War Reporters Debate Gulf-War Press Standards Were Journalists Too Passive, Too Cozy with the Military, Too Accepting of `Facts'?

Article excerpt

THE Gulf war was hailed as a victory for the United States military. But many critics look back on it as a defeat for American journalism.

At the heart of their concerns is the charge that official censorship kept reporters from unearthing the true story of what went on in the Persian Gulf in those few brief months of conflict.

A leading critic is John R. MacArthur, author of "Second Front: Censorship & Propaganda in the Gulf War" (Hill and Wang, 1992), a biting analysis of what he saw as the military's efforts to restrict the flow of information and of the media's acquiescence to those efforts. His views were a flashpoint during a recent forum on war coverage at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

The guest of honor on the panel was Peter Arnett, the Cable News Network reporter whose on-the-scene coverage from Baghdad, Iraq, gave television viewers a candid and dramatic perspective on the war. It also drew sharp criticism from Washington. Mr. Arnett has just published a memoir of his many years as a war correspondent, "Live From the Battlefield." (See review, right.)

Mr. MacArthur generated heated discussion with his assertion that the media's willingness to "sign on" to the agreement to limit its coverage to tightly controlled "pools" made it "hostage to government." He broadened his argument from the Gulf war to Somalia, saying it was only the freelance snooping of a Somali photographer and a Canadian reporter that brought to light the brutal treatment given the bodies of dead US soldiers.

"They beat the censors," MacArthur said, and in the wake of those reports US policymakers shifted toward the pullout that is under way now.

MacArthur's views were countered by other panelists. British journalist Rowena Webster, now a student at Harvard Business School but a war correspondent for London's Sunday Express during the Gulf conflict, said that it made no sense to say that newspaper and broadcast organizations should not have signed the "pooling" agreements. The point was to get over there, she said, and then seize opportunities to break away from the pools and sniff out stories.

The Gulf war was particularly hard to cover for a number of reasons, she said. …