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The media in the Gulf

Our Man in Basra (now back in the UK) has some thoughts on the difference between how the media reported Gulf War 1991 and how they reported Gulf War 2003 and why that matters.

During the Gulf War of 1991, media reporting went something like this: About a month of showing pictures, entirely controlled by the US military, of Allied airplanes flying over Iraq, followed by the announcement by General Schwarzkopf that the war was over and we had won.

Although they had their suspicions, none of the journalists, all kept behind the lines in Riyadh, knew that Allied troops had crossed the border into Iraq until three days after the ground offensive had started, the Republican Guard in Kuwait had been virtually destroyed, and Schwarzkopf announced victory. This severely limited the opportunity for the media to criticise the conduct of the ground war.

The above is a simplification, but it covers in essence the way the media war was fought in 1991 – by the journalists out there, by the military out there, and as it was seen by everyone else on their TVs. Naturally, the military regarded this as a great success. Equally naturally, the media regarded it as a disaster. The viewing public generally seemed satisfied, bar a few dedicated peaceniks, who wanted pictures of military screw-ups.

Two factors therefore set the context for the reporting of Gulf War 2003. First, the media were determined not to allow the military to keep them away from ‘the story’, the way they were kept away in 1991. Second, the military recognised that advances in media technology meant that it would be impossible to keep the media off the battlefield. It is now possible to transmit broadcast quality footage direct from the front with a device the size of a suitcase. During Gulf War 1991, the equivalent kit needed something the size of a large campervan. In the future the media will probably have more RPVs (remote piloted vehicles – i.e. the American Predator) flying over the battlefield with cameras than the military, not least because compared to almost all military budgets other than the American one, the media have far more money to spend.

During the Kosovo conflict, there were more freelance reporters with hand-held video cameras (or as the mainstream media think of them: rogue reporters) than ‘official’ ones. The military in 2003 therefore realised that they could not keep the media off the battlefield, and instead they had to try to control what the media showed, by feeding them the stories that the military wanted told.

This is not just a matter of propaganda. Third World armies such as that of the Iraqis have no hope of getting aircraft in the air against the US, but they can make great use of media reports as a form of reconnaissance. Imagine if in World War II every single movement of the forward Allied platoons was broadcast immediately by the BBC. This would have helped the Germans a lot, given their lack of air power.

The military solution was to offer journalists the opportunity to be “embedded” in front line units. The military thought this was good because they would thus have some influence over what got reported. They expected that journalists would start identifying with the soldiers they were with. They also thought that this would be attractive to news organisations, as it would enable them to go straight to the front with some degree of protection.

How the journalists reacted to this was very important in explaining how the war was reported. Experienced war reporters (Kate Adie, John Simpson) refused to be embedded, as they saw it as compromising their journalistic integrity. Unlike in World War II, such journalists see themselves as separate from the nations they come from, and believe they should report in the manner of impartial bystanders (though this does not stop them being biased).

Therefore the media organisations sent inexperienced journalists with no knowledge of the military or of war whatsoever. The result was that three types of journalism came out of the war.

Reports from embedded journalists.
These were a partial success for the military, as the journalists did indeed identify with the soldiers they were with. During the course of the conflict, the embedded journalists gradually moved from referring to “allied soldiers” to “our soldiers”. However, the embedded journalists were rarely in a position to get very exciting pictures because not much of a modern battle, still less a modern war, makes for exciting pictures.

In Wellington’s time, weapons were short range, and everyone could see everyone. Now, if you get seen, you get killed. This phenomenon is known as the “empty battlefield”. The enemy is there, but you can’t see him. An embedded front line journalist, just like a front line soldier, only sees a tiny and probably very misleading fragment of the battlefield.

More importantly, the embedded journalists understood nothing of the subject they were reporting. It is a strange fact that while any major media outlet would immediately fire their fashion correspondents for not knowing about the smallest detail of the doings of Gucci or Louis Vuitton, most defence correspondents have not even the most basic understanding of military organisation, or of the conduct of military operations. This severely irritated the military, and misled the public.

Two examples: The British failure to take Basra immediately was described as due to heavy resistance. In reality, resistance was light and was not the military problem. The British stopped in an attempt to minimise Iraqi civilian casualties.

Similarly, when the Americans paused during their drive on Baghdad, embedded journalists and their editors described this as if it was a major setback. In fact it was simply a routine matter of re-supply and reorganisation before the final offensive. This would have been obvious to anyone with even the slightest military knowledge.

