Over the past few months, a couple of stories have crossed our desk that merit more attention than they got. These stories tell us some important things about how the US news industry operates, especially its willingness to follow the administration’s cues on major issues.
Back in January, a number of newspapers and television news programs revealed that in the fall and winter of 1990-1991, the giant public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, then headed by Craig Fuller, who was chief of staff to George Bush when Bush was vice president, ran a $10 million advertising campaign to build public support for the US war against Iraq. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in that carefully orchestrated effort, paid for by Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a front for Kuwait’s ruling family, was the October 1990 appearance before a Congressional committee of a young woman identified only as “Nayirah.” Nayirah’s tearful testimony described how Iraqi soldiers had thrown newborn babies out of their incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital and cruelly left them to die. President Bush cited the incident as proof of the war’s necessity.
Later, a flurry of stories (starting with an op-ed piece by John R. MacArthur in the New York Times), revealed that the mysterious Nayirah is the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and, like her father, a member of the country’s ruling family. More importantly, it is now clear that her well-publicized story of baby-killing Iraqis was a fabrication. The alleged atrocity, which received tremendous publicity worldwide and helped mold public opinion, simply never happened. Nayirah’s appearance was largely arranged by the experts at Hill and Knowlton, who also made sure a video tape of her testimony was widely distributed. After carefully monitoring the reactions of “focus groups” to various horror stories, the PR firm apparently concluded that the incubator story would be most effective in arousing the emotions of the US public. They coached Nayirah and other purportedly credible “eyewitnesses” to Iraqi atrocities, and made sure their accounts reached every possible media outlet. (For an account of the incubator affair, see Middle East Watch’s “Kuwait’s Stolen Incubators: The Widespread Repercussions of a Murky Incident,” February 6, 1992.)
Hill and Knowlton has denied any wrongdoing. In May they even brought suit in a German court demanding a retraction from “Monitor,” a national public affairs television program which reported the scandal. The court, generally not seen as liberal on issues of press freedom, did not grant the PR firm the retraction it wanted.
There is no doubt that the Iraqi regime has committed atrocities against its own people and others, including Kuwaitis. It is curious, though, how little interest the US media took in that regime’s crimes until the White House officially redesignated our erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein as “the butcher of Baghdad,” and how little sustained coverage and debate the Hill and Knowlton scandal has evoked.
In another Middle East-related case which did not get much coverage, the US Census Bureau tried in March to fire a young demographer who embarrassed the Bush administration with her calculations of Iraqi deaths during the US-led war against Iraq. For obvious reasons, the administration has refused to talk about Iraqi casualties and has tried to prevent any public discussion of the question. So Beth Osborne Daponte’s bosses were not pleased when she told a reporter that by her estimates, 13,000 Iraqi civilians and 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the war. In addition, she figured that some 70,000 civilians died as a result of the bombing campaign’s destruction of Iraq’s water and electrical systems and another 35,000 were killed by government forces during the post-war uprising against the Baathist regime. Of this 158,000 total dead, some 32,000, or 20 percent, were children. In an effort at damage control, the Bureau later came up with another estimate of wartime civilian casualties, putting the number at “only” 5,000. The Bureau also sought to punish Daponte, and to warn other employees, by terminating her. The Bureau claimed that Daponte had not followed its peer review process; she insisted that her figures underwent the same review as all other Bureau data. In April, after talk of lawsuits and calls for an investigation by a congressional committee, the Census Bureau reinstated Daponte. It would have been nice, however, if the media had made a little more noise about this case, which after all involved its (and the public’s) right to know what the government has been up to. Once again, though, the press seems to have lost interest, thereby perpetuating one more conspiracy of silence.
One last instance of media fecklessness: The New York Times reported on March 1 that a San Antonio television news reporter had been fired for being “a little too persistent” in his questioning of President Bush during a two-day “drug summit” with Latin American leaders. It was obvious to all that this meeting was a PR event designed mainly to improve President Bush’s prospects for reelection.
No one seems to have told Brian Karem of NBC affiliate KMOL-TV that he was supposed to pretend that the conference had some serious purpose. In an impromptu exchange with the president, Karem made the mistake of questioning the event’s merit, referring to it as a “joke.” Karem’s boss fired him the next day for being “insistent and persistent and aggressive in his asking of the question,” adding: “As we all know, an orchestrated White House press conference is a managed event, and the White House press corps is an elite club.”
The mainstream media has signally failed to defend Karem or even to give this outrageous story much play. To our knowledge there have been no thundering editorials denouncing the San Antonio station brass for their craven behavior. Nor has there been praise for Karem for trying to be a serious journalist. Apparently the fourth estate feels Karem broke the rules by insisting on a serious answer from the president and deserves his punishment.