Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War
October 7, 1993
John R. MacArthur
President, The Independent Institute:
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, I am the president of The Independent Institute, and I am delighted to welcome you to our Independent Policy Forum program today.
As many of you know, the Institute regularly sponsors programs featuring outstanding experts to address major social, economic, and foreign policy issues, especially as they may relate to important new books. And, today is certainly no exception.
For those of you new to the Institute, you will find background information on our program in the packet at your seat. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly research and educational organization which sponsors comprehensive studies of critical public issues. The Institutes program adheres to the highest standards of independent inquiry, and the resulting studies are widely distributed as books and other publications, and are publicly debated through numerous conferences and media programs, such as in our forum today. Our purpose is a Jeffersonian one of seeking the truth regarding the impact of government policies, and not necessarily to just tell people what they might want to hear. In so doing, we will not take the public pronouncements of government officials at face value, nor the conventional wisdom over serious public problems. Hence, we invite your involvement, but be prepared for new and challenging perspectives.
Neither seeking nor accepting government funding, the Institute draws its support from a diverse range of foundations, businesses, and individuals, and we invite you to join with us as a tax-deductible Independent Institute Associate Member. Also in your packet, you will find information on the benefits in becoming a Member including receipt of a free copy of our new, widely acclaimed, iconoclastic book on unemployment and the economy, Out of Work, by Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway. In addition, many of you may be interested in our book, Arms, Politics and the Economy, an in-depth critique of the defense establishment, especially in our post-Cold War era. Your packet should have an Independent Briefing on the book.
Our program today could not be more timely. Despite this weeks congressional clamor for withdrawal, an increasingly bloody, escalating intervention in Somalia is showing that the use of military intervention by the Clinton administration, like the Bush administration before it, is likely to continue to be a common feature of American foreign policy. Today, we have learned that an additional 5,000 plus troops with heavy weapons will now be sent to Somalia for non-military purposes. But will the Clinton administration like the Bush administration allow the military to keep American journalists from doing their jobs if the shooting starts and American forces take increased casualties? Will the Clinton administration seek to limit the role of the press as was done in the Gulf War to that of glorified government stenographers should its interventions turn bloody, as has already happened with the Somalia expedition?
Furthermore, what happens when government goes unchallenged, and when questions regarding present and proposed domestic and international policies go unasked? To understand how government officials may seek to shift and control public opinion, our speaker today has found understanding the precedents set during the war against Saddam Hussein to be most insightful.
In his presentation, our speaker will draw upon his widely-acclaimed book, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, to scrutinize the governments campaign to tightly control the American media during Operation Desert Storm, policies that can be traced through decades of press-government relations, including that developed in the military operations in Grenada and Panama.
In his talk, our speaker will detail behind-the-scenes activities during Operation Desert Storm by the U.S. and Kuwaiti governments as well as the medias being co-opted while its rights to observe, question, and report were heavily restricted far beyond any needs to protect American lives. As a result, from Left to Right, there resulted a virtual and complete cave-in by the media over the events, politics, and simple facts during the Gulf Crisis. For example, as reported in Septembers issue of Washington Monthly, within minutes after a Norman Schwarzkopf Gulf War briefing in which the General showed the press an Air Force film that he said depicted the destruction of seven Iraqi Scud missiles, he was told that the CIA believed that they were oil tanker trucks, not Scuds. The General never corrected the record, and in a House Armed Services committee report recently released, it states a postwar review of photographs cannot produce even a single confirmed kill of a Scud missile.
In a similar vein, where the General claimed that Iraq had 623,000 soldiers in the Kuwaiti theater, postwar Army estimates put Iraqi strength at roughly 300,000, and the House committee report puts the figure at 183,000. The Allies, meanwhile, had a total of 700,000 troops.
It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war, and the history of war-making certainly bears this out. History has indeed been largely written by the victors, and anyone familiar with the Bayeux Tapestry of William the Conqueror knows the lengths to which a State will go to justify war atrocities. And in the American experience, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam all depended upon extensive government propaganda campaigns. The World War I journalist Randolph Bourne correctly stated that War is the Health of the State, and it is to counter this total power that a free, independent, non-governmental press is so crucial.
Our speaker today could not be better qualified or more incisive in addressing the pressing civil liberties questions we face. In addition, he was strongly influenced by the late Walter Karp, whose work on journalism and war has scarcely been equaled. Rick MacArthur is in the investigative and muck-racking journalistic tradition of both H. L. Mencken and I. F. Stone.
He is the publisher of Harpers Magazine. His book, Second Front, was selected by The New York Times Book Review Committee as One of the Notable Books of the Year.
Before joining Harpers, Mr. MacArthur was assistant foreign editor for United Press International, and he has been a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Bergen Record, Washington Star, and The Wall Street Journal. In 1986, Mr. MacArthur co-founded Article 19, the International Centre on Censorship, which is based in London.
