War and the Media: A Resource Unit

Students develop skills and understandings to make them more critical readers, listeners and viewers.

by Alan Shapiro



To the Teacher

"When war is declared, truth is the first casualty."
—Senator Hiram Johnson, speaking in the U.S. Senate, 1918. The senator's source may have been an article in "The Idler," 1758, by Samuel Johnson.

If "truth is the first casualty" during wartime, students need to learn what kinds of questions to ask of the news reports they get from the media and to develop skills and understandings that make them more critical readers, listeners and viewers. The lessons here aim to help this process along.


Introduce a study of war and the media with an examination of two accounts of the conflict at Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. If necessary, provide a brief context for this outbreak of the American Revolution. After students complete the reading, have them complete Exercise 1.

Student Reading:

What happened at the first battle of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775?

From the Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), April 25, 1775

"At Lexington, six miles below Concord, a company of militia, of about one hundred men, mustered near the meeting-house; the [British] troops came in sight of them just before sunrise; and running within a few rods of them, the Commanding Officer accosted the Militia in words to this effect: 'Disperse, you rebels—throw down your arms and disperse'; upon which the Troops huzzaed [shouted approval], and immediately one or two officers discharged their pistols, which were instantaneously followed by the firing of four or five of the soldiers and then there seemed to be a general discharge from the whole body; eight of our men were killed and nine wounded....

"In Lexington, the enemy set fire to Deacon Joseph Loring's house and barn, Mrs. Mullikin's house and shop, and Mr. Joshua Bond's house and shop which were all consumed....They pillaged almost every house and passed by, breaking and destroying doors, windows, glasses, etc., and carrying off clothing and other valuable effects....But the savage barbarity exercised upon the bodies of our unfortunate brethren who fell, is almost incredible; not content with shooting down the unarmed, aged and infirm, they disregarded the cries of the wounded, killing them without mercy, and mangling their bodies in the most shocking manner.

"We have the pleasure to say, that, notwithstanding the highest provocations given by the enemy, not one instance of cruelty, that we have heard of, was committed by our victorious militia...."

From the London Gazette, June 10, 1775

"Lieutenant-Colonel Smith finding, after he had advanced some miles on his march, that the country had been alarmed by the firing of guns and ringing of bells, dispatched six companies of light infantry, in order to secure two bridges on different roads beyond Concord, who upon their arrival at Lexington, found a body of the country people under arms, on a green close to the road; and upon the King's Troops marching up to them, in order to inquire the reason for their being so assembled, they went off in great confusion, and several guns were fired upon the King's Troops from behind a stone wall, and also from the meeting-house and other houses, by which one man was wounded, and Major Pitcairn's horse shot in two places. In consequence of this attack by the rebels, the troops returned the fire and killed several of them....

[On the march back from Concord the rebels kept firing from behind stone walls and houses,] "and such was the cruelty and barbarity of the rebels that they scalped and cut off the ears of some of the wounded men who fell into their hands."

Exercise 1

In their accounts of the conflict at Lexington the two newspapers include reports and judgments. Distinguishing between the two is not always simple. But in reading, hearing, or viewing the news it is a vital basic skill.

A report is a verifiable statement that that does not include judgmental language and that may or may not be true. For example, the Salem Gazette says that the first shots were fired by "one or two officers" of the British force; the London Gazette says that "several guns were fired upon the King's Troops." Both are reports, for they could be verified as either true or not true and they exclude judgmental language—though both include generalities ("one or two" and "several"). However, both reports cannot be true. Determining which one is would require further investigation that might or might not produce a definitive answer.

A judgment expresses an opinion. The Salem Gazette writes of "our unfortunate brethren." The London Gazette states that the Americans "went off in great confusion." Both "unfortunate" and "great confusion" express opinions.

Student Directions: Reread the two accounts. Then list five sentences you identify as reports and five you identify as judgments. In each case explain why.

