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War Reporters Debate Gulf-War Press Standards

Were journalists too passive, too cozy with the military, too accepting of `facts'?

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.

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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. She listed the difficulty of following the air campaign, the lack of bearings in a desert terrain, the brief duration of the war, and the nature of the journalistic personnel there. Warming to that last point, she argued that many of the American reporters in the Gulf were defense correspondents whose cozy relationship with the military kept them from asking ``the hard questions.'' A good ``regular reporter'' who didn't mind asking ``very basic questions'' would have better served the public, she said.

That assertion brought an angry reply from Bernard Trainor, the fourth panelist, who directs the national security program at the Kennedy School but has been both a lieutenant general in the Marines and a New York Times military correspondent. Mr. Trainor said the defense correspondents' expertise about military hardware and other technical matters was a definite plus.

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``I found one of the most destructive things during the war was hearing reporters on the scene asking asinine questions,'' Trainor said, recalling one ``twit'' who asked Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf if he had filed an environmental impact statement before commencing the bombing.

Arnett weighed in after that exchange, assuring Trainor that when it comes to incompetence, ``I could give you story for story on incompetent officers.''

Arnett agreed that good war reporting involves taking opportunities when they arise. When the Iraqis saw the amount of criticism he was taking from official circles in Washington for his uncensored dispatches from Baghdad, they warmed up ``and I used that leverage to extend my area of coverage,'' Arnett said.

MacArthur got in a final word, asserting that the proof of lax reporting during the war was the stories that weren't uncovered until after the conflict ended: the exaggeration of Saddam Hussein's troop strength in Kuwait; the preponderance of ``dumb'' bombs over the radar-guided ``smart'' ones that got so much coverage; and the facts about how many Scud missile launchers had been destroyed.

And perhaps his prime example: the horror stories of Kuwaiti babies being pulled out of incubators by Iraqi invaders. It was a public-relations hoax, MacArthur said, but unquestioningly reported at the time.

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