Reports from experienced war reporters.
The experienced war reporters, having refused to be embedded, were generally in the wrong place. The classic example of this is John Simpson, who went to the north. There had been a plan for war in the north, but the Turks vetoed it. The result was that Simpson, who had been in enough real wars to know how they worked, was forced to try to manufacture stories from a very minor front. When the Simpson convoy got bombed, it was dramatic, but in the context of the war it was unimportant. But it was the only story Simpson had, so it got a lot of notice.

Reports from freelance reporters.
They took more casualties than the media regulars, and I think they even took more casualties than the Allied armies. This was largely because they drove around the front of the battlefield in exactly the same vehicles that the Iraqi fedayeen were using, and then acted surprised when they found themselves getting shot at. Amateur journalists with no understanding of the dangers of the war may by luck and by numbers get the best pictures, perhaps even a few of the best stories, but they are very poorly equipped either mentally or organisationally to put those stories into a wider context.

The overall result of all this is that the view of the war shown by the media to the general public was possibly the most inaccurate depiction of the progress of a war that there has ever been. This at a time when news gathering and communications technology has never been more sophisticated. This proves the axiom that the successful Western military have all learned: no matter how shiny the kit, what matters is the ability of those using it.

(To put the above into context see my previous article. Regardless of what individual journalists may have felt, as far as the media as a whole was concerned, none of this matters. Gulf War 2003 was a great success. They sold a lot of stories.)

9 comments to The media in the Gulf

  • Guy Herbert

    “In Wellington’s time, weapons were short range, and everyone could see everyone.”

    On the contrary; with the air full of smoke and grapeshot, hard-to-identify troops surging about the place, and most communication by messenger who might be killed or get lost, almost no-one could tell what was going on. Great generals were the ones who could make any sense of it at all.

    Current troops and reporters have probably got better information than their Napoleonic counterparts despite the censorship and propaganda.

  • Guy: I think you completely miss the point. The Battle of Waterloo happened over a tiny area by modern standards and could be controlled by a general on a hill with small staff of officers on horseback. To understand the nature of The Hundred Days as a reporter, you just needed to visit a handful of places or just tag along in the general area where ever Napoleon or Wellington or Blucher went. To have a pretty good understanding what was happening in the recent war in Iraq, you simply cannot do that by following the 1st British Armoured Division’s HQ around as the conflict is vastly more dispersed and happening all the time all over the place on many different levels.

  • Guy Herbert

    No; I take the general point, that there’s too much going on in too many places for a single reporter to get a clear understanding from what’s around him. Mine was–maybe just a quibble–that things haven’t actually changed that much. Battlefields are bigger, communications are better and we still don’t know what’s going on.

    As far as I’m aware Berthier was no more welcoming the press corps to his mobile chancellry than the Pentagon… Following the staff around and sending out regular messages would have been treated as spying. The equivalent of an embedded reporter might be some cornet from the Kings German Legion writing home. The neat coherent accounts we have of Napoleonic battles and strategy derive from later analysis by historians and military theorists.

    Where our modern reporter is a bit better off is he can know pretty accurately where he is, and he can be briefed on the general picture as it is understood by his own organisation, military permitting. Our postmortems are quicker, and less dependent on official dispatches, but truly valuable accounts will take years to emerge.

  • I was an avid watcher of cable news during the war – mostly Fox News. It was certainly true that from the live “embed” reports, you had a hard time telling what was going on. What you did get to see, and what the militiary wanted you to see, was the professionalism and humanity of the soldiers the reporters were embedded with. This is a part of American wars that has been unreported (or even lied about) by the media starting with Vietnam.

    Also, Fox had some experienced military people embedded. Greg Kelley is a marine reservist. Oliver North is a decorated former combat marine. These guys were able to at least figure out the micro-tactical situation they were in, attend classified briefings (because they were trusted to not give away critical data), and give good reports.

    If nothing else, they certainly gave you an idea of how confusing war is to the participants. Kelley and crew filmed (and broadcast live, I think, but am not sure) the 3ID “Thunder Run” through Baghdad, which was a display of American military might and its capability of applying massive but precise violence.

    Thus, although these guys couldn’t tell you much about the strategic situation, they could give you a pretty good idea about what the war was like to a participant, and how the participants behaved.

    I have read reports from some embeds saying that most of the embedded reporters were unable to, and unwilling to make human contact with the soldiers. These graduates of elite colleges just couldn’t connect with the enlisted men, who constitute the bulk of the force, and didn’t trust the offices. They kept to themsleves, complained about the living conditions, and in general conducted themselves like the spoiled babies that many are.

