John J. Fialka, Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War (Woodrow Wilson Center, 1991).

John R. MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (Hill and Wang, 1992).

Jacqueline Sharkey, Under Fire: US Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf (Center for Public Integrity, 1992).

Hotel Warriors, Second Front and Under Fire each emphasize the historic impact that the Vietnam war has had on the prosecution of subsequent US armed intervention in Grenada in 1983, in Panama in 1989 and, most recently, in the Persian Gulf. Each author nonetheless responds to that impact differently. For John Fialka, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was for a time in charge of the “print pool” in Dhahran, it was the story of the 100-hour ground war that was lost to reporters, curtailed by military restrictions on the movements and dispatches. The integrity of the journalist’s code of ethics and First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press had, according to John MacArthur, been violated by the political priorities that sent the military to the Gulf in the first place and then manipulated its reportage. Jacqueline Sharkey describes not only the incursions into the freedom of the press and the incapacitation of the US people’s right to informed decision-making, but ultimately the damage done to the “historical record” when military and political interests dictate the accounts of war that will be passed on.

Each author organizes his or her reading of the conflict between the military and the media in order to restore something of what had been denied, violated or suppressed. Hotel Warriors focuses on the military’s pool system. Second Front identifies key conjunctures and incidents that determined the ultimate distortions. And Under Fire recapitulates historically the rhetorical and institutional buildup, from Vietnam through Britain’s example in the Falklands/Malvinas war to the latest military/media conflagration in the Gulf. There remains a loss, however, that even these critical readings of misrepresentation and disinformation do not acknowledge: the opposition in US streets to the war.

Hotel Warriors communicates a barely concealed nostalgia for cinematic versions of war correspondence. Fialka presents an expose of the frustrating peripeties of the White House-Pentagon devised “pool system” of media coverage. For Fialka, this system decisively refashioned the “business of covering the war”: For the recalcitrant Army it was “business as usual”; for the more congenial Marines, it was “business is news”; for the pools reporters who agreed to cooperate with the system, it was “business is frustrating”; and for the unilaterals — those reporters who did not participate in the pool system at all — it was a “risky business.” “Getting the first visual of a liberated Kuwait City meant millions for the television networks battling for ratings in the Gulf war,” but in the end it may spell a future of no business at all, as in Fialka’s notion of a “war without witnesses.” The very idea of a “war without witnesses” shows the extent to which Fialka subscribes to the privileged obliteration of those other disenfranchised witnesses, the war’s victims on both sides.

For John MacArthur, the Gulf war was a consummate example of the “media’s colossal defeat at the hands of the United States government,” and his research for the book reflects a largely unrequited “quest for outrage” from the vanquished. MacArthur takes us from the “cutting [of] the deal,” when “docile” and “supine” media executives initially acquiesced to whatever conditions might be imposed, to “selling babies” (when those same media bought the story that babies were torn from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers) and “designing war,” when the network’s video logoists made up the visuals and graphics to fill holes left by military censorship. Unlike Fialka, for whom it was all mere matters of access and delays, MacArthur at least identifies the government’s management of information as censorship. MacArthur renames the experience “Desert Muzzle.”

Cutting deals, selling babies and designing wars eventually led the media spokespeople MacArthur interviewed to “take the fifth.” Katharine Graham, then chief executive officer of the Washington Post, cautioned him about his research: “You don’t want to come out as a partisan in this…. You want to come on as an American who cares about press freedom.”

According to Sharkey’s Under Fire, the information control program that resulted in reporters’ lost stories, journalism’s lost honor and “distorted accounts of what occurred during the military operations in Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf, has led to false perceptions about the operations’ short- and long-term impact on these regions and on US policy, and has threatened the historical record.”

Prepared with the assistance of 13 researchers, Sharkey’s compelling account seeks to set that record straight. She takes her mandate in part from the Constitution, which sought, both through its separation of government powers and by amendments guaranteeing freedom of the press and the people’s right to know, the “people’s control of the military.” Disputed already in the course of the Vietnam war, those popular rights and freedoms were successively — and successfully — eroded in subsequent conflicts, an erosion documented in the book’s core chapters. Journalists were excluded altogether — or until it was too late — from the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Panama six years later became an experiment in managed misinformation. The US military in the Gulf effectively combined these two stratagems. Countering the “pool” system, Under Fire concludes with a set of “conclusions and recommendations” addressing the responsibilities of the military, Congress and the media towards a more accountable history. Sharkey includes in the appendices crucial historical documents on media-military relations.

If less personally indignant than Hotel Warriors and less professionally outraged than Second Front, Under Fire does present the only, albeit brief, references to an organized domestic opposition to the war, a political opposition that was perhaps even less covered than the armed conflict. As Sharkey points out, although in November 1991 “opinion polls showed that a majority of respondents still backed the president’s actions concerning Iraq, protests against a military solution in the Gulf increased, and the president found himself faced with hecklers at public speeches.” Later still, when the war had begun, and the US casualties were being returned to their families, the media were barred from covering the ceremonies that commemorated their personal sacrifices — much to the anger of such organizations as the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and the anti-war groups such as Veterans for Peace and the Military Families Support Network.

As often as the “smart bombs” missed their targets, the ultimate damage to Iraq’s civilian population has yet to be calculated. Hotel Warriors, Second Front, and Under Fire begin in their different, and differently prioritized, narratives to repair some of the losses in information and integrity that accrued to the US public as a result of the military’s war against its media — and thus its own people. As David Tomas has pointed out, “The same military machine that defeated the Iraqis also overwhelmed potential pockets of Allied civilian resistance at home.” [1]


[1] David Tomas, “Polytechnical Observation: An Artistic and Popular Response to Political Events in the ‘Age of the Smart Bomb,’” Public 6 (1992).

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow "Gulf War Journalism," Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993).

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