To the Teacher: Students also need to understand that some statements may not be classifiable simply as reports or judgments. For example:

"'We will find Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice,' said a Pentagon official." This statement may be classified as a report since verifying that a Pentagon official made this statement is probably possible. But the statement itself is a prediction and so has to be classified as a judgment.
"'Nuclear deterrence prevented Soviet aggression,' said a professor of Soviet studies." Once again verifying that the professor made this statement is probably possible, which makes it a report. But what was said rests on inferences drawn by the professor, and they represent a judgment.
Failing to distinguish among such different kinds of statements can make one prey to propaganda and manipulation. To evaluate news, we need to understand the difference between reports and judgments. If students need additional work in this area, the teacher can prepare such exercises as the following.

Exercise 2

Student Directions: Mark each of the following statements either R (report) or J (judgment) and be prepared to explain your answer.

1. The world will be a safer place without Saddam Hussein.
2. Saddam Hussein has violated 17 Security Council resolutions.
3. US military plans for Iraq will be successful.
4. Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.
5. President Bush's view of Saddam Hussein is correct.

Exercise 3

Student Directions: Write five strict reports and five judgments on the Iraq situation. Then exchange papers with a partner. Mark your partner's sentences R or J. Discuss.

Exercise 4

Student Directions: Write a strict report (no judgmental words) on something that happened to you recently.


For further discussion of the Lexington accounts:

1. List differences in the two accounts on each of the following items:

a. the number of people in the militia
b. what the British commander said
c. who fired first
d. numbers of casualties
e. behavior of each side

2. From whose point of view is each account written? What specific words and sentences support your conclusion?

3. How do you explain the differences between the two articles on who fired first and which group's behavior was cruel?

4. "When war is declared, truth is the first casualty," said Senator Hiram Johnson in 1918. What evidence do the two accounts offer that there is truth in what the senator observed?

5. Since the two newspaper accounts differ on important details, how could you investigate further what happened at Lexington on April 19, 1775? (diary accounts? depositions by any who were present? other newspaper accounts? history book accounts with sources one might check?) Obviously, one cannot check every newspaper story, but the object here is to understand that: war reports raise many questions; reports and judgments are different kinds of statements; the source of any report is important; and objectivity may be colored by the reporter's and/or newspaper's point of view.

Note to the Teacher: As you move through this resource unit, have students keep in their notebooks a growing list of questions that seem useful to ask about a news story.


Student Assignment: Read the first six paragraphs of a story from the online edition of the New York Post of February 24, 2003. Then answer in writing the questions that follow. (The teacher may want to instruct students about the use of passive voice in news reports.)

Student Reading:

Reading and analyzing a news story


WASHINGTON—Special "hunter-killer teams and aircraft would target strongman Saddam Hussein—and his two evil sons—within 8 hours of the launch of any military campaign, The Post has learned.

The moves would include a series of massive, surgical airstrikes and commando raids in the opening hours of the action. Specially trained operatives would target Saddam, sons Uday and Qusay and other key aides.

Qusay, who heads Saddam's personal Republican Guard unit, has orders to unleash weapons of mass destruction should something happen to his father, according to British intelligence.

Saddam's eldest son, Uday, is said to command Iraq's vicious paramilitary groups in charge of sabotaging infrastructure, such as bridges, and committing atrocities against their country's own civilians to blame on the United States.

In the past, Uday has been accused of personally brutally beating Iraqi Olympic athletes, as well as having ties to terrorists. He also is considered the money man who helps fund Saddam's regime.

Taking the fiendish father and sons out would be part of what US military officials and outside defense analysts say is a bold and radical battle plan for Gulf War II. The plan aims to use exotic new weapons and the full range of US military power in a series of nearly simultaneous air and ground attacks on the citadels of Saddam's power in the opening hours.


1. What sources of information does the Post story state for its account?

2. For what statements, if any, is there no clear indication of a source? Why?

3. Does the story include judgmental statements? If so, what are they? Note the headline. Is it judgmental? Why or why not?