Mr. MacArthur holds a bachelors degree in history from Columbia University, and he is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities and a director of the Authors Guild and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
I am very pleased to introduce him now to speak on Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War: How Government Can Mold Public Opinion, after which he will be happy to answer your questions. May I present John MacArthur.
I hope none of you think I am a humorless left-wing media critic, but I come out of a tradition of reporting which is probably fast disappearing, I am afraid. One of my mentors at United Press International was a very odd survivor of the Beat Generation named Lucian Carr. One day I was working on the foreign deskcables desk as we called it at UPIand I had sent over a story with a lead paragraph that Carr decided was not sufficient to excite the interest of what we called telegraph editors at newspapers around the country. Carr sort of ambled over to the cables desk and he said, Gentlemen, make me cry or make me horny. That was the sort of world I grew up in, a newspaper business that didnt take itself nearly as seriously as it takes itself now; and I would argue, it was a much better, livelier business than it has become.
To begin, to back up the argument in my book, Second Front, I always prefer a literary reference to a historical onethat is when I can get away with it.
During the summer vacation, and gratefully overcoming my phobia about Henry James, I had the good fortune to discover two terrifically useful quotations in one novel, The Portrait of a Lady, that bear directly on those arguments I make in Second Front. In fact, if I had known about them two years ago I would have used them in the book.
The first quotation deals with the attitude of Americans toward war, certainly in the nineteenth century, but, I believe, in some ways it is still our basic attitude. Bear with me if you know the story of The Portrait of a Lady. James heroine, the young, attractive and intelligent Isabel Archer has been pursued, by among other men, a certain Casper Goodwood, a Massachusetts textile heir of energy and literal mindednessin short, a member of the class that I like to refer to as the working rich. James describes him this way, It always struck people who knew him that he might do greater things than carry on a cotton factory. There was nothing cottony about Casper Goodwood. And his friends took him for granted that he would not always content himself with that. He had once said to Isabel that if the United States were not such a confoundedly peaceful nation, he would find his proper place in the Army.
In the Gulf War story, George Bush plays a version of Casper Goodwood, the son of the New England political and business aristocracy, desperate to prove himself in war, trying to overcome the confoundedly peaceful tendencies of his fellow citizens, which stand in the way of his enormous ambition.
Another character in the novel is Isabels friend, Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta is as straight-forward and energetic as Goodwood, but her trade is journalism and she is constantly trying to tell Isabel the truth, which is the very bad news that the man Isabel eventually marries is a selfish, narrow-minded prig. Now regarding the husbands poor opinion of her, of Henrietta, James quotes Henrietta this way, I dont know and I dont care. He is perfectly welcome not to like me. I dont want everyone to like me. I should think less of myself if some people did.
A journalist cant hope to do much good unless he gets hated a good deal. Thats the way he knows his work goes on. Henrietta, who works for The New York Interviewer speaks in the honest journalist idiom displayed in my book by Dan Rather, who denounces the new era of what he calls suck-up journalism. He describes to me how hes become an alien in a world in which his boss is urgent to become more likablenot hated, but more likable. Rather can remember the day not so long ago when reporters were rewarded for being more like Henrietta Stackpole.
Now, do these nineteenth century assumptions about America, fundamentally peaceful and protected from the Casper Goodwoods by a fiercely independent and rambunctious press, still apply in the present day? Sadly they dont.
On the one hand, in the Gulf War story we have a president of great energy and ambition who drags his reluctant countrymen into war through a carefully orchestrated and largely fraudulent public relations campaign. Standing between Bush and his ambition there should have been a whole army of Henrietta Stackpoles asking unpleasant and probing questions. In 1881 it could be assumed that most reporters and publishers would have generally agreed with Henriettas assessment of the journalist destiny to be hated. But what Bush encountered in the late twentieth century instead was a group of tame and timid press agents incapable, or unwilling for the most part, of doing even the most basic police reporting. Not to mention asking probing and intelligent questions about foreign policy, foreign countries, war and peace, etc., etc.
Worse still, Bush found among the media a cadre of journalists who did their best to perpetrate the propaganda that proved successful in driving this country into the Gulf War.
Again, I assume that most of you have not read my book. I will summarize what I think are the three great frauds produced by the White House with the cooperation, eager or passive depending on your point of view, of the U.S. media.
First, we have the campaign to prove that Saddam Hussein was the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler rather than what he is, which is a violent Arab dictator of the sort the United States frequently likes to back. A subset of this campaign was to paint the Kuwaitis as a freedom-loving people moving inexorably toward democracy. This was done with very sophisticated maneuvering, costing a lot of money, namely with something called Citizens for a Free Kuwait (CFK), which of course implies that American citizens are rallying to the Kuwaiti cause from all over the country. Citizens for a Free Kuwait forms itself about a week after Saddam invades Kuwait and they hire Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firm, and ultimately pays it $11 million to create what was one of the most brilliantly orchestrated public relations campaigns in history. It really should go down in the record books, and I am hoping that someone will do a scholarly book on it someday.
