article appeared in the April 1991 issue of Conservative
Review, pp. 27-32. It
was republished under the title “The News Media Were Biased Against the Persian
Gulf War” in the “Current Controversies” book series in a volume entitled
The Gulf War’s (Intolerable) “New Journalism”
Dwight D. Murphey
It is one of the salient facts about American life—a fact
that should never be lost sight of by anyone who hopes to understand our
cultural slide and the neurotic nature of so much of our national
discourse—that a deeply alienated intellectual subculture has long found
expression not only within our universities but also within our dominant media
culture and in the entertainment industry.
Attempts were made by the media during the Gulf War to undermine the
resolve of the
Those who base their thinking about our national problems on the very natural and easy assumption that we have a “normal” society are, in effect, operating on a false set of premises. If we ignore the cancer of the alienated intellectual culture, we live in a world of make-believe.
Mainstream Americans have been fully aware of liberal media bias for many years. But on the whole the great American majority—aptly characterized a few years ago as “the silent majority”—has allowed itself to be cowed into a submissive, albeit grudging, acceptance of the images and neuroses that are poured in upon it. How else is it that a movie like Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” which pictured American soldiers as so utterly depraved, could have created hardly a murmur of protest?
But now there has been the stimulus given to patriotism by
the recent war and by
And angry it should be!
The liberal media used the Gulf War to extend, formalize and
institutionalize its wartime reporting in ways that deliberately eschew any
loyalty to the
The question that faces Americans today is whether we are going to sit still for this vast new extension of the bias. If Americans do choose to voice their anger, they will need first to arrive at a solid factual and conceptual foundation. For this, a dispassionate analysis is needed that will set aside the emotion, however temporarily. In what follows, I will seek to provide that sort of analysis through a series of steps:
First, by delineating and illustrating the specific journalistic abuses that were committed during the war;
Second, by making clear the dangers that these abuses pose (and the terrible harm they might well have caused if the war had taken longer or had entailed more American casualties);
Third, by analyzing both the concepts behind, and the context of, the “new journalism”; and
Fourth, by reflecting upon the proper role of a free press during wartime.
The Media’s Abuses During the Gulf War
CNN (Cable News Network) has commanded most of the attention. It is important to note, though, that the other television networks hoped to play the same role, but were simply far less successful at it. My review of press reports for the two months following the middle of January 1991 shows me that the main print media, too, molded their actions to the “new journalism.”
1. Reporting from Within
I intend to discuss later precisely what is wrong with
this. But to keep it in perspective it
is worth thinking about how astonishing it would have been if the American
press had reported from inside
2. Providing a Platform for Enemy Propaganda. The war coverage was a mixture. Not all of it was negative, especially after the coalition’s military successes became evident. But this shouldn’t obscure the fact that a significant part of the coverage provided a platform—in this country and worldwide—both for blatant enemy propaganda (usually labeled “Cleared by Iraqi Censorship”) and for empathetic presentations of the enemy’s point of view (usually not so labeled).
One of the more egregious examples is Peter Arnett’s January
28 interview of Saddam Hussein. Saddam
sounded like a music teacher using CNN’s podium to lead an international choir:
“All of the people of
Arnett had already lent himself to Iraqi propaganda of the
worst sort on January 23 with his tour of the so-called “infant formula
factory,” which the
It’s a mistake, though, to focus entirely on Arnett. In
After the bombing of what the coalition said was a
command-and-control bunker and the Iraqis called a shelter, the front page of
the Eagle on February 14 featured
large, bold-print quotes from Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister (who said
that “we demand that the U.N. … condemn this terrible crime”), and Abdalla
There are many such examples. Throughout the war, American statements were offset, juxtaposed with, and contradicted by statements from the enemy and enemy sympathizers.
3. A Constant Repetition of Charges About
Alleged Attacks on the Civilian Population.
Perhaps the most continuous flow of enemy propaganda in the print media
took the form of the almost daily reports from
A report by Carol Rosenberg from
A January 30 story from
Then on February 4, a
The “civilian casualty” theme was picked up by the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post
Service on February 8. In a story (from
Two days later, on February 10, the Wichita Eagle had a headline “Allied attacks hinder
All of this was followed by the pointing-with-alarm over the bombing of the Baghdad bunker (the alleged “shelter”), which was put forward with all the flamboyance of a scandal—with the United States cast in the defensive posture.
4. Visual Depictions of Suffering and of Dead
American Soldiers. From the
The media had relatively little opportunity to exploit this
aspect of the war, but they certainly didn’t eschew it. Once the ground campaign started, they began
what they could along these lines. The
front page of the Wichita Eagle on
March 2 carried a 5-column-wide photo, taken by the Knight-Ridder Tribune News, of an American soldier crying while sitting next to another soldier
whose eyes were bandaged; next to both of them is a dead soldier in a body
bag. Back on page 10, another large
picture showed soldiers lifting an American body, also in a bag, down from a
Bradley Fighting Vehicle. (On the same
page there was a picture of a boy in tears.