4. How objective is the story? What makes you think so?

5. Do you have any reason(s) to doubt the accuracy of anything in the story? Why?

Class discussion. The teacher may wish to give special attention to the fact that, except for the reference to British intelligence, this article repeatedly fails to cite a source for its assertions and often uses the passive voice, one method of avoiding stating the source for statements. Even the British intelligence reference raises questions. Has British intelligence made such a public statement? If not, where did The Post get its information from?


Student Assignment: Below are two samples of World War II reporting by, first, an American newspaper about the Japanese enemy and, second, by a Japanese magazine about the American enemy. Both were drawn from John Dower's study, War without Mercy, about how Americans and Japanese portrayed each other during World War II. Read each, then be prepared to answer the questions following the two excerpts.

1. The American report is accompanied by a cartoon of a bandaged, bawling ape with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and buck teeth and begins with the headline "MEN OR BEASTS?"

"To size up the Japanese hasn't been easy at this great distance. One opinion is that they are no more than monkeys; another that they are human beings, after all, though in a state of arrested development. Nicosia Osmena, son of the Philippines President, who has had to live with them for three grim years, offers a compromise theory. To him the Japanese is the Missing Link [between humans and apes]." (The New York Times, 2/25/45)

2. The Japanese report begins with the headline, "Naming the Western Barbarians," and is accompanied by a drawing of an ogre with a necklace of skulls removing a smiling Roosevelt-faced mask. It states:

"It has gradually become clear that the American enemy, driven by its ambition to conquer the world, is coming to attack us, and as the breath and body odor of the beast approach, it may be of some use if we draw the demon's features here. Our ancestors called them Ebisu or savages long ago, and labeled the very first Westerners who came to our country the Southern Barbarians.... Since the barbaric tribe of Americans are devils in human skin who come from the West, we should call them Saibanki, or Western Barbarian Demons." (Manga Nippon, October 1944)

For discussion

1. What questions do students think would be useful in analyzing each report? (See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for suggestions about helping students to learn how to ask good questions.)

2. How would you explain each element in the Times' cartoon"—"bandaged," "bawling," "ape," "horn-rimmed eyeglasses," "buck teeth"?

3. How would you explain each element in the Japanese cartoon—"ogre," "necklace of skulls," "smiling Roosevelt-faced mask"?

4. Why does the Times' headline ask "Men or Beasts?"

5. Why does the Japanese publication use the term "Western Barbarians"?

6. How would you describe the tone of the Times' article? The article in Manga Nippon? What words or phrases in each case lead you to your conclusion?

7. In what ways are the two articles similar? How would you explain this similarity?

8. What do you suppose are the purposes of creating such portraits of the enemy? What differences might it make if soldiers on either side of a conflict were portrayed as human beings very much like themselves in most ways?


Following the reading are suggestions for classwork. The source for much of the reading is the book The News About the News by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert E. Kaiser. Downie is executive editor of the Washington Post; Kaiser is associate editor.


Student Reading:

Information and viewpoints about the media business and the news

1. What is "the public interest"?

The Federal Communications Commission requires everyone who receives a broadcast license to operate in "the public interest." Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, when asked at his first press conference what the meaning of "the public interest" was, responded, "I have no idea. It's an empty vessel in which people pour in whatever their preconceived views or biases are." Neither the FCC nor any other US governmental body has ever spelled out specifically what meaning should be given to the phrase. The FCC has never denied renewal of a broadcasting license to any applicant.

2. The media and big business

"Most newspapers, television networks and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism. Media owners are accustomed to profit margins that would be impossible in most traditional industries. For General Motors a profit margin of 5 percent of total revenue would mark a very good year, but the Tribune Company of Chicago, which owns newspapers and television stations located all across the country, wants a 30 percent margin. Many local television stations expect to keep 50 percent of their revenue as profit....Protecting such high profits can easily undermine the notion that journalism is a public service." (The News About the News)

