The Persian Gulf crisis received massive and sustained coverage in the American media. As numerous critics have pointed out, television network news in particular largely parroted the Bush administration’s line, accepting and passing on its version of reality as the truth. A study released in March by the Center for the Study of Communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst adds a new dimension to our understanding of television’s role in shaping public perceptions of the Gulf crisis and enhancing support for the war.
Entitled The Gulf War: A Study of the Media, Public Opinion and Public Knowledge, this project sought to gauge what people watching television news actually absorbed from the barrage of words and images with which they have been bombarded since August 1990. Researchers Justin Lewis, Sut Jhally and Michael Morgan conducted telephone interviews with 250 randomly selected individuals in the Denver area in the first days of February. Their findings suggest that the more people knew, the less likely they were to support the war; but the more television people watched, the less they knew.
There was, first of all, extensive misinformation about the origins of the crisis. Of all those interviewed, 55 percent knew that the US had supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, but only 46 percent of “heavy” television viewers (three or more hours per day) were aware of this fact, as opposed to 67 percent of “light” viewers (less than one and a half hours per day). Heavy viewers were only half as likely as light viewers to know that in July 1990 the Bush administration took no action in response to Iraqi threats against Kuwait; up to 73 percent of them believed that the US had denounced Iraqi moves and threatened not only sanctions but the use of military force.
Viewers’ general knowledge was also not enhanced by heavy television watching. Large majorities knew that Saddam Hussein was a Muslim and that Iraq was not a democracy. But heavy viewers were twice as likely to believe that Kuwait was a democracy before the invasion, and three times as likely to believe that Saudi Arabia was a democracy. The numbers of those who knew that Kuwait was not the only case of occupation in the Middle East dropped sharply with heavy viewing, and few could identify either Israel or Syria as occupiers. Heavy television viewers were less than half as likely to know what the word intifada means, and only 38 percent could identify Colin Powell, though that particular piece of ignorance might be welcomed as poetic justice.
Even heavy viewing of television news does not seem to have helped much: Frequent viewers of television news broadcasts were often not much better informed than infrequent viewers. Apparently, the Bush administration’s effort to rewrite history and shape the public’s perception of the issues was largely successful. The study’s authors conclude that the media found it safer “to wave the flag and propagate disinformation (in the name of ‘military security’) than to enhance the debate and risk disturbing audiences with uncomfortable information and thereby possibly alienating advertisers.” This stance, they argue, helps account for the strong public support which Bush enjoyed as he devastated Iraq.
Humor has always been one way in which people in the Middle East and elsewhere have sought to endure and elsewhere have sought to endure the unendurable. With no disrespect for the millions of Iraqis and others who continue to suffer from the consequences of the war, we would like to share some of the jokes that have come our way in recent months.
Tariq Aziz descends into Saddam’s air-raid bunker, his fingers raised in a V sign. Saddam asks, “We’re winning?” Tariq replies, “No, it’s just the two of us left.”
A Saudi is driving down the street when he gets a flat tire. As he gets out of his car, he mutters “God damn it!” Suddenly, a member of the Saudi morality police appears and tells the driver, “Using God’s name in vain? That’ll cost you 50 riyals.” Despite heated protests, the policeman insists on full payment of the fine. So the driver pulls a 100-riyal note out of his wallet. “This is all I have,” he says to the policeman. “Do you have any change?” “I’m afraid not,” the morality cop answers. “Well, then,” the driver replies, “keep the whole 100 riyals, and God damn you with the change!”
Having begun by trashing the media, it seems only fair to close by acknowledging that there are still some journalists in this country who know how to craft a great sentence. Our nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for Best Opening Sentence goes to James P. Sterba. His article on the meat-rendering industry, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal of April 9, began with this gem: “Frank Burnham fondly remembers when the nation’s meat coolers bulged with corpulent pork chops girdled in thick belts of fat and stacked belly to belly like phalanxes of proud little Norman Schwarzkopfs.&rqduo; Now there is an image to savor.