Authorized Experts only
The Austin American-Statesman Covers the War
By Kathy Mitchell
February 1991; pages 3, 16-17; Volume 2, No. 4
This is the first in a two part study of the Austin American-Statesman. The next issue will contain a discussion of Cox Entreprises, the corporate owner of our local monopoly paper.
There was little "editorializing" in the columns of major American newspapers at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident: most of the reporting, in the best tradition of objective journalism, "just gave the facts." But they were not just any facts. They were official facts, facts about what the presidents said and what "officials here believe." The effect of "objectivity" was not to free the news of political influence, but to open wide the channel through which official influence flowed.
- David Hallin, The Uncensored War
Now, when a new international "incident" has thrust half a million U.S. troops onto the front line, our news media bows to government: the current censorship at the front only exacerbates the media's usual reliance upon official government sources and former government "experts."
Reporters and their sources share basic assumptions about "terrorism" (a term applied primarily to Arabs) and "aggression" that limit the field of investigation. With dedication to all the tenets of professional "objective and balanced" journalism, the press has produced exactly the fairy tale that the administration needs in order to justify its actions to the American people: Hero Bush goes to the rescue of the Damsel Kuwait against the Evil Troll, Saddam Hussein. The Happy Ending, apparently, would be the return of the Good King Sabah to his Peaceful Throne.
The following survey of Austin American-Statesman articles on the war from January 15 - January 23 will serve as a database for an inquiry into the sources of information that our professional media regularly taps. Further, an analysis of individual news articles and "news analysis" will briefly touch on the extent to which reporters and editors manipulate the available information in the service of the government's perspective.
High Level Former Military Officials Say...
The Austin American-Statesman has covered the Gulf war voluminously, placing banner headlines and lengthy articles on the front page of nearly every paper since August 2. During the most important stages of the buildup, our local paper added extra pages for the additional articles flowing in over every wire service. Of the 209 stories surveyed, 80.4 percent came off the wire. Reaching a peak on the 19th of January, the Statesman carried 33 artcles on the war in a single day. According to Managing Editor David Lowrey, the Statesman devotes more columns to the war than to any other story.
Within the 209 articles, reporters referred to 851 individual sources of information, 67.5 percent of the 851 separate sources mentioned were government, military or police officials (including foreign government). Statements from Israeli sources accounted for more than half the total attributions to non-U.S. officials. Of 410 attributions to U.S. government and military sources - 48.2 percent of the total number of sources - 60.5 percent were unidentified: government or military experts, former officials, anonymous "high level intelligence sources," "air power enthusiasts", "knowledgeable sources", "authorities" or "military planners". Reporters only sourced 6% of their information to opponents of the war.
The army of anonymous experts generally make statements that bolster the statements of the official military spokespeople. On January 19, for example, a Knight-Ridder News Service article claimed success for the new military technology. "And though the success rates are not as dazzling as initially believed," notes the writer, "current and former military Pentagon officials and other defense analysts say they are pleased." Often, important statements about our military capability appear without any source at all. Note the passive voice. A wire service writer observes (AAS, 1/19) that "U.S. intelligence on many of these facilities [Iraqi] is said to be excellent." Anonymous "sources" also provide crucial information on issues of strong public debate: (AAS, 1/17) "While it is not clear how much progress Iraq has made toward building a nuclear weapon, some sources say Saddam was nearing completion..."
Analysis of the political history generally appears without any sources: the front page banner article on the January 17 states that "it was Saddam's desire for a greater share of the Middle East's vast oil wealth that led him to seize Kuwait on Aug. 2 and later claim it as Iraq's 19th province." Given the long controversy over the legitimacy of the border, and the previous months of negotiation between Saddam Hussein and Kuwait over the Ramalia oil field and the Kuwait's OPEC violation, this statement cannot be attributed to "common knowledge." Here as elsewhere the press explicitly reinforces the administration's current line. Dan Rather commented on the role of the press, Jan. 17, during a special war report, "It is not our role to put any pressure on the U.S. High Command which is trying to run a war."