I went to visit Citizens for a Free Kuwait, or what was left of it, a few months after the Gulf War ended when I was doing research on my book. I went to see a Mr. Ibrahim, who was the titular head of CFK. The first time I realized something fishy was going on when he pulled out a stack of atrocity photographs. I went through them and thought this looks pretty awfulpeople with odd pieces of metal jammed into their bodies in various places.
It looked quite horrible, but the photographs were a little out of focus. I went through them a second time and I realized that they were mannequins. They had literally dressed up mannequins as torture victims!
This is not to say that Saddam did not kill Kuwaitis and did not torture Kuwaitis but these fraudulent photographs became the stock and trade of the Hill & Knowlton campaign.
Now, the absolute piéce de resistance of this propaganda campaign, as you may have heard, was the baby-incubator atrocity. In August, the word started coming out of Kuwait from anonymous sources who were interviewed by reporters, who, as I said, did not do the most fundamental police reportinglike asking for last names, addresses, ages, occupations, etc., etc.,saying that Iraqi soldiers were pulling babies out of incubators and killing them that way in Kuwaiti hospitals.
Hill & Knowlton is very well connected on Capitol Hill and at the White House. The senior account people on the Kuwaiti account included Craig Fuller, Bushs former chief of staff when Bush was Vice President, and various other mucky mucks who know how to make things happen on Capitol Hill. They set up a hearing with the Congressional Human Rights caucus, chaired by Tom Lantos, the Bay Area congressman, and John Edward Porter of Illinois, in which they were going to expose Iraqi atrocities for the benefit of the caucus and the American people.
Anyway, there was an incredible conflict of interest between the caucus and Hill & Knowlton, the most important aspect of which was that the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, which was a fund-raising arm of the caucus, had its offices, rent-free, in the Hill & Knowlton headquarters. The Hill & Knowlton executives were also representing as clients habitual human rights violators like Turkey, Indonesia and China. You might ask yourself why Lantos and Porter were allowing this arrangement. In any event, the star of the hearing was a young 15 year-old girl named Nayirahno last name, no address, no occupationwho said that she had volunteered at Kuwaiti hospitals and had seen the babies pulled from incubators and left to die on the cold floor.
Now, to this day, I cannot tell you whether or not this story, which turned out to be utterly fake, was manufactured by historically-astute public relations executives in collaboration with the Kuwaitis, who had read World War I history and had learned how successful the German atrocities against Belgian babies and nuns had been in getting public opinion on the side of the allies and getting the United States into that war.
Nobody at the hearing, no reporter said, Nayirah, that is a terrible story; I am on the verge of tears. But what did you do after you put the babies on the floor to die? Did you call for help, did you try to pick one up, what happened then?
The most fundamental and most elementary questions that a reporter is supposed to ask were not asked. Niyarah was a fantastic propaganda success. Hill & Knowlton made a brilliant little video news release out of it, which they beamed all over the world. It was on NBC Nightly News and millions and millions of people saw this. My brother saw Niyarah testify, and it brought him to tears. That was the beginning of the campaign. The campaign had begun to get legs as we say in the public relations and news business.
Then they went to the United Nations and they did the same thing at the Security Council. There was a certain Dr. Behbehani, who you may remember testified that he was a surgeon who had personally seen the burial of 40 babies pulled from incubators.
It turns out that Dr. Behbehani was a dentist, not a surgeon; and he admitted after the war that he had lied, he made the whole thing up! But again, it was grist for the public relations mill, it was terrifically successful. Every time you put this stuff on cameraand they staged it all very, very successfullyyou make a video news release out of it and WZZZ in San Antonio can just pop it into the console and make it part of their evening news. Its got a longer life than just the day of the hearing or the day of the security counsel hearing. It gets used again and again and again as filler for tonights roundup on Saddam-Hitler, Iraqi atrocities.
I did a little math and found out that the polls showed a country pretty much divided 50-50 on sanctions versus hostilities back in December 1990 and January 1991. But when the vote was finally taken in the Senate, you may recall, it passed by five votes and in favor of war. Six Senators cited the baby-incubator atrocity as a principal reasonsort of a final, compelling reason to vote for the resolution over their initial or instinctive reluctance to go to war. Several others who voted for the resolution said they thought Iraqi atrocities in general were a good reason to go to war. As you may know, Niyarah was not only a liar, but she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. That is the story I revealed in The New York Times in January of 1992 on the op-ed page.
So, you have the country going to war, essentially, I believe, over human rights, not over oil, not over realpolitik, not over Americas destiny to police the world, but really over human rights. This is what swung the balance. That a good part of the human rights atrocities story was fake suggests that we were mislead, conned, whatever you want to say.