3. Who owns what in the media

General Electric, with annual revenues of $129.9 billion as of 2002, has media holdings that include 50 percent of NBC, CNBC and MSNBC (Microsoft owns the other 50 percent). GE also owns AMC, Bravo, WE and Independent Film Channel as well as 25 percent of A&E and the History and Biography channels. It owns 13 television stations and such international channels as NBC and CNBC. Its other media holdings include a number of Internet companies.
Gannett owns more than 100 newspapers, including USA Today, which is published nationally. It also owns 15 television stations...
Viacom owns CBS, MTV, UPN, Showtime, Nickelodeon, TNN, The Movie Channel, BET, 50 percent of Comedy Central and other TV channels as well as 39 TV stations. It also owns the CBS Radio Network, 184 radio stations, Paramount Pictures and other movie studies, book publishing companies, magazines and Internet sites.
Other media giants include the AT&T Corporation, Sony, Walt Disney Company, AOL/Time Warner and Vivendi Universal.

4. The media and the government

The 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations spent $111.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch between 1996 and mid-2000. Between 1993 and mid 2000 media corporations and their employees gave $75 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and the two major political parties. Between 1995 and 2000 media companies took FCC employees on 1460 all-expenses-paid trips. Between 1997 and 2000 they paid for 315 such trips for members of Congress and senior staffers.

5. The deregulation of radio

Until the 1980s one company could legally own no more than seven AM and seven FM stations. Deregulation acts by Congress and the FCC now permit companies to buy as many stations nationally as they wish. As of 2001 Clear Channel owned 1200 radio stations. TV host Phil Donahue says, "Now we have hundreds of radio stations creating a profit with virtually no on-air personnel and no newsroom, no AP wire, no birth announcements, no obituaries. And not least, no coverage of the police, the PTA or the Lions Club and no high school football scores. Nothing but digital music, commercials and profit."

6. The decline of newspapers

In 1963 for the first time, a majority of Americans said they got their news mainly from TV. Newspapers were on the decline. By the 1980s only a handful of cities had competing daily papers. "Most of the surviving newspapers are now owned by large chains that have more than 1200 of 1500 dailies." (The News About the News)

7. News as a way to sell ads

"The drift away from serious coverage of serious subjects was part of the most important change in American news values in the last years of the twentieth century. Covering the news, once seen primarily as a public service that could also make a profit, became primarily a vehicle for attracting audiences and selling advertising to make money." (The News about the News)

8. The cost of being adversarial

In an article about media reporting of national security issues, William A. Dornan, a California State University journalism professor, says that journalists tend to go along with the US government's approach to war and peace issues. He writes: "...nothing that is said here should be interpreted to mean that journalists are part of a planned conspiracy, or that their editors act on instructions directly received from the State Department or the Pentagon." He sees the behavior of journalists and editors as a complicated matter that includes the "assumption that for corporate journalism to reach a mass audience it must rule out taking a strong adversary stand against the state."

Suggestions for classwork

1. What questions do students have about any issues raised in the reading?

2. Ask all students to imagine that they have been appointed to the FCC.

  • Their first assignment is to write a definition of "the public interest" and to detail any specific regulations for fulfilling that interest that they, as FCC members, would require of all broadcasters. For example, should there be a regulation governing the amount of advertising directed at children? allowing a certain amount of free time for political candidates? requiring a certain amount of time for public interest announcements?
  • Divide the class into small groups to share their definitions and suggested regulations. Can they reach consensus on a definition and regulations? Each group should name a reporter to summarize its conclusions for class discussion.

3. Discuss:

  • What difference does it make in news reporting that "giant, publicly owned corporations [are] far removed from the communities they serve"? that a small number of such corporations dominate the media business?
  • Why do you think that these corporations spend millions on lobbying and free trips for legislators and regulators?
  • What difference to news reporting does it make that most Americans now get their news from TV?
  • What difference do you think it makes whether the media covers the news primarily as a public service or covers it mainly to attract audiences and sell advertising?
  • Why might corporate journalism rule out taking a strong adversary stand against the state? How might the reporting of war news be affected?
  • What you have read about the media business and the news include a number of critical viewpoints. Do you regard any of them as exaggerated or unfair? Why?