Bush Had His Suit Jacket Off
The number of named and unnamed government sources, however shocking, doesn't begin to describe the extent of the government's domination over the regular news, because many stories are attributed to a single source, most often the President. The President is "newsworthy," whether or not the information he provides is true or defensible. In 16 separate articles reporters attributed stories entirely to Bush or his spokespeople Marlin Fitzwater and Margaret Tutweiler. The long articles lay out in detail Bush's own rationale for the war, "the liberation of Kuwait". No aspect of the war outside of the scope of the president's own statement appears in the articles.
And, Bush himself is newsworthy even beyond his arguments for war. In addition to the transcript of Bush's address to the nation, the long front page article, and an analysis, an inside article describes everything from Bush's frame of mind to his dress. We are privy to such vital information as "the President, in a blue shirt and tie, had his suit jacket off," and "The Rev. Billy Graham, calling to comfort the President as he has comforted others since the 60s, delivered a sermon." The inside coverage "personalizes" Bush's decision. Perhaps as long as readers know that, like everyone, Bush watches TV and fiddles with his clothes, they will trust him.
The office of the President has become a slick publicity center, using the power of Presidential authority in the media to dispense propaganda.
On January 8, college newspapers around the country received an article directly from the White House, containing a statement by George for publication in college papers. According to the cover letter from press agent Deb Amend, "In an effort to provide his view of the Gulf Crisis as it relates to college age Americans, President Bush has written an exclusive message for your publication." The article contained an emotional elaboration of "the brutal aggression of Saddam Hussein," and an appeal to student sympathy for enlisted soldiers. "Your age, most of them. Doing tough duty for something they believe in." The article, like all Bush's recent public statements, avoids the issue of oil economics, previous U.S. military alliances with Saddam and other regional powers or the role of Israel. Many student papers published the article, some with a strongly critical editorial response, according to Robin Templeton, student coordinator for the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest.
This writer looked closely at the coverage of opposition to the war only for January 15-19. Articles in this shorter examination that covered anti-war protests quote pro-war individuals more often than they quote from peace activists.
An article on the Jan. 17 protest, where 26 people participated in civil disobedience, contained brief comments from two anti-war protestors while platforming the views (long quotes) of The Young Conservatives of Texas and other counter-protestors. Police represent another major source for information on peace rallies. Eight articles of the 95 devoted to the war's early days, described anti-war protests, but within those articles, opinions from 17 critics of the peace movement were solicited while they quoted only 12 supporters. In an apparent dismissal of the press' usual commitment to balance, virtually no war critics were quoted in the other 87 article written on the first four days of war.
Periodically, however, the idea of "balance" would resurface. An article on Corretta Scott King's opposition to the war on Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, also offers a report on the activities of the KKK that afternoon. "On the other end of the spectrum," the reporter notes, "about 30 Ku Klux Klan members marched in Blacksburg, Va. on Sunday, to protest the holiday." This reporter certainly knows how to get both sides of every story.
Similarly, the articles devoted to the widespread anti-war sentiment of school children, expressed in rallies and walk outs throughout AISD, quote administration officials and teachers to voice the motivations of the children. Most of the debate turns on the amount and form of punishment that will be meted out to the offending students, not the reasons for their opposition to the war.
The descriptions of the protests legitimate the pro-war position even while they must acknowledge the presence of dissent. A Jan. 18 New York Times service article covering protests nationwide, reported that, "in the midst of the largely supportive mood, sporadic anti-war protests continued in cities around the country." This article quoted a Gallup pole survey of people supporting the war rather than mention the very small numbers of pro-war people at rallies.
In another description of protests on Jan. 18, the numbers of pro-war and anti-war protestors appear equal and the writer emphasizes violent interactions. "Noontime Thursday finds two crowds - one for the war, one against - at the same location. Ralliers engage in verbal combat." This in spite of the fact that the rally was essentially peaceful and the anti-war protestors far outnumbered the counter-protestors.