The second great fraud that I think took place during the Gulf War build-up was, and this is a little more obscure, the premise for sending troops in, in the first place.
You remember that Bush sent troops in order to defend Saudi Arabia against a possible invasion from Kuwait by the Iraqis. But there were Soviet satellite photographs available of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia taken on September 11 and 13 1990. Those photographs showed very clearly the American troop concentration on the Saudi side of the border. They showed no Iraqi troop concentrations on the Kuwaiti side of the border, nothing.
Several news organizations had access to these photographs, including Newsweek, ABC and The Chicago Tribune. Sam Donaldson personally looked at them and thought about going with them. But they all spiked the story because they were too scared to publish a story that contradicted what the government was saying, which was essentially that there was a huge number of Iraqi soldiers poised or prepared to invade Saudi Arabia, which of course was the premise for sending the troops.
In January, just before the Senate debate on the war resolution, The St. Petersburg Times finally published the photographs. The only newspaper in the country to publish these was in St. Petersburg, Florida, so the wire services didnt pick it up and television didnt pick it up. (If you lived in St. Petersburg, you were the best informed American on the subject of Iraqs threat to Saudi Arabia.)
After the famous April Glaspie gaff, she was called home. Remember what she did? She said to Saddam that the United States takes no position in border disputes between Arab countries or between Iraq and Kuwait, which some people think encouraged Saddam to invade. In April, a reporter caught her on the fly walking down the street and he asked, How did you manage to screw up so badly, April? She said, We didnt think hed take the whole thing.
I strongly believe that the invasion threat was fake. Even Schwarzkopf in his autobiography skirts the question. Hes very careful because, I think, hes afraid that evidence may come out that the invasion threat wasnt what we had said it was. If you read his autobiography, he says, even if the Iraqis werent intending to invade Saudi Arabia, it was a good thing to go after them.
The third canard is the nuclear threat. If you recall, there was a great deal said about Saddams nuclear capability and quite a bit of hysterical posturing on that subject. I found out from a very, very reliable government sourceand its public, if you want to see itthat the estimates on Saddams potential for building a crude atomic bomb that he could conceivably use, range from two weeks to fifteen years. If you put together all the expert opinion on it. Ive thought since Ive started looking into this, the economic embargo made it impossible for him to complete work on the bomb, even if he was aggressively trying to do it and even if he had the capability.
The second factor that people didnt discuss of course was Seymour Hershs revelation that the Israelis have 300 nuclear warheads and are perfectly prepared to use them if necessary. During the war in 1974 with Egypt, Golda Meir actually prepared the military for a nuclear strike on Egypt. You have to remember that the Israelis had already taken out a nuclear reactor in Baghdad in 1981, so the idea that the world was going to sit by and let Saddam build a bomb and use it is not only tenuous, but with a full blown economic blockade on Iraq, it doesnt seem very plausible that he could complete the program even under, as I said, less than optimal circumstances. But this was again very, very effective because people said, Well, even if this is the case and that is the case, and Bush is really trying to do this over oil or some other reason, its a good thing to destroy his nuclear program. I suppose it is still a fairly good argument.
Were we conned into the war? I really do feel we were. Remember how close that Senate vote was? At least we could have hoped for a better account of the battle such as it was. My editor, Lewis Lapham, at Harpers calls it the suppression of a mob. Thats really a better description of the Gulf War.
But the censorship was so extraordinary and the media was so passive in the face of it that, of course, we got a terrible view of what the war actually looked like and what occurred during the war.
In his introduction, David Theroux referred to one example: Schwarzkopf and the mobile Scud-launchers. The story was first broken by Mark Crispen Miller, on the op-ed page of The New York Times last year, that Schwarzkopf had been briefed before he went on television, and went ahead anyway with the misinformation about the alleged Scud hits. This issue incidentally came up in the lawsuit against the governments campaign of censorship, which Harpers Magazine participated in, led by The Nation. We couldnt get any major media companies to join the law suit. In my book, I interview people like Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham of The Washington Post who show a marked indifference to the whole thing. You have to understand that if Ben Bradlee, or especially Katherine Graham, doesnt care enough to do anything about it, nothing is going to get done. Its just not going to get done. The institutional opposition is just not going to happen. I could go into great detail about how the media bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., colluded in their own demise but its a very, very sad and pathetic story.
What is a poor citizen do, given that youve got ambitious politicians who want to put one over on you, and youve got reporters who dont want to do anything about it, dont want to ask questions, dont know how to do basic reporting anymore? All I can advise you to do is to do your own reporting and reading.
I dont want to give you a sense of hopelessness because its not hopeless. The best media critics were A. J. Liebling, H. L. Mencken and Walter Karpand I recommend all their books to you and all their articles. But what about the journalists themselves, what about the reporters themselves? As Rather had said, our kind of reporter, the kind of reporter I think of myself as being and he fantasizes he once was a tough guy reporter, afraid of no one, ready to challenge power at every stepis virtually extinct. You know the sort of reporter who really likes to put a politicians feet to the fire, who enjoys it, who has a kind of a mean streak.