To be intelligent readers, listeners, and viewers of war news, students need to understand some things about how war is reported. For example, it's important to know that government officials are often a source—sometimes the only source—of war news. Those officials may be concerned about how the public perceives such issues as the security of troops or military errors (e.g., "friendly fire" that kills American soldiers and "collateral damage" that kills innocent civilians). They may not wish to reveal certain plans and motivations. All this may lead to false news reports—with immense consequences. This last point is the subject of the following student reading.

Student Reading:

Launching the Vietnam War

On August 5, 1964 a Washington Post headline read: "American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression."

A front pages story in The New York Times reported that: "President Johnson has ordered a retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin." In an editorial after a speech by President Johnson on the Tonkin incident, the Times reported that Johnson "went to the American people last night with the somber facts."

The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial after the speech, urged Americans to "face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities."

For a number of years under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, the United States had been supporting the South Vietnamese in a civil war with the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam (often referred to as the Vietcong), a communist organization supported by the communist North Vietnamese, which in turn had the support of the Soviet Union. US leaders regarded South Vietnam as the first of a series of "dominoes" in Southeast Asia that might fall one after another and lead to communist governments throughout the region. The US supplied arms to South Vietnam and, by the time Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963, the US had also sent some 17,000 "advisors" to assist the South Vietnamese army.

But South Vietnam was doing poorly. By early 1964 President Johnson had authorized secret Operation Plan 34A. The idea behind the plan was that "progressively escalating pressure" on North Vietnam would force it to stop aiding the NLF. The secret plan included sabotage in the North, a secret air war in Laos using American planes with Laotian markings, and patrols by American destroyers off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The American public knew nothing about this plan.

A few days before the reported attack on American destroyers, South Vietnamese commandos assaulted two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The American destroyer Maddox was in the gulf gathering intelligence to help the South Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese, possibly thinking that the destroyer was a South Vietnamese ship supporting the commandos, attacked the Maddox with torpedo boats on August 2. The next day South Vietnamese boats attacked the North Vietnamese coast.

On August 4 the Pentagon reported that two US destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. But the US task force commander in the Tonkin Gulf cabled Washington that "freak weather effects," "almost total darkness" and an "overeager sonarman" raised doubts that any attack had occurred. There was no damage to the destroyers.

To this day there is no convincing evidence that any attack occurred. President Johnson immediately ordered reprisals and 64 US planes bombed North Vietnam. He informed Congress of the reprisals but not about Operation Plan 34A and not about US support for South Vietnamese covert actions against North Vietnam. The president led Congress and the nation to believe that the August 2 attack on the Maddox was unprovoked. In the absence of certain evidence that there had been a second attack, he asked for a congressional resolution "to protect our armed forces."

On August 7 Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, declaring that the Congress "approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" and asserting that peace and security in Southeast Asia were "vital" to US interests. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon argued during the debate: "We are in effect giving the President...war-making powers in the absence of a declaration of war. I believe that to be a historic mistake." He and Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska, provided the only "no" votes.

The Vietnam War had begun. It would cost millions of Vietnamese casualties and the deaths of more than 50,000 American soldiers.

Several days later the president commented to Undersecretary of State George W. Ball about the attacks on the two American destroyers: "Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish."

In The Uncensored War, Daniel Hallin says that journalists "had a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account (of Tonkin Gulf events); it simply wasn't used. The day before the first incident, Hanoi (the North Vietnamese capital) had protested the attacks on its territory by Laotian aircraft and South Vietnamese gunboats." In addition, "It was generally known...that 'covert' operations against North Vietnam, carried out by South Vietnamese forces with US support and direction had been going on for some time."

Years later veteran New York Times journalist Sidney Schanberg warned other journalists during the Gulf War not to forget "our unquestioning chorus of agreeability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the Gulf of Tonkin events and how they were reported?

2. How would you classify the word "Aggression" in the Washington Post headline? As a report? A judgment? Something else? Why?

