are some of the changes I made that night and my
reconstruction of the thinking behind those changes.8
From an Associated Press story about scenarios for postwar diplomacy:
(a) "The war to liberate Kuwait" was changed to "the war against Iraq."
I changed every reference I found to the liberation of Kuwait in keeping
with the argument I made earlier in this paper.
(b) "The remarkable coalition put together by President Bush" became "The
fragile coalition..." The main coalition partners were two other Western
countries with a history of imperialism in the Middle East (Britain and
France), oil-rich feudal monarchies that had a stake in the maintenance
of existing boundaries (most importantly, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), our
main Arab client state in the Middle East (Egypt, which receives about
$2 billion a year in U.S. aid), and one dictatorship that saw Iraq as a
threat to its status as a regional power (Syria). Although I would have
preferred the phrase "corrupt coalition" or "fantasy coalition," I would
argue my more modest substitution was more than justified.
(c) The designation "radical" was dropped as a modifier of Iraq and Syria,
and "moderate" was dropped as modifier of Egypt. The obvious question here
is, by whose standards? The obvious answer is, by the Bush administration's.
From a Newhouse News Service story about the effect of U.S. military's
success in the war on morale:
(a) The military's "dazzling performance in the Persian Gulf," became its
"performance in the Persian Gulf." Objections to this modifier could come
from many angles. For example, what is dazzling about a world superpower
with nearly limitless stockpiles of high-tech weapons bombing a smaller
country into submission, then rolling over the decimated Iraqi troops?
Or, from a more radical perspective, what is dazzling about mass murder?
From a Baltimore Sun story about the possibility of war crimes trials against
(a) Following the third paragraph, I added a new paragraph: "As the likely
victors, it is doubtful the allied forces would face similar scrutiny of
their actions." My gut instinct was to add: "After the Persian Gulf War,
it is unlikely that the United States will be held to answer for its wholesale
destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure and mass killing of civilians through
bombings that inflicted extensive damage to systems that deliver food,
water and power." But I knew the limits of tolerance of the slot editors.
I found the one-sided discussion of war crimes to be one of the most offensive
ways in which the media reproduced without critical comment the administration
line. The question of war crimes is worth discussing, but not applied to
one side only.
4. From a Chicago Tribune story about U.S. military strategy:
(a) I removed the lead sentence, "The Iraqi army is being flattened like
soft dough under a pastry roller." This was an interesting simile, one
I am sure the military commanders would have appreciated. But it masks
the reality that, in this case, the soft dough is the soft flesh of human
(b) The U.S. military's "stunning success" became the their "success."
My thinking is similar to the note above about "dazzling performances."
Except that here, I had second thoughts about even leaving in "success."
I considered changing that to "the ability of the U.S. military to destroy
much of the Iraqi infrastructure and kill an unknown number of civilians."
But, again, I did not want to press my luck with the slot editors.
(c) "The [U.S.] Army's 7th Corps, a sledgehammer of four divisions..."
became "The Army's 7th Corps, four divisions..." In general, I tried to
excise these kind of technical and/or sports metaphors. As Hallin (1986)
points out, they have the effect of purging the war of political and moral
implications. War becomes a job to be done or a game to be won (pp. 144-145).
So, I tried to cut out descriptions of bombers "pounding" the enemy and
As I mentioned, no supervisor challenged my work. I checked the final copy
that made it into the paper, and all of my changes made it past the slot
editor. If I had been challenged, my strategy would have been to embrace
the canon of objectivity and claim that I had tried to inject more fairness
and balance into the stories. But that would have been simply a defensive
position taken without any conviction on my part. What I believe this account
of my editing shows is that any claim to objectivity--by the reporters
who wrote them or by me--is naive. The stories had a political bent when
they came in, and they had a slightly different political bent when they
left. But there is no way I could have depoliticized them. The way in which
the stories framed the issues, the sources chosen, the specific language
used--all are part of the politics of signification. Those stories were
a site of political struggle, and there is no way they could have been
It seems to me there is a lesson in this tale. How could reporters who
were trying to apply the rules of objective journalism honestly end up
writing stories that were arguably less objective than an editor who consciously
rejected those rules and cynically plotted to hide dishonestly behind those
rules? The lesson I take away from that--a lesson that scholars have wearily
pointed out for years and many journalists have painfully found out on
their own--is that the ideology of objectivity hides more than it reveals.
Up to now, I have not discussed what many have seen as the key issue of
coverage of the war, the Pentagon's restrictions on journalists. While
I agree that the pool system and tight censorship enforced by the military
limited the news media's ability to report about the war, this paper suggests
that in another way--perhaps a deeper way--the media and the military worked
together without argument. At the beginning of the war I heard a professor
of journalism suggest that the press restrictions, at least to some degree,
showed that the news media were not inseparably intertwined with the establishment
powers. On the contrary, I would argue that the war showed us exactly how
those connections work and how strong they are.
This paper by no means exhausts the potential criticisms of the media's
reporting on the war. Some important points that have not been developed
include: (1) the almost exclusive use of "expert" commentators from the
ranks of the retired military, national security community, and the establishment
academic community; (2) the absence of serious and substantive coverage
of the anti-war perspective beyond superficial coverage of a few demonstrations;
(3) the failure to provide the historical context, especially the post-World
War I colonial division of the Middle East, that was vital to understanding
the basic issue of Kuwait's relationship to Iraq; and (4) the failure to
aggressively pursue the diplomatic moves of the United States before the
The focus of this paper was on the construction of language and its effect
on the canon of objectivity. By linking those two topics, this paper aimed
to provide a case study in the poverty of the concept of journalistic objectivity.