The caption: “An Iraqi boy cries amid the rubble of
These depictions weren’t inserted unthinkingly. Accuracy in Media reports that “when the Pentagon proposed press guidelines that would have barred showing wounded American soldiers in shock and agony, the media protested loudly… The military, showing its own lack of psywar savvy, gave in and dropped the guideline.”
4. Showing of Many Filmclips Cleared by the
Enemy. A number of televised reports
came out of
The “cleared by Iraqi censors” filmclips could have no justification on the ground that the media were seeking objectivity, since everyone would agree that the filmclips clearly weren’t “objective.” It is apparent, therefore, that a desire for objectivity wasn’t the prime rationale for the new journalism. Instead, the ethos was one of moral equivalence and of an attitude of loyalty to no nation in particular.
But even this isn’t what at first blush if appears to be. The presence of “open societies” and “closed societies” on the world scene (and in the war itself) means that the open societies were deluged with Iraqi propaganda while the closed societies, such as Iraq, that chose to bar the showing of U.S. military reports didn’t let their people see them. The result is a stacked deck: the new journalism gives a worldwide platform to anti-American propaganda, but American perspectives are provided a vehicle only in nations that choose to show them. There is no real neutrality of treatment (even if “neutrality” by the media were an acceptable rationale while we are at war). Can we imagine that it is possible that American and the West’s media don’t realize this?
5. Other Assorted Abuses Too Numerous to Mention. I don’t mean to suggest by the above enumeration that I have exhaustively catalogued all of the media’s wartime abuses. We could, for example, easily include the CBS team’s having gone off on its own into the “no man’s land,” where its members were taken prisoner, and then CBS’s complaining bitterly that the Saudis were interfering in the search for them; or the publication of some bitterly anti-American letters-to-the-editor (reflecting the new ethos that it’s perfectly all right, even desirable, for the pro’s and con’s of a war to continue to be debated even after the firing has started); or the lukewarm, often selectively negative, treatment that such a paper as the Wichita Eagle gave to the weekend “support-America” rallies that were put together by local citizens (including this author) who wanted to support our country.
The Harms that the New Journalism Can Cause
First, let us realize that what we are talking about, as in so many matters, involves a trade-off. An internationally-minded, loyal-to-no-country wartime journalism, if truly committed to “uncovering the truth,” can no doubt have some valuable consequences. To some degree, facts will be dug out and falsehoods exposed; sensitivities will be raised; ideas will be batted about on a world stage, and no one (at least in theory) will be left undisturbed in his provincialism. Such a journalism might have done the world a lot of good during World War I.
It is easier, however, to recite these benefits than to have
full confidence that they will accrue. I
wish that I could look out on the world and know that the free-world’s media
had, over all these years of a free press’s existence, uncovered and publicized
Stalin and Mao’s, and other assorted Communists’, atrocities as fully as they
did Hitler’s. I wish that the world were
as aware of the millions who were deliberately starved by Stalin in the
The point I am making, of course, is that a “free press,” when governed by its own blindnesses and passions, as ours so continually is, is no guarantee that “the truth will out.” Only in “Journalism 101,” where “the First Amendment pieties” are taught so that media practitioners can mouth them unctuously for many years thereafter, is there any pure and naïve confidence that wondrous benefits will accrue. (No one should conclude from this that I am against the First Amendment or a free press. It’s just that journalists blatantly overstate their benefits while equally blatantly, much of the time, violating their spirit. Hypocrisy runs rampant in the journalistic profession more than in any other I know.)
On the other side of the ledger—the side that deals with the “harms” that can flow from the new journalism—here is what we find:
1. A Treasonable Undermining of American Will.
This did not come home to roost during the Gulf War. The war was over far too soon, and with too
few casualties, for that. But this does
not mean that the media were not pulling out all the stops in their effort to
turn the American public against the American government and the American
prosecution of the war. They did their
best to lay the foundation for feelings of revulsion, guilt and eventual loss
of will. (And they did this even in a
It is helpful that the sympathy factor was largely
absent. By removing a variable, it makes
it even clearer that the media’s conduct during the Gulf War shows their desire
for a journalism divorced from considerations of loyalty to the
2. Adversely Molding Attitudes Among Diverse
Peoples. CNN broadcasts to over a
hundred countries. Peoples throughout
the world see American television and are affected in their perceptions by the
American media. And the press reports of
the alleged American strafing of Red Crescent convoys no doubt reached
millions. How many thousands, even
millions, in the Arab nations and elsewhere drank it all in, accepting it in
confirmation of their paranoia about and hatred toward the
3. Disastrously Warping American Military and Political Policy. In Vietnam, American presidents were forced, incredibly, to allow enemy sanctuaries; they were badgered into severely limiting target selection; they were led to fight the war on the very turf they were trying to protect, without taking the ground war to the enemy’s own homeland; and eventually they felt it imperative to withdraw under conditions that left the North Vietnamese army entrenched within South Vietnam itself. In short, they fought the war under constraints that caused us to fight the war badly, slowly forfeiting our national will, and eventually lose the war itself. Our media-induced national neuroses, and the anti-war movement they spawned, were central to this.