3. What is factually inaccurate in the New York Times report? Why? In its editorial it says the president provided the nation with "facts." How would you define "facts"? Are they what the president provided? If not, what did he provide?

4. Consider the Los Angeles Times editorial comment: Was it a "fact" that the communists attacked "American vessels in international waters"? What other "facts" have been omitted? Why?

5. Why do you think President Johnson did not inform either Congress or the American public of Operation Plan 34A? What evidence would you cite to support your view?

6. If journalists had "a great deal of information" contradicting the official account of the Tonkin Gulf events, why didn't they report it? Since the North Vietnamese must have known about the South Vietnamese attacks and, eventually, about the support of American destroyers for them, what "national security issues" could have made journalists reluctant to report what they knew?

7. Do you agree that the president "bamboozled Americans with a "fabrication"? Why or why not? If you agree that he did, how do you explain the president's behavior?

Writing assignments

1. Imagine that you are a newspaper reporter. Given the information you have about the events of August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin, write an opening paragraph of a newspaper report about them. Then put a headline over your paragraph. Be as objective as you can be.

2. Imagine that you are an editorial writer for a newspaper. Write an editorial of one paragraph based on your understanding of the events of August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In class, divide students into groups to share their reports and/or editorials. Have students discuss the following questions after they hear each. Reports: How accurate and how objective is each report? What judgmental words, if any, does it use? What are its sources? Is there evidence of bias? If so, what? Editorials: What evidence does the editorial provide to support any judgments? Is the evidence stated objectively? If so, how? If not, why not?


Student reading:

Reporting the Gulf War in 1991

The Gulf War was launched by the first President George Bush and US allies in 1991 in response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The military campaign, called Operation Desert Storm, succeeded after several months in removing Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In his book Jarhead, a former Marine sniper, Anthony Swofford, reports how his sergeant issued a "gag order" to his unit before a visit by reporters in the Saudi Arabian desert before Operation Desert Storm began. "Listen up," the sergeant said. "I've gone over this already. But the captain wants you to hear it again. Basically, don't get specific. Say you can shoot from far away. Say you are highly trained, that there are no better shooters in the world than Marine snipers. Say you're excited to be here and you believe in the mission and that we'll annihilate the Iraqis. Take off your shirts and show your muscles."

In November 1990 a Kuwaiti woman in tearful testimony before a Congressional committee said that Iraqi soldiers, during their invasion of Kuwait, had thrown babies out of their incubators in the Al Adnan hospital in Kuwait city and "left them on the cold floor to die." Her story was widely reported in the media. President Bush spoke about the incubator babies in five of his speeches and senators later referred to them in supporting pro-war resolution.

Later Myra Ancog-Cooke, a nurse who worked in the children's ward of the hospital with Freida Contrais-Naig, said, "I remember someone called and said, 'Look at CNN, they are talking about us.' We watched and it was strange seeing that girl telling them about the Iraqis taking the babies out of incubators. I said to Freida, 'That's funny, we've never seen her. She never worked here.'" Ms Myra Ancog-Cooke said babies had not been thrown from incubators.

Later it became known that the woman, Niyirah al Sabah, was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States and was working for Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm that had been secretly hired by the Kuwaiti government to help make the case for war by the US on Iraq. The firm coached six witnesses to report the false story. Months later the truth came out.

After the US entered World War II there was censorship of news reports, but reporters went pretty much where they pleased, reported what they saw and heard, and their dispatches were published in newspapers. Rarely were there any problems about violation of security. During the Vietnam War there were voluntary security guidelines. Only a half dozen of the two thousand reporters who covered the war lost their credentials for violating them. Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for the Washington Post, writes: "Reporters roamed the jungles at will, often hitching rides on choppers with friendly units. But as the futility of that tragic, televised war became increasingly clear, many military officials blamed the press for turning public opinion against them. Never again, they vowed, would they allow themselves to be humiliated by the media."