Given the volumes of work that already testify to that, is such an example
needed? For all the scholarly and critical work that has been done, objectivity--whether
labeled as such or called another name, such as "fairness"--lives on in
the hearts and defense mechanisms of journalists. An example comes from
an opinion column in a well-respected American daily I once worked for.
A political scandal had developed after a newspaper printed stories about
a friend of Florida's governor who was caught feeding at the public trough.
A veteran journalist at a different newspaper in the state encouraged readers
to trust the journalist to tell the truth:
is the fall-back position of American journalism, the standard defense
to charges of bias or shoddy work. Journalists may agree about the limits
of objectivity at conferences or in conversation with each other. But when
a threat is posed from the outside, it has been my experience that journalists
are quick to use the objectivity defense. An example of that phenomena
from my own reporting experience at that same newspaper is instructive.
At the end of a conversation with my city editor about a particularly sensitive
story, he told me to be careful about how I wrote it and to pay particular
attention to attributing all information. "Remember," the editor said,
"we only know what people tell us."
People aren't fools. When they are asked whether to believe
an objective reporter [italics added] or self-serving bureaucrats
relying on persons with a stake in what is at issue, they will find the
truth. (Pittman, 1990, p. D1)
Those examples, I believe, sum up the case journalists make to the public:
We only write it down. In the examples in this paper, that means that journalists
write down what the generals say and pass it along. On that count, members
of the press performed admirably: They seem to have accurately conveyed
the words being spoken by those running the war. But that was not nearly
1. Although this paper does not make specific reference to Herman's and
Chomsky's propaganda model (1988), that work informs much of this analysis.
2. While working on my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, I was a part-time
copy editor on the news desk of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Knight-Ridder
paper with a daily circulation of about 250,000.
3. References to the Times are to the national edition that subscribers
in the Midwest receive.
4. Two examples from Minneapolis-St. Paul stations will suffice here: from
a KARE, Channel 11 promo (the audio running over pictures of soldiers and
flags): "You're standing up for what really matters/We're there with you";
and from a KSTP, Channel 5 song promo called "The Strength of Minnesota":
"You are the pride of Minnesota, so loyal and so brave ... You are the
pride of Minnesota, Channel 5 is on your side." But newspapers were not
exempt, of course. On March 3, the Pioneer Press ran hundreds of
mugshots of Minnesota servicewomen and men as a tribute. The front-page
note from the editor said: "Whatever your own opinion of the war, you can
be proud of these men and women. They risked their lives on your behalf
and on behalf of America." Ironically, that "Dear Readers" box ran next
to a photo, 6 inches wide and 9 inches deep, of two dead Iraqi soldiers
lying in the sand near a destroyed Iraqi tank.
5. The naming of this operation was, of course, not by chance, as evidenced
by this account: The choreographing of public opinion was in mind even
when commanders chose names for the operation's two phases, as Gen. H.
Norman Schwarzkopf, the mission's commander, and Gen. Collin L. Powell,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, huddled with aides and swapped suggestions
by telephone. "Desert Sword," "Desert Thunder" and "Desert Strike" all
hit the discard list before the commanders settled on "Desert Storm." "
'Storm' was appropriate to the type of operation we were planning," said
General Powell. "And it kind of had a cute angle to it with 'Stormin' Norman,'
General Schwarzkopf's nickname." (DeParle, 1991, p. A5).
6. Although it is worth noting that after the war we learned that some
of those Iraqi "atrocities" may not have happened at all, most notably
the stories about Iraqi soldiers tossing babies out of incubators and leaving
them to die. So far, Amnesty International--which has been consistently
tough on Iraq's human-rights record--has found no evidence to support the
incubator story that was so popular with American reporters (Cockburn,
7. Another interesting aspect of the meaning assigned to these weapons
concerns which side has them. The first discussion of fuel-air explosives
in the major media occurred when it was thought Iraq possessed and might
use such bombs. In those stories, the destructive potential and horror
of the weapon was highlighted. But as it became clear Iraq was not using
them but the United States was, the descriptions of the fuel-air bombs
became much less alarming. For a discussion of this change in coverage,
see Kinsley (1991).
8. Printouts of the original and edited versions of these stories are on
file with the author.
9. Some discussion of this made it into the press, but it was usually cursory.
One notable exception in my reading was the work of the Star Tribune's
Eric Black, who explored these questions in several stories. Black has
unusual flexibility as the paper's "historical perspective" reporter. For
detailed treatments outside the mainstream daily press, see Viorst (1991)
and Emery (1991).
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M. W. (1991, February 27). Allies are said to choose napalm for strikes
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J. (1991). Keeping the news in step: Are the Pentagon's Gulf War rules
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M. (1991, March 5). How the U.S. avoided peace. Village Voice, pp.
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beating Palestinians, reports say. (1991, March 7). Star Tribune,
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February 18). Newsweek, cover.
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Z Magazine (1991, December). Editorial, p. 2.