I am going to speak to the University of California Graduate School of Journalism tonight, and I am going to ask the students, How many of you really feel that you have the stomach for this, the sort of mean streak, or that you get the joy out of getting a politician angry, that is required to do good journalism?
But the situation just seems to get worse and worse. I dont know if any of you noticed, but Harpers, in conjunction with Nightline, broke a story in August about a document that seemed to show that George Bush strafed lifeboats in World War II. This is a document that was floating around in the media before the election while Bush is bashing Clintons draft-dodging and trumpeting his own wartime achievements and no one would publish it. Newsweek wouldnt publish it, U.S. News & World Report wouldnt publish it. They wouldnt even ask Bush for comment on it.
Harpers published it in the September issue, but believe me, we were not congratulated by our colleagues. In fact, I went on a couple of radio shows with the media critic of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter. Jonathan, who was supposed to be a media critic spent a good ten minutes explaining why the document was insignificant. So that at the end of five minutes of this explication, I said, isnt this great to have the media critic for Newsweek magazinedoing George Bushs explaining for him.
That is precisely what was going on during the Gulf War, during the build-up and during the Gulf War. Ninety-five percent of the reporters were doing their damnedest to interpret or to help explicate the governments version of the war. That is what journalists do now. It is not even stenography as David Theroux described it. Its worse than stenography now, its extra public relations help.
Through the Freedom of Information Act request I was able to get this wonderful conversation between Pete Williams, the chief Pentagon spokesman and his underlings in Dhahran, where he actually says, Look guys, you may get some gripes from the reporters who feel unhappy about being confined in pools and not getting to the action and so on, but, to tell you the truth, theres a big portion of them that are just doing this for show, they really want to help. Sort of tweak it up a little bit, is the way Williams put it.
Were now in a situation where youve got powerful newspaper executives like Al Neuharth, the former chairman of the Gannett chain making idiotic statements like, There are no more secrets in the world. From the highest mountain to the lowest valley. Connie Chung, I guess, whos much more likable than Dan Rather, and who is now his co-anchor. Pete Williams is now a reporterthe guy who lied again and again during the Gulf War and lied directly to me. I can honestly call him a liar and never lose a liable suit. He is now a reporter for NBC. Bob Woodward, the hero of Watergate, sits on stories. One of the best stories of the pre-Gulf War period was the revelation which we received in his book after the Gulf War that Colin Powell opposedalone in the administrationmilitary action and a military solution in the Gulf War. I think thats something that would have formed the debate before the war. But he sat on the story and it was left to Bob Edwards, our friend on Morning Edition to say, Gee, isnt that a little odd, I mean in Watergate you broke stories as the story was unfolding. Woodward gave some half-assed response about, Well, it wasnt like any great crime was being committed.
What all this does is to discourage reporters or young people going into journalism to try to do what I think is the right thing, which is to get in trouble, make trouble and make people mad at them on behalf of the public. And of course, get the public angry from time to time.
But I am afraid that if you polled most journalism students today, youd find that a good number of them are hoping to become Sam Donaldson, who sat on the satellite photographs because he was too scared to go with them, or Diane Sawyer, who was an assistant press agent for Nixondoes anybody know that she followed Nixon into exile for 2 years? She continued working for him after Watergaterather than Seymour Hersh, who is one of my heroes, and a real nasty son-of-a-bitch who just broke a very good story in The New Yorker. Or they want to be George Stephanopolis or they even want to be a Hill & Knowlton p.r. executive because thats where the action is today, thats where the rewards are.
Like Henrietta Stackpole, I am dedicated to the notion that it is a great thing to be hated, or at least, I accept it as part of the territory of being a serious reporter. And, I think, what could be better than to be hated by Frank Lankowitz and Robert Gray of Hill & Knowlton or, for that matter by George Bush or Robert Stinnet, who is outraged that I am speaking here today? Stinnet, of course, was Bushs wartime biographer, and he is the guy who left the strafing report out of the biography.
But what is a little disturbing is to be hated by my putative colleagues in the press. And I am hated by them because I go around attacking them and telling them that they are slobs and lazy and tools of the establishment and hand-maidens to political power. And they hate me for it. But it is getting to the point that things are so polarized I really dont have any choice but to do this. To go around saying that politicians are lying to you and you have got to be aware, without pointing out that one of our big problems is that reporters themselves are helping amplify the lies, I would not be giving you the whole story, and that is what I am supposed to do as a journalist and a publisher.
