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Truth May Sink in Desert Sand

In an Iraq war, Washington is likely to once again muzzle the news media.

January 20, 2003|Robert Wiener | Robert Wiener, a journalist for more than 30 years, was CNN's executive producer in Baghdad when the Gulf War erupted. He is author of "Live from Baghdad: Making Journalism History Behind the Lines" (2002, St. Martin's Press).

The other night I watched Peter Davis' 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary, "Hearts and Minds." The film makes a powerful case for how successive administrations, from Eisenhower to Ford, lied to the American public about U.S. policy in Vietnam and the threat of communism to world stability. It also revealed, for the first time, that the U.S. offered France two atomic bombs prior to its 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Mercifully, Paris declined.

In the director's commentary that accompanies the film on DVD, Davis says he hopes his work will compel politicians to think twice before committing U.S. forces to war and inspire the American public to carefully evaluate and question the wisdom of such a decision. Today, with war against Iraq increasingly likely, it would be well to consider Davis' plea and perhaps ask: Should war erupt, who will cover it?

Before the 1991 Gulf War, a slew of news organizations, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and this newspaper, all had reporters in Baghdad. So did the three major broadcast networks and a 10-year-old, 24-hour cable outlet named CNN.

Because of fear on the part of their editors at home and considerable pressure by the administration, most reporters were either ordered out or fled Iraq by the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. And following a personal appeal from President Bush, Tom Johnson, then president of CNN, was going to pull CNN out too but was overruled by the network's iconoclastic owner, Ted Turner, who stressed that CNN was an international news organization and "anyone who chose to remain in Baghdad could do so

There were eight of us in Baghdad and all but three elected to leave the following morning. But a few hours later, at 2:40 a.m., the war began. Nearly 1 billion viewers worldwide got the opportunity to listen to history-making coverage provided by Bernie Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett. Two days later, the CNN team left, except for Arnett, Nic Robertson and me. The network was flooded with hate mail and bomb threats from those believing that CNN was a mouthpiece for Iraq.

CNN was permitted to remain in Baghdad for several reasons. Foreign editor Eason Jordan in Atlanta and I had lobbied the Iraqis relentlessly for months preceding the war to underscore the idea that CNN had an international mandate and would report from Iraq with as much fairness and balance as we could muster.

Fortunately, Naji Hadithi, then undersecretary at the Ministry of Information and today Iraq's foreign minister and known as Naji Sabri, felt it was in Iraq's interest to have an outlet to the West -- and he trusted CNN. In short, we used them and they used us.

Though we faced restrictions in Iraq, the situation was even more dire for the U.S. press corps based in Saudi Arabia, whose members were denied the access they sought, as they had been in Grenada and Panama. This reduced their version of the war to a series of briefings and handout bomb-site pictures that belied the terrible human consequences of battle.

This time around, I fear things will be even worse. With regime change the explicit goal of the administration, it is unlikely Baghdad will expend any energy to help reporters, especially American or British. Moreover, I would not be surprised if some were taken hostage or worse.

And after 9/11, the tenor of news coverage has changed so drastically that I often no longer recognize the coverage on the network where I worked for two decades. Some editors and reporters in American media now see themselves as "patriot police," engaging in jingoism and self-censorship. Throughout much of the world, the U.S. press is perceived as nothing more than a mouthpiece for the administration, and by extension Israel.

Those intrepid journalists who remain in Iraq may face challenges from the U.S. military too, in the form of electronic jamming of their satellite phones or other technology to thwart live coverage. But this will pale in comparison with those hapless souls "embedded" with the American forces. Reporters have been embedded before, in a shack in Panama, in a briefing room in Dhahran and in their hotels in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They've been denied timely access to events on the ground until Washington has in effect "sanitized" the terrain. There is nothing to suggest the Pentagon will change its policy or permit the kind of unfettered reportage we witnessed in Vietnam.

Thousands of civilians, not to mention those in uniform (on both sides), may die in a new Persian Gulf war, and responsible reporters should be there. Any time American men and women are put in harm's way, it is paramount that the U.S. press be witness.

The journalists who covered Vietnam learned this lesson, and the American public should not only insist on it but also remember "Hearts and Minds" and never again be hoodwinked by propaganda, innuendo or outright lies told or perpetuated by its elected officials.

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