The mother of all media events

Taken by Storm - The United Nations, Iran, and Iraq: - Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War
February 3, 1995

Who remembers the Gulf War? One of the most striking features of that conflict has been the rapidity with which it has faded from the American collective memory. Thus John Mueller suggests that the war is remarkable, viewed from the distance of three years and squarely from American turf, more for its absence of impact than for any tangible "results". Despite President Bush's enhanced prestige with his electorate during the war itself, his image quickly tarnished as attention shifted to domestic issues - "the economy, stupid", as the Democrats had it. If Bush was hoping that the Coalition victory in the Gulf would provide him with a "Falklands factor" lasting through until the 1992 presidential election, he was to be disappointed. Indeed, the war's seeming absence of impact is highlighted in the paradox that while the victorious Bush quickly fell from office, the vanquished Saddam Hussein continues to hold it.

However, the Gulf War does not seem likely to join the list of America's "forgotten wars", at least so far as media scholars are concerned. One of the most heavily scrutinised aspects of the war has been the media's reportage of it. Even during the war there was an unprecedented level of navel- gazing by journalists about their own role in the conflict, and the limitations imposed upon them by the military and policy-makers. Retrospective analysis of the media's Gulf War resonates with a wider, and ongoing, debate about the impact of new communications technologies on both policy-making and public opinion. If Vietnam was America's first TV war, the Gulf was the first "CNN war"- in which satellite technology enabled "real-time" images of war to be televised in any part of the world equipped with a dish to receive them. As new communications technologies have developed, accompanied by a deterritorialisation of the major players in the satellite and cable revolution, so have policy-makers' fears about their ability to control the media grown. Not only do these technologies, ever decreasing in size and increasing in sophistication, seem certain to defy physical censorship in a future conflict, but so too do the global media corporations appear unlikely to be swayed by naked appeals to the proprietors' patriotism as in wars of old. Alarmingly for the military and policy-makers, the communications technologies employed in the Gulf War already belong to an outmoded generation. Two pertinent questions thus arise: first, given that the Coalition did largely manage to control the media to its satisfaction (Peter Arnett and his portable satellite in Baghdad not withstanding), how far was the Gulf War sui generis, as a result of the peculiar physical setting and other enabling factors that worked to the advantage of the military? Second, how much attention should we give to the media's Gulf War, if technology has rendered whatever "lessons" arise obsolescent?

The strength of Taken by Storm is precisely that it ties the media's role in the Gulf War into broader analyses of how news is constructed, the impact of the news on public opinion, and the interrelationship between the news media and policy-makers. What may appear to be a surprisingly small amount of attention is paid to the management of the media on the ground in Riyadh and elsewhere. Rather, what a number of contributors suggest is that the institutionalised practices whereby news is gathered in Washington - particularly the reliance on White House, Pentagon and State Department sources - explain the supportive role played by America's media during the war. As Daniel Hallin's work on the Vietnam War has already suggested, news organisations tend to index their coverage of stories to the range of official debate. While the media may set the agenda in terms of public perceptions of the day's most salient issues, in reporting those issues the media in turn take their cue from the policy-making elite.

The collection thus sheds valuable light on the complex relationships between not only political elites but also the public and the media. None of these relationships is simple or unidirectional. Patrick O'Heffernan describes a relationship of "interdependent mutual exploitation" between the media and policy-makers, in which both parties manipulate the structure and output of the other for their own advantage. As for the impact of the media on public opinion, while John Zaller provides valuable insights into how elites lead public opinion, he concludes with a note of caution - the relationship between elites and masses is "deeply reciprocal". Similarly, Daniel Hallin and Todd Gitlin posit an organic relationship between local news organisations and their viewers, in which the former both led and followed the latter in a celebration of community values during the war.

For Mueller, the relationship between the public and the media seems more clear-cut: "event-makers" and "media consumers" substantially call the shots, while the media follow in their wake. His real concern is with how policy-makers both responded to and attempted to shape public opinion in what he aptly describes as the "mother of all polling events". In the process, he casts new light on much of the received wisdom about the war. Bush's administration is consequently shown as less successful in winning support for the military option in the months between August 1990 and January 1991 than commonly supposed. During the period of Congressional debate over the relative merits of sanctions vis-a-vis the use of force, support for the military option remained fairly stable, veering neither towards Bush nor his Democratic opponents. Bush was able to lead his country to war not because he had swung opinion decisively behind him, but as a result of the growing sense of fatalism: Americans came to believe force was going to be used sooner or later-so better to get it over with quickly.

Having entered the war, Americans soon rallied round the flag and their president. They did not wish to hear criticism of their military, and they certainly were not given it. While polling data provided in the second half of Mueller's book reveal a slight decline in support for the war, this trend was reversed by the onset of the ground war, which produced a second rallying effect. So what, then, of the other common assumption that the ground war ended after 100 hours because Bush feared the effect of horrific television images of the "Highway of Death" on American morale? Here, Mueller's research sheds an illuminating sidelight on current elite-level concern about the impact of real-time television images on public opinion. Bush, it seems, was anxious lest the Mutla Gap footage lead to a dramatic loss of support for the war. Like Saddam Hussein, he believed American morale to be fragile if exposed to images of Iraqi casualties. Both laboured under a delusion - probably because they shared a belief (widely discredited by recent scholarship) that television had turned American opinion against the Vietnam War. In fact, Americans showed little squeamishness about Iraqi casualties, and there was no "wobble" over the Highway of Death (though, of course, Bush couldn't have known this when he made his decision to end the war after 100 hours).

Mueller's own earlier research on public opinion and American involvement in Korea and Vietnam has suggested that the decisive determinant in public loss of support for wars is a high American casualty rate. In Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War, he suggests that a similar pattern would have been repeated, had America lost a substantial number of lives. In the absence of such casualties, he takes issue with those who have used the Gulf War to argue that, having kicked the Vietnam Syndrome, America can now fight wars and lose lives where the public perceives the cause to be both just and winnable. So short-lived a war, Mueller argues, scarcely provides grounds for any such generalisation.

Certainly since the Gulf War, the American public appears to have shown little stomach for engagement in crises where the issues are less clear-cut than in the Gulf - the Somalian experience being a case in point.

Such issues are not, however, explored in Cameron Hume's The United Nations, Iran and Iraq. In this work, curiously unburdened by any real analysis of the events detailed in its narrative, Hume provides a Whiggish account of the United Nations' long march backwards towards its founders' intentions. The Security Council's muscular response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait thus features as the climax of the UN's stunted development. But while Hume gives a blow-by-blow rendition of the Security Council's deliberations on Iran and Iraq, from the first Gulf War through to 1991, he leaves the reader poised on the edge of a brave new world which we know to be a chimera. We already have the answer to his concluding question: "will the Security Council and its members gain credibility to deter aggression elsewhere?" It is a query he would have done well to examine himself, including some attention to the media's role in the UN's subsequent less-than-wholly satisfactory efforts at humanitarian intervention. Easy assumptions about the "guilty media" in this area are surely as open to demystification and reinterpretation as both Mueller and Bennett and Paletz's contributors have shown them to be with respect to the "mother of all media events".

Susan Carruthers is a lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Taken by Storm: The Media, Public Opinion, and US Foreign Policy in the Gulf War

ISBN - 0 226 04258 8 and 04259 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £31.95 and £12.75
Pages - 308

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