Nowadays the courtiers in the press want to be invited to parties at the White House or Jack Kent Cooks box at RFK Stadium. They want to be loved, and this is paradoxical: they want to be loved by the politicians and by the masses, by the general public. They want celebrity status and they want access to the halls of power. But ultimately, of course, as Jefferson said, and I am paraphrasing, At some point in ones life, one has to choose between the interests of the many and the interests of the few. This balancing act is very dangerous for reporters and editorial people because, at a certain point, if you choose the interests of a few too often and it gets exposed, it can bring you downat least thats my hope.
The only way your interestthe public interestis going to be represented in the media is if you get wise to what is going on and you let the media know that you are dissatisfied. It takes I think $100 million to start a daily newspaper, and good luck trying to do so. But there has got to be some way that you get your message across that you are not happy, that you are not satisfied with the situation. Thats the only hope.
MacArthur: AT&T is the principal underwriter, along with PBS. I dont think the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour is any worse than CNN or any other news organization. What McNeil-Lehrer is and what most news organizations are these days are basically passive institutions. Walter Karps great insight, that it is not an ideological conspiracy by the media or by reporters to keep you in the dark, it is a passive reaction, a sort of folding inward in the face of political power.
The way the game is played in Washington and New York is if the White House says or the congressional leadership says, This is news, it becomes news. . Remember Bush decided that Somalia was news because he was in a bad mood about the likelihood of losing and he wanted to send a Christmas card to the American people. So, it became news. Government sets the news agenda, not Robin McNeil and Jim Lehrer and not AT&T and not PBS. I am not unloading on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour, they are no worse than anybody else.
Question: If the questions are not being asked, then isnt the information never going to get out to the public?
MacArthur: As I said, the reward system is such that you dont get rewarded for asking those questions. You get punished, you get criticized, you get insulted. You start asking and McNeil-Lehrer specializes in putting institutional government spokesman on and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post or news organizations like McNeil-Lehrer are very dependent on their relationships with government. They need guests for their shows; they need leaks to make it look like they are reporting the news and so on and so forth.
If Robin McNeil suddenly gets mean and asks that question, the White House or whoever sent the spokesman is going to say. We are not going to send him next time, Robin. We are not going to invite you to the Christmas party and we are not going to invite you to dinner with the Under-Secretary of State and you are going to get frozen out, if you do that too often.
I believe that the power of corporations is exaggerated in this country. I really do go against all of my left-wing friends and colleagues on this one. The real power in this country is with elected politicians and bureaucrats. And it is not bribery or influence from AT&T, it is the government that sets the news agenda. It is a reward system and unless you have owners, and there is really no alternative to private enterprise in the media, it is up to the owners to set a tone for the reporters where they are rewarded for asking the tough questions. The media today are not.
Question: Arent corporations really responsible for electing politicians and hence the policies and misinformation that results?
MacArthur: No, I think it is a misconception that corporations bribe politicians. What happens is politicians shake down corporations. It is a shakedown operation ,and it is too easy, and we get into trouble when we say this because it is tempting to say that politics is ruled by money. No, the country is ruled by politicians and they shake down whomever they can shake down for money to advance their causes and maintain control. Look, you have got to read Walter Karp, we are going to publish Indispensable Enemies. Youve got to read it. Harpers is going to reissue it. You should all buy a copy.
Question: With regards to Bob Simon, while Rather was crying crocodile tears about CBS not joining the nations and saying how terrible it was that everybody was kowtowing to Bush, I dont exactly know if it happened when he said the photographs were available, but Simon drove out past the American lines to find the enemy. I believe that it took him eight hours. That story was covered prominently, his capture and such. And in that respect, werent the journalists there responsible for not bringing up the point that it took eight hours to find the enemy, rather than the fact that he was captured by the Iraqi baby-killers?
MacArthur: That is a very astute point because I limit my comments about Bob Simon by saying, Hurray for Bob Simon. He is one of the only reporters who tried to break away from the pool system and the censorship system to go out and do some independent reporting, and he paid for it.
What is also terrible is that his colleagueswhile they did publicize his captureand didnt ask the question that you are asking, because it is true. I interviewed Simon. He went to the border and there was nobody there except the Saudi border guard all by himself and he asked, Have you seen any Iraqis? and the guard said, No. I havent seen anybody, you want to go look? I mean it is all sand, there is no fence. So they say. What the hell, and they drove into the desert looking for Iraqis. In the distance they see one jeep with three Iraqis in it and they have got guns and they arrest them. But he doesnt see anything along the border anywhere that suggests an invading army is encamped.
Another insidious thing that happened is that any reporters who tried to play ball with the government, they tried to get favors in exchange for operating with the government and the military were critical of Simon for not behaving like a good Boy Scout. Simon cheated. That is another thing I urge reporters to do is to buy and cheat in the name of truth. You know he would put on combat fatigues and he and his cameramen impersonated soldiers, which got them past checkpoints and got them out into the field. A lot of reporters said, Oh, that is terrible; they cheated. It is another world than the one that I came up in and I am only 37 years-old. Things have really changed.