Quoting individuals who "link" the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the current war can prove dangerous to local reporters and editors. In the American-Statesman only one percent of sources in the entire survey were Palestinian, despite the importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict to the current crises. Recently, the Round-Rock Leader fired the editor beceause he ran a story in which a Palestinian and long-time U.S. resident offered a critique of George Bush. The publisher not only fired the editor, but wrote a ltter of apology to President Bush and the troops. Clearly, "balance" in reporting does not extend to the political importance of Palestine.
In a distorted attempt to provide balance without addressing the issue of Palestine head-on, the American-Statesman juxtaposes articles on the Arab-American community and the harassment of Arab-Americans with the concerns of the Austin-Jewish community, particularly about Israel. Over the entire period of the survey, articles on Arab-Americans and Jewish Americans would appear together on the page, subtly indicating that these two grousp are on "opposite sides." The articles on Arab-Americans, however, focus on the potential threat of "terrorism" they may pose, while articles on Jewish Americans focus their fears for Israeli friends and family.
Six articles appeared in the American-Statesman in this brief survey predicting terrorist activities in the U.S. Anonymous "terrorism experts" forecast a rash of terrorist acts, and headlines have announced that known terrorists have entered the U.S., although not one case of terrorism has been documented by the FBI as of Jan. 26, according to agent Steve Markardt of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Threat Warning System.
Censorship or Self Censorship?
The government explicitly limits the arena of investigation for war reporters in Saudi Arabia. Now, nearly every issue of the AAS contains a small box somewhere inside the news section with a censorship warning, not unlike the Surgeon General's warning on cigarettes packages. "The U.S.-led military command in Saudi Arabia has put into effect press restrictions under which journalists are assembled in groups and given access to military sources. These pool reporters obtain their information while under military escort, and their accounts are subject to scrutiny by military censors before they are distributed. Much of the information in articles today on U.S. military operations was obtained under such conditions."
According to a recent study by the Fund for Free Expression, a committee of Human Rights Watch, the current censorship regulating war coverage is the most severe encountered by reporters in this century. Still no reports on Iraqi casualties have been confirmed by the U.S. official sources, although foreign press reports now estimate the number to be as high as 150,000. Only the video tapes of sucessful missions are shown to the press pool. Reporters speak to the troops accompanied by an officer who listens to all comments. The Fund for Free Expression notes that the "pool" regulation gives the government clearance privileges over the reporters; all but the most mainstream of writers have been excluded from the front lines.
This is one of the charges laid against the government in a recent suit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Nation, the Progressive, The Guardian, Mother Jones, L.A. Weekly and the Village Voice, along with a group of independent writers.
The plaintiffs claim that during WWII and Vietnam, reporters accompanied troops in all their major missions. In Panama, the military had a dry run with similar regulations. According to the Report of Independent Commission of Inquiry on the U.S. Invasion of Panama, "the media, which had been barred from the war areas for the first two days of the invasion, had simply echoed the news releases of the State Department, Pentagon and White House." The result - silence about the thousands of dead and homeless civilians (see the book review accompanying this article), as well as silence about the U.S. strategic demands on Noriega's government, which Noriega had increasingly resisted.
Most mainstream writers and commentators have refused to take up the issue of censorship as a First Amendment or civil liberties violation, however. On February 8, at a live broadcast from the University of Houston, Houston columnist Lynn Ashby made a plea for freedom of the press, and at the same time made explicit the media-government alliance. "How can the press amass support for a war under conditions of censorship," he asked a studio audience.
The current controls over reporting from the front simply cannot be blamed for the excessive use of government sources since January 16. In a similar survey by the author of coverage in the early days of the U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia, before the officials regulations, from August 3 to August 23, government officials and experts account for 62.4 percent of the sources of information, nearly as many as today. Of the government sources, 58 percent were anonymous, a higher figure than during the war. In addition, oil industry officials and executives, predominantly from the American Petroleum Institute, account for another 10.4 percent of sources.
Again, this kind of survey does not give the full picture, because long articles sourced only to Marlin Fitzwater or Bush account for the bulk of the text. In other words, while a handful of serious investigative reporters sue the government for access to the front, the pool reporters are simply doing what they would have done anyway - taking the press releases from government spokespeople and presenting them as news.