The military enforced tight control of reporting during the Gulf War. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter, writes: "Everyone agrees: the 1991 Gulf War was a disaster for military-media relations. Reporters were mostly cooped up at an air base in Saudi Arabia with little to do but complain about censorship. Access to the battlefield was extremely limited....'What's the government afraid of?' John Chancellor, the late NBC News anchor, told me at the time. 'They should trust us.'" There were military escorts for reporters; they could not conduct interviews with military officials unless they had been cleared in advance. "Television," says Kurtz, "could not show 'personnel in agony or severe shock' or 'images of patients suffering from severe disfigurement.'

"The television coverage had immediacy and visual impact—you could hear the air-raid sirens, see the sky light up, watch the correspondents fumbling with their gas masks....They got plenty of facts wrong. One TV reporter announced that Iraq's elite Republican Guard had been wiped out. Another said that chemical weapons had been used against Israel. Casualties were overstated. Viewers were drowning in disconnected facts...."

Kurtz writes: "Any effort to tell the Iraqi side of the story, as CNN's Peter Arnett learned in reporting from Baghdad, brought angry charges that reporters were helping the enemy. The problem for the press is that its core values, such as objectivity and skepticism, do not mesh well with the rally-round-the-flag passions that swept the country in wartime....Long after the war we learned from Newsday's Patrick Sloyan and the Army Times that some Iraqi soldiers had been buried alive in trenches by US plows and earth movers. And, in the Washington Post, Barton Gellman reported that the military had waited months to tell the families of thirty-three dead servicemen that their loved ones had been killed by friendly fire. These were the kinds of grisly details that Pentagon officials were able to keep from the press, though they had nothing to do with military security. It was not until a year after the war that we learned that key weapons like the stealth fighter and the cruise missile had struck only about half their military targets, compared to the 85 to 90 percent rate claimed by the Pentagon....Or, after months of official denials, that American-led bombers had inflicted serious damage on Iraqi generators, contributing to thousands of postwar civilian deaths."

Another reporter, Michael Massing, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, argues that military control of reporting was not the chief problem. What was required was "an ability to digest and make sense of the huge amount of data generated by the conflict." The Pentagon maintained that it was attacking only military-related facilities, "but," writes Massing, "the attacks on power plants, oil refineries, and other elements of the country's infrastructure suggested a far more destructive plan—one designed to return Iraq to a 'pre-industrial age,' as a UN report subsequently put it. What was the Pentagon's purpose in all this?"

And then, Massing notes, there was the endless reporting "on the chemical-weapons threat from Iraq—a threat that never materialized." Yet, he says, "correspondents showed little interest in America's own fearsome weapons. Like napalm. For the first time since Vietnam, the US forces used this flesh-searing substance, mostly to kill Iraqi troops in bunkers. On February 23, 1991 The New York Times headlined a story "Allies Are Said to Choose Napalm for Strikes on Iraqi Fortifications." The story explained that napalm-fueled fire over the mouths of caves and trenches may not burn the soldiers but can suffocate them as it removes oxygen from the air. This is the reason why opponents of napalm use argue it should be classified as a chemical weapon and banned. But the Times article did not raise this issue.

On February 13, 1991, American missiles struck the Amiriya air-raid shelter in Baghdad. 408 civilians were incinerated. Later Laurie Garrett, a medical writer for Newsday, viewed a half-hour videotape of the results: The videotape "showed scenes of incredible carnage. Nearly all the bodies were charred into blackness; in some cases the heat had been so great that entire limbs were burned off. Among the corpses were those of at least six babies and ten children, most of them so severely burned that their gender could not be determined. Rescue workers collapsed in grief, dropping corpses; some rescuers vomited from the stench of the still-smoldering bodies." Later Ms. Garrett wrote, "One can only wonder how US viewers would have reacted if they had seen the unedited video, or at least more than the sanitized few moments that were aired."