Question: Is it possible that the reason the press really didnt cover the Gulf War adequately is because the feeling of the country at the time is that we didnt want another Vietnam, we wanted to feel good about this war, we wanted to win this war?
MacArthur: Yes. Once the war had begun, up to that point people were deeply ambivalent. Remember it was 50-50 after an enormous, expensive an very sophisticated public relations campaign. The country was still pretty much divided on sanctions versus war on January 11 when the Senate debate began. It was still pretty much divided in the polls. And it was a tribute to our confoundedly peaceful instincts that Casper Goodwood is complaining about that in the face of this onslaught, half the people were still skeptical about the war option. Does that answer your question?
Question: Do you know where the $11 million that was raised rather quickly for the advertising of the Hill & Knowlton public relations budget came from?
MacArthur: It was all Kuwaiti government money. Citizens for a Free Kuwait was a complete fraud. I counted the amount of money. I believe American citizens contributed about $312, some poor gullible souls. The Kuwaiti government contributed about $11 million. It was all fake.
Question: Why didnt the Kuwaiti Army or defenses put up a battle when they were invaded?
MacArthur: I am not an expert on Kuwaiti culture. I tried to learn as much about the Kuwaitis as I could but they are not noted as fighters. They are noted as pearl divers and that is how they built their fortune in the eighteenth century. One of the great ironies of Kuwaiti history is that in the mid-1930s, when Iraq was ruled by a nationalist king who wanted the British out, the Kuwaitis begged for a merger with Iraq, which the British could not permit because of their divide-and-rule policy. Suddenly the king of Iraq died in a car accident and there were actually pro-union riots in Kuwait, but then oil was discovered and the Kuwaitis discovered they didnt need Iraq. I think the Kuwaitis have a real claim to sovereignty in a sense that it is fashionable and cynical to say, Well, all these borders were drawn by the British in a tent, but there is a sort of Kuwaiti organism that exists from the 18th century onward. There is a culture. All the people, all the imported labor, doesnt get to participate in Kuwaiti society in equal terms. The Palestinians, the Filipino domestic workers who get brutalized and raped and beaten up and so on and so forth. None of those people get to participate. But there is a Kuwaiti culture, and it is not noted for its military valor.
Question: Do you remember the piece that appeared in The New York Post about Bush being a war hero and the tailgunner flying in formation and the story was apparently that the tailgunner saw no puff of smoke. Bush jettisoned the two guys in the tail, and let them go down in flames.
MacArthur: I am inclined to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on that one because I think I would have done the same thing, probably, but who knows? The interesting thing about that story though, is that as you say, only one installment ran. It was supposed to be a six-part series. They killed the last five parts. The main witness who was in the plane behind Bushs and who was the main source for the story, the White House got to. It is sort of known in the business that the White House got to him. We dont know how they got to him, but he said in an interview a few months later that he was contacted by the White House and now his version of what happened is different, period. I think that the strafing story is a really interesting story, not a definitive story but it is one that we should have known about.
Question: You spoke about the symbiotic relationship between the government and the media, would you speak a little more about proposal solutions that you would endorse?
MacArthur: Well, as I said, since freedom of the press is really guaranteed only to those who own one, there is no clear solution other than self-education. I mean, my book sold 12,000 copies and you can read it. It is not a mass market best-seller. I did get on to 60 Minutes with the Nayirah story, which reached 30 million people, but that is a fluke. I mean, not to take anything away from my reporting skills, but the timing was right and 60 Minutes jumped on it when they saw it on the op-ed page of The New York Times. The op-ed editor of the Times, Mike Levitas is a real news-man. He came up in the 1950s when journalists were called reporters and they didnt take on airs and so-on. And so he said, Hey, that is a great story. Lets do it. Lets play it up. But that doesnt happen very often.
There is one solution which Liebling suggested, which is the endowed newspaper or the endowed magazine and interestingly enough, The St. Petersburg Times is such a newspaper. It is owned by a foundation. It is allowed to operate for profit for the benefit of the Nelson Poyntner Foundation because Poyntner was an unusual guy who wanted to make sure that his way of doing business would continue into the future. So the editor of The St. Petersburg Timeshis name is Andy Barnescould on his own steam, show up in the Washington bureau one day, on the day the reporter who broke the satellite photograph story was looking for authorization to pay $3,000 for one more photograph to complete the puzzle from the Soviet agency, and she said, Hey, Andy, can I have the money to buy it? I have got an interesting story, and Andy said, Sure, you can do it. Now I do have to tell you that getting money out of an editor at a modern newspaper is like pulling teethespecially if it is connected with a controversial story like this that could get the paper into trouble. It just doesnt happen like that anymore. But Barnes, because he has got independence written into Poyntners will, runs the paper. So he can do whatever the hell he wants. Similarly, Harpers Magazine is owned by a foundation, and I can do anything I want. I dont have to answer to stock holders, etc., etc. I have to answer to my board, but my board generally agrees with what I am doing and what Lewis Lapham is doing.