    Let’s face it… no war reporter on the scene is going to be able to tell you much about the overall situation – experienced or not – when the war is so rapid, fluid and multidimensional as this one was. A war like this can only be accurately reported in retrospect, and too many reporters, following their “Code of Ethics”, simply used the postwar period as an opportunity to criticize and to lazily publish reports that ignored major factors.

    I think the military was brilliant to embed reporters. It allowed people to see what their soldiers (at least the ground troops) were actually doing. And certainly, if those troops had been committing atrocities, or had taken serious casualties or defeats, the embeds would have reported on it – live or nearly live. So the military demonstrated, just by having the embeds, its trust in the professionalism and character of its troops.

    One of the more amusing embeds was Geraldo Rivera. I really enjoyed watching him, and started calling his segments “Geraldo’s Greatest Adventure.” In other words, he was doing the “reality show,” having and adventure I would love to do. Other than that, his news value was about zero, and although he was accused of giving away sensitive military information at one point, I believe that was false. Geraldo is also interesting because of his ideological shift after 9-11. He got his start as a left wing lawyer, and had always been a hard leftie… until 9-11. So now we have this guy who is totally gung ho on US military action who has the speech habits and kisee-feelie behavior of a 60’s leftie hippie. In other words, it’s a kick to watch!

  • Chris Josephson

    I was glad to read and see the reports from the embedded reporters. It was fascinating to witness the confusion, chaos, etc. that exists in a battle. It gave me an increased respect for the military.

    I thought the soldiers who had to put up with some of the ‘prima donna’ reporters deserved medals. I’m glad all the reporters were not like that. Some seemed to bond with the units they were with.

    I think the reporting now is far worse than it was in the early stages of the war. All I seem to read and see are stories about how bad things are. It’s rare to see a story that tells us anything positive.

    I believe the news media is getting revenge for being wrong about how much of a blood bath we were in for. I recall before Baghdad was taken most media outlets were predicting another Stalingrad-like seige. I think they are sorry it wasn’t.

  • David

    U.S. doctrine has advanced considerable in the area of “information operations” or “information warfare”. This comes from a realization that in conflicts, the nation has four ways to express national power: Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic or DIME. We, as a nation, can employ these elements of national power to achieve our national goals. Depending on the level of conflict, one or more of these elements may predominate. It is also possible to “lose” in one element but “win” in another element. The Vietnam War is a classic example of a skillfully waged information campaign which overcame continual battlefield defeats.

    The Informational element of national power has several elements of its own, which may be offensive or defensive. According to Joint Publication 3-13:

    “Defensive IO [information operations] integrate and coordinate policies and procedures, operations, personnel, and technology to protect and defend information and information systems. Defensive IO are conducted through information assurance [protecting computer programs, databases and files], OPSEC [reducing activities which will tip off an enemy to focus his collection systems on our weak points], physical security [protecting computer and communications systems], counterdeception, counterpropaganda, counterintelligence, EW, and SIO.”

    Public Affairs (PA) is an integral part of information warfare when it comes to counterdeception and counterpropaganda. PA organizationally falls within the chain of command dealing with information operations. By doctrine and by law, PA does not engage in deception operations. PA will never knowingly lie to the media. However, commanders may limit the information released by PA, then allow the media to make erroneous conclusions based on this limited information and the reporter’s own personal assumptions.

    With that said, PA has several ways of achieving its military objectives. These can include embedded reporters, media briefings, news releases or even by limiting media access to the battlespace. All of this is integral to PA’s counterdeception and counterpropaganda efforts. Our entire media policy is based on how it will help us achieve our military and national objectives through the Informational element of national power.

    So when you say that only two factors conditioned the media policy in 2003, you fail to note the single overriding reason. The embedded reporter program was created to counter what U.S. strategists assumed would be horrific actions taken by Hussein yet blamed on coalition forces. The possibilities ranged from WMD attacks against Iraqi civilians, massacres of civilians, war crimes committed by Saddam loyalists wearing coalition uniforms and flat out lies about the state of the Iraqi government and military forces. I think that last assumption proved correct when the Iraqi information minister made claims immediately disproven by reporters embedded with military units.

    On a side note, I am absolutely baffled by the inept Israeli information operations. I think Israeli soldiers should have cameras on their helmet to constantly document their actions in the West Bank and Gaza. The former Jordanians, now known as Palestinians, currently living in the West Bank have a much better developed sense of information warfare than Israel. They get to claim anything they want. The gullible media spews the claims over the airways and the Isaelis do nothing more than sputter denials. Video is a great, but unused potential Israeli weapon.