Certainly the Gulf War was prosecuted vigorously enough to
have avoided most of these warpings. At
least, that’s the conventional wisdom, and it’s partly right. But we did refrain—did we not?—from bombing
the Al-Rashid hotel because of all the foreign journalists there, despite a
conviction that it housed the final communication link between Saddam and his
And we did limit quite unnaturally the political objectives
for which we fought. Most amazingly, we
called the ceasefire without having seen the ouster of Saddam from his
dictatorship. This left
Just as significantly, we subordinated our own formulation of
war objectives. Far from putting the
The answer almost certainly lies in the fearful “look over your shoulder” reluctance to assert power that has become, largely through the impact of liberal intellectual and media culture, a part of the contemporary American character. In many ways, the Bush administration and the military deserve lavish credit for performing magnificently during the war. But this should not obscure for us the pusillanimity that undermined our strategic policy.
4. Creating a “Moral Equivalency” Relativism. A disastrous moral effect of a wartime journalism that carries everyone’s propaganda, adds its own alienated slanting, reveals continuing skepticism toward statements of the American government and military, and seeks conspicuously to separate itself from any national loyalty is that it adds immeasurably to the attitude, held by America’s alienated intellectual culture and by many in Europe and the Third World, that there is a “moral equivalency” between the United States, as a free society, and whatever closed-society enemy we are fighting.
This, of course, is a form of moral, perceptual
bankruptcy. In Ayn Rand’s words, it is
“moral embezzlement” because it robs the
There is no end to the conceptual mischief such a skewing can
cause. We see it in small ways as well
as large. In
5. Undercutting the American Attempt to
Establish a Precedent Against “Total War.”
Earlier, we traced the propaganda that came out of
This propaganda was bad enough in itself, for the reasons
we’ve stated. But we should go further
and note that these charges were, in a special way, damaging to the world’s
future. The twentieth century has been a
century of “total war” in which there has been little reluctance to attack
civilian populations. (I don’t mean to
suggest that this has been exclusively a characteristic of the twentieth
But in the Gulf War, the Bush administration justly limited our targeting to military targets. If the international norm for the future can be to avoid the slaughter of civilians, that is a vastly significant move, I think, toward a heightened level of civilization.
The precedent was largely downgraded, however, by the “they’re killing civilians” propaganda that flowed constantly into the world media. Will the world remember this war as one that set a valuable new precedent? Not if hundreds of millions of people give credence to the propaganda.
The Concepts and Context of the “New Journalism”
We have noted that the “new journalism” has the following characteristics: an international flavor, involving media from other countries as well as the United States; a detachment from loyalty to the United States or, presumably, from any other country; a desire to be physically present even on enemy territory and in combat zones; a policy of dramatizing and personalizing the war’s suffering, including of American soldiers; a readiness to run all sides’ propaganda, sometimes labeled as such; a belief that it is desirable, even during wartime, for policy options to be publicly debated and for opposition to be demonstrated toward the war effort; a willingness to question and to voice hostility toward the American government’s and military’s statements, motives, conduct and moral position; and a minimizing of concern over the effects on American morale, the passions of other peoples, or American policy.
Let us look at the conceptual foundations of this position:
1. Detachment from National Loyalty. We have already commented that the running of Iraqi propaganda, labeled as such, shows that the ostensible rationale for the new journalism cannot be that it seeks “objectivity.” Rather, it seeks independence, which involves forsaking national loyalties. The theory is that this will lead to a vitally constructive international free press.
We have already observed that in the context of open and closed societies this skews the wartime presentation of images and ideas in a way that is very favorable to the closed societies.
At its core, the new journalism is an extension of the absolutist conception of the First Amendment and of “free speech.” This is a conception that holds that “free speech” far outweighs all other values (except for “politically correct sensitivity”), so that indeed a “weighing process” ought not to be engaged in at all.
This is an extremist position, although widely held within our intellectual culture. There is no reason for a supporter of a free society to embrace it. Freedom of speech can be given a high value, as it must in a free society, without losing sight of a great many other values that are also vital to such a society. (During wartime, one of these is, of course, the vital necessity of preserving the very society itself from military defeat.) Any time one value is made into an absolute in denigration of others, there is a serious loss of proportion. That is not something the theory of a free society demands. In fact, just the opposite is true: a free society requires the accommodation of many values.