Question: Aside from The St. Petersburg Times, were there any other bright lights news organizations in the Gulf War?
MacArthur: Yes, there are individual stories like the Bob Simon story that is a bright light. You know, I have a footnote at the back of the book: A story of four free-lancers who tried to do something different. One of them is a local guy by the name of Jonathan Franklin who got hired as an assistant, as a temporary mortician at Dover Air Force Base. He took classes to learn how to be a mortician so that he could be hired at Dover. So that he could find out if the body count the Pentagon was giving us matched the number of bodies coming into Dover. Jonathan Franklin has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a few alternative papers. Jonathan Franklin is the only reporter that I know who saw an American corpse in the Gulf War. It is sort of a stunt, but dont you think that it is a pretty good one? I mean I applaud that kind of initiative.
A British freelancer who had been in the British Army, put on his old regimental uniform and commandeered a Bradley fighting vehicle, by pulling rank on the Americans who were running it. He drove off and he got the best footage anybody got of the armored battle during the Gulf War.
An Englishman living in Toronto, Paul Roberts, went in on camelback from Jordan into Iraq and risked his life to come out with a really, really good story which appeared in Saturday Night, a Canadian magazine.
These guys are few and far between, and they are not celebrated. They are not famous for what they did. The most egregious surrender that occurred during the Gulf War in terms of symbolism and so-on, and I suppose in substance, was that the four big dailies, the big national dailies like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, all pulled their correspondents from Baghdad.
Peter Arnett stayed; of course, he is a bright light. But the big four papers ordered their people out. The Los Angeles Times guy fought to stay in and finally was reduced to saying to his boss, his former editor, I have to stay because my wife, Lucia Anuziatta has to stay for her paper, La Republica. The Los Angeles Times foreign editor said no.
Question: When and more importantly, why did this transition start to happen? Was it USA Today, was it CNN?
MacArthur: Mark Hertsgaard wrote a book called On Bended Knee which is about the transition between more or less combative reporting and suck-up journalism. What I think happenedand you have got to remember that The Washington Post was all by itself. And we dont know who Deep Throat was first of all. We dont know if Deep Throat was a high government official who made Watergate safe for The Washington Post until we know who Deep Throat was. The jury is out on how brave and independent the The Washington Post really was. Nonetheless they did the right thing and they pursued the story and we should all be grateful for it but you have got to think back to 1972 when Woodward and Bernstein were breaking their stories. Nobody was following up.
I worked at The Washington Star in 1978, that was only six years later, and the reporters used to joke about how it was their job to knock down the Watergate stories that Woodward and Bernstein were publishing. Nobody was following up. There was the famous story of CBS, where Walter Cronkite was going to do a special on Watergate. Paley, the owner personally intervened and cut it down, cut it in half, for the election when it would have done some good.
Remember, it wasnt that great; it was better in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then I think what happens is you have a collective sort of retrenchment because journalism executives and owners are essentially conservative people and there is still a lot of guilt around about bringing Nixon down. Very strange psychology. Fifteen years later, Nixon gives a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Publishers and is given a standing ovation. Okay?
Question: At the end of the war, we saw General Schwarzkopf kind of unveiling the entire strategy of the troops, and what area we occupied and how we moved in. I was just wondering, was that necessary?
MacArthur: His famous briefing at the end where he says Saddam Hussein is a jerk and not a soldier or whatever? Yes, I believe some of it is true, but some of it is not true. Everything was graphics and logos and the stage-managing was all very carefully thought out. Yes, the final part of that press conference is part of that campaign to make it look like he is a brilliant strategist and did everything right and that he is a great war-leader. Not everybody agrees that Schwarzkopf is tactically brilliant. If you read the after-action reports of the Air Force, the Navy and the Army, they all claim credit for having won the Gulf War without any help with the other service branches. The Air Forces is the most interesting report because they say, and I think they are probably right, that the war was over in the first ten minutes. The great irony is because they knocked out Husseins command-and-control center. He was blind after the first 15 minutes; electronically blind after 15 minutes. The way that the Air Force knew that they had won the war was that Peter Arnett went dark on CNN. They had knocked out his wire; they cheered in the Situation Room in Washington when Arnett went dark because they knew that everything was over. Everything after that initial bombing campaign is just slaughterjust out and out slaughter with the Iraqis just taking it. Whether the allies came in this way or that is irrelevant, I believe.
Question: What do you say to the journalism students and how do you spark enough harassability and meanness into them?
MacArthur: You have got to fortify them with a sense that at the end of their careers, at the end of their lives, they are going to feel a lot better about themselves if they try to tell the truth than if they only made a million dollars, or that they got invited to the White House for dinner five times.
END OF EVENT