The Story the Way the Experts Tell It
News analyses offers the only space in professional journalism for news writers to connect issues and try to go beyond the statements of a particular official. However analyses of this war, based predominantly on the opinions of various Washington think-tank experts, focus on the personalities of Bush and Saddam Hussein rather than negotiating the more difficult historical and economic terrain that might actually inform current events.
On January 16, for example, analyst Gary Blonston of Knight-Ridder encapsulates the crisis in this way: "Few conflicts in modern times have seemed to turn so clearly on the personalities, the cultural backgrounds and the wills of two men - and their reactions to each other." He goes on to describe Bush as "an American oil man turned international power broker, embodying the wealth, influence and plain-spoken, impatient, right-stuff confidence of the developed, democratic world." Saddam Hussein, on the other hand "is the radicalized former terrorist, raised in poverty, steeped in Third World resentment of the West, angrily defiant and cultivated in the exercise of brutish political power." (Unlike Bush, whose incursion in Panama resulted in more than three times the civilian casualities of the invasion of Kuwait and the installation of a U.S. controlled puppet government.)
The reporter turned to the U.S. Center for Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior for an expert, who testified tht Saddam Hussein is a "malignant narcissist," a term defined by the reporter as "totally self absorbed, seemingly conscienceless, paranoically untrusting and aggressively dedicated to acquiring and holding personal power." Here myths of personality, based on racist interpretations of the Arab mind, create the necessary hero/villain dichotomy for an effective fairy tale. Bush, of course is honest and well-meaning, if "impatient" at times - virtually the West personified. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand is a stand-in for the Third World, where "terrorists" become leaders and leadership is no more than the "exercise of brutish political power" for "narcissistic" ends.
The Story of a Rescue
The "Chronology of the Gulf Crisis," as narrated by Associated Press, further endorses the Bush fairytale, under the guise of a simple list of useful dates (no sources). The narrative of the crisis begins August 1 when "Iraq pulls out of talks with Kuwait" (AAS, 1/15/91). This is a most significant starting point.
Today, few journalists note the meetings between Saddam Hussein and U.S. ambassador April Glaspie (one AAS story, appearing on the opinion page in late January), in which she green flagged in the invasion ["the U.S. takes no sides in the border dispute with Kuwait," she told Saddam], or the support given to the regime by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by American banks (one story, AAS, 8/4/90). A several months long investigation by the House Banking Committee on allegations that loans from an Atlanta-based bank were used to pay for Iraqi chemical weapons and military hardware has disappeared from media accounts of current events. So has discussion of the decade or more of escalating arms sales (including the Saudi-AWACS arms deal, see "Entangling Alliances," p. 1) that laid out the groundwork for a major U.S. incursion into the region. The long term plan of the Central Command to gain a permanent foothold for American troops in the Middle East against the protests of unwilling governments has finally been realized. This is not exactly the Happy Ending projected by the news media and government fairy tale.
The narrative itself emphasizes the war rhetoric of Saddam ("Sept. 21 - Saddam says Iraq would "fight to the finish" in war with the United States.") and the interplay between the Iraqi government and the U.N. Security Council. No hostile rhetoric from George Bush is quoted. The fairy tale chronology fails to mention the several peace initiatives put forward by Saddam Hussein (two in the last ten days of August alone), by Jordan, by the PLO and other nations, all rejected by Bush because they included link with the occupation of Palestine or "rewarding aggression." It also fails to include the extensive bribes (writing off $7 billion in Egyptian debt, arms to Saudi Arabia, a trade agreement with China, etc.) Bush used to create his "coalition." Finally, it entirely excludes negative world opinion, from the abstention of China to massive protests in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East itself against the war. The Chronology of facts sticks to a narrative of increasingly hostile Iraqi rhetoric and uncritically follows Bush's deployment of troops.
A self-censored and uncritical media provide a lot of reading material, but very little information from which individuals might make informed decisions about the Gulf war. Reading lengthy descriptions of every kind of military hardware does not encourage analysis of the larger war strategy. Issues skirted by the President and his army of anonymous military officials and former administrative aides are left outside the parameters of debate over the war. Bush's perspective has become the only perspective.