I have noticed over the years that any viewpoint that
absolutizes a single value has instant appeal.
Many people insist on the black-and-white clarity of an unencumbered
idea and are unable to deal with a more subtle consideration of many
factors. In the debate over the new
journalism, we are going to hear a lot about how conceptually unthinkable it
“would be” to allow other considerations to impinge upon complete journalistic
independence in wartime. This will
involve an effort to cause us to forget that, at least until
Anyone familiar with the ideological wars of the recent past will recognize, too, that the idea of a press that eschews national loyalty and that articulates a constant skepticism, almost a paranoia, has come to embody much of the worldview of the New Left counterculture. It is not coincidental that many journalists today were greatly influenced by the sixties. “The Establishment” evoked no loyalty, only contempt. In that context, it would actually be a source of embarrassment for a journalist to accept at face value much of anything our government says.
2. Other Aspects of the Failure to Weigh Additional Values. The downgrading of other values is an essential ingredient in the attitude of moral equivalence. It also underlies the argument that “even during wartime, the debate should go on.”
Both of these reflect the atrophying of patriotic sensibility that has occurred among Americans since World War II. If the survival and welfare of the country were still guarded by a powerful mystique, it would not be an easy matter to subordinate national interests to an absolutized free speech, anti-establishment attitudes, perceptions of moral equivalence, or a willingness to indulge America-bashing protestors. It would be a certainty, say, that we would either be prosecuting Ramsey Clark or enacting legislation for the punishment of such conduct as his in the future.
3. Never to be Lost Sight Of: The Alienation of
Our Dominant Intellectual and Media Culture. Except at the very beginning of this article,
I have discussed the new journalism without regard to the overriding fact of
American intellectual life: that the “alienation of the intellectual” against a
middle-class, market-oriented society has for many decades been a major given
I doubt very much whether any of the ideological skewing that
we have been talking about would be taking place if it weren’t for this
intellectual alienation. The antipathy
toward “bourgeois culture”—which includes most especially the
I have cited the fact that the new journalism cannot produce
a neutral result in a world of open and closed societies. Even more fundamentally, however, we must
expect that journalism will not even strive for neutrality, other than as a
façade. A constant factor will be hatred
In the Gulf context, the alienation toward the West was there even though Saddam himself had little ideological attraction (other than to the extent that the Left has attached itself to the Palestinian cause over the past several years). If the war had become protracted or had involved many casualties so that it would have become possible for the Left to recruit a sizeable number of discontented people, the alienated intellectual culture would have been more than happy not only to erode American resolve, but to tear this country apart. The history of the Left has consisted of a constant search by the alienated intellectual culture for disaffected groups with which to affiliate itself.
Conclusion: What Should “Free Speech” Entail in Wartime?
The answer to this question is not to be found in a conceptually purist form. Freedom of speech ought at all times to be considered a principal player in an orchestra made up of the many values that are important to a free society. The significance of wartime is that it imbues some of those other values, such as national survival or the least costly prosecution of the war in terms of lives and treasure, with more than ordinary importance.
For the proper balance, I would simply have us look back in American history, such as to World War II, to follow the light of experience. Let that be the litmus test. If the American public would have been scandalized by a journalist’s doing something—such as interviewing an anti-war activist from the enemy capital—during World War II, then it should be equally scandalous now. Only in that way can we free ourselves from the post-Vietnam ethos that the predominant media culture is seeking to extend into a new wartime journalism.
[Note in 2006: It is a matter of some interest—and should be a subject of serious study as to why—that American journalism has not treated the Iraq War in the same way it treated the Gulf War. Although criticism of the war has grown as the insurgent campaign has continued on and on and has rendered futile the post-conquest American effort at nation-building, the features of the “new journalism” as outlined in this article have been conspicuous by their absence.
[What is especially
important to note in the context fifteen years after this article was published
is that the fundamental premises underlying the article have been turned on
their head. The article argues that it
is fallacious to presume a “moral equivalence” between the
[The article urges, too, a restoration of the implicit
confidence that Americans used to repose in their government and its
pronouncements. But to be trusted, one
must be trustworthy. It is tragic, then,
that there is now so little basis for trust.
From President Clinton’s near-pathological lying to the George W. Bush
administration’s blatant fabrications to justify invading
[And even at the earlier time when Americans did trust their government, that trust was much abused—as witness the obfuscations about the sinking of the Maine that precipitated the Spanish-American War, or about the sinking of the Lusitania that played so great a role in taking the United States into World War I, or about the lead-up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Reflecting about these things causes us to see the value of an independent, objective, piercing media that will look behind shibboleths, lies and half-truths. No one should confuse such a thing, however, with the “new journalism” of the Gulf War era, which was far more informed by alienation than by a desire to ferret out the truth.]