    Back to your article, you claim that the embedded reporters “misled the public.” Yet they did their job. They were key to our counterpropaganda efforts and they did provide real information, albeit thin slices. However, they gave us (the public) real information from the scene, which combined with information from other sources, painted a fairly accurate sense of the war. I watched the war on T.V. and my perception of what was happening was fairly accurate, so I was not misled.

    My biggest beef, however, comes in this section:

    “Amateur journalists with no understanding of the dangers of the war may by luck and by numbers get the best pictures, perhaps even a few of the best stories, but they are very poorly equipped either mentally or organisationally to put those stories into a wider context.”

    You express an elitism that I find disheartening coming from a Samizdata contributer. This is the same complaint of every elitist organization which finds itself confronted with an uncontrollable opponent. It is the complaint of stock traders, airline booking agents, full service gas station attendents, and the mainstream media. I read a great account of the hysteria surrounding the rise of self-service filling station. People will torch themselves. They will fill their cars with the wrong fuels. It’s dangerous. It’s crazy. Somehow, we all managed to make it work.

    I think we could use a few more free-lance journalists ferreting out the stories and less mainstream media living it up at the local five star hotel on a plush expense account. Yes it is risky to the reporter. Yes, much of the reportage will be crap, but in the end it will give me, a member of the public, more sources of independent information which I can then crosscheck. Maybe something like what the blogsphere has done.

    Finally, I do not agree that “the view of the war shown by the media to the general public was possibly the most inaccurate depiction of the progress of a war that there has ever been.” I had a darn good sense of the war. It is only after the embedded reporters left Iraq that I began to feel that I was being deceived. Also, I would say that Vietnam would rank up their as one of the more innaccurate depictions of the progress of a war. Didn’t the U.S. military defeat the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive? Nothing in the media at the time gave any sense of that at all and nothing in the Iraq war came as close to that for sheer inaccuracy.

  • veryretired

    While there are any number of cogent criticisms that could be leveled at the overall performance of the Media when dealing with significant and complex issues, such as Iraq, or the war against terrosrists in general, the fundamental difficulty is that the major players are not what they believe themselves to be.

    When the second term of the Nixon administration was derailed shortly after an overwhelming electoral victory, compounding the sense of power the “opinion makers” had discovered at LBJ’s decision not to run again in 1968, a belief percolated through the journalistic community which asserted that they were more than society’s watchdogs—they were now the arbiters of valid political, social, and cultural norms.

    However, this new, and immensely more powerful, role was based on a view of the world that could only be described as “tabloid news”. As the character played by Faye Dunaway in “Network” described the network news, it was fires, shootings, accidents and lost puppies, with less than 2 minutes of hard news in the whole show. (Anyone who wants to understand television should rent that movie, it is Paddy Chayevsky’s revenge)

    In fact, the media are entertainment, not news, just as football is entertainment, not sports. The mis-identification of the popular media as serious journalism leads to the bizarre spectacle of the NY Times following up on stories first broken by The National Enquirer, and further chased by the TV types, as long as they can get video.

    It is clear that if Christ, or Mohamed, reappeared tomorrow, the media would largely ignore it unless there was good video, and the first question would probably be something like “How do you feel about that crucifixion, JC?”

    It is not media bias which causes us to get erroneous pictures of reality, it is the fundamentally flawed belief that the media can ever transmit any valid rendition of reality in the first place. It may very well be that the multitude of new voices on the blogs and other internet sources of information will bring some important depth to a worldview based on the demand for 30 seconds of good video before you get on the air.

  • Zathras

    I think the embedded reporters I read did a pretty good job during the war. Reports filed during combat operations are bound to convey mostly the confusion, violence and stress of war, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously as far as their commentary on the war effort’s overall progress is concerned.

    Frankly, I think the Bush administration made a very big mistake in not pressuring media outlets to continue the embed program after major combat operations ceased. To the extent good things are being done in Iraq it seems that it is mostly allied military personnel that are doing them; the remaining reporters in Iraq, who mostly cover the CPA in Baghdad, are bound to miss much of this story.

  • The major fault lies with those at the controls back in the states; they have material showing good signs of progress in the transition to civil control but refuse to show it. Unless it’s ghastly-looking and makes the Coalition look bad, it just ends up on the cutting room floor!