Chris Hedges is a New York Times correspondent who has covered wars in the Balkans, Central America, and the Middle East, including the first Gulf War, where he was captured. In a March 7, 2003 PBS interview on "Now with Bill Moyers" asked him, "Tell me, having covered the first Gulf War, what the men and women who are about to go into Iraq are going to experience?" "Well, the ones who are up on the front line are...going to have to come face-to-face with the myth of war. The myth of heroism, the myth of patriotism. The myth of glory. All those myths that have the ability to arouse us when we're not in mortal danger. And they're going to have to confront their own mortality. And at that moment some people will be crying, some people will be vomiting. People will not speak much. Everyone will realize that....until the fighting ends, it will be a constant minute-by-minute battle with fear. And that sometimes fear wins. And anybody who tells you differently has never been in a war."

Asked about how the Gulf War was reported, Hedges answered: "...the war became entertainment. The Army had no more candor than they did in Vietnam. But what they perfected was the appearance of candor. Live press conferences. And well-packaged video clips of Sidewinder missiles hitting planes or going down chimneys....and the fact that they covered up death. Not only the death of our own. But the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed. They were nameless, faceless phantoms....So it was a completely mythic, or mendacious narrative that was presented to us....And it frightened me and it disgusted me. And it wasn't because I didn't believe that we shouldn't have gone into Kuwait. I believe we had no choice. But I certainly understood that we, as a nation, had completely lost touch with what war is. And when we lose touch with what war is, when we believe that our technology makes us invulnerable...if history is any guide, we are going to stumble into a horrific swamp."

And, finally, Moyers asked Hedges: "What have you learned as a journalist covering war that we ought to know on the eve of this attack on Iraq?" He responded: "That everybody or every generation...seems not to listen to those who went through it before and bore witness to it. But falls again for the myth. And has to learn it through a tragedy inflicted upon their young. That war is always about betrayal. It's about betrayal of soldiers by politicians. And it's about betrayal of the young by the old."

The transcript of the full Hedges interview can be found on the PBS website at: http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_hedges.html

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about Gulf War reporting?

2. This reading includes a number of critical comments about how the military limited the access of reporters to first-hand information about what was happening during the Gulf War. Yet during the Vietnam War there was a great deal of access. Why did the military change its regulations? What is your reaction to each of those regulations?—limited access to the battlefield, military escorts for reporters; advance clearance for interviews with military officials; censorship of TV images of wounded or dead soldiers or civilians; official briefings or handouts instead of firsthand observation. Do you think each regulation is justified? Why or why not?

3. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that about half of all Americans think the military should have more control over war news than the media have. What do you think and why?

4. Here are some of the things the Pentagon prevented the media from learning or reporting on until long after the war was over:

  • the burial alive of Iraqi soldiers
  • the killing of American soldiers by friendly fire
  • the limited success of the stealth fighters and cruise missiles in hitting their targets
  • the damage to Iraqi generators that contributed to many postwar civilian deaths

The major argument for censorship is that it prevents the enemy from learning things that might give it an advantage, that might result in failure of an operation or in the deaths of American soldiers—in short, that it protects military security. Another reason given for censoring war news is to ensure that families don't learn about the death or injury of a relative by watching the TV news. If the media had reported immediately any of the stories bulleted above, would it have endangered military security or exposed families to broadcast news about the fate of relatives? If not, why then did the military attempt to keep these stories from appearing in the media? This question might be a good one for small-group discussions, reports from each group to the entire class and then whole class discussion.

5. The story about Iraqi soldiers taking babies from incubators may seem relatively harmless, since ultimately it was shown to be false. But it reveals people's tendency to believe the worst of any enemy. Why does this happen?

6. Reporters, as Kurtz points out, "got plenty of facts wrong." Why is this likely to happen in war reporting? What does this suggest as a caution to readers and viewers?

7. Why, as Massing comments, didn't reporters ask questions about attacks on power plants and the like? Or about the American use of napalm?

8. Why did US TV viewers not see the unedited results of an air-raid shelter bombing?

9. What does Chris Hedges mean by the "myths" of war, heroism, patriotism, glory? He says that in the Gulf War a "mythic or mendacious narrative...was presented to us." Based on what you know, do you agree? Why or why not? In what ways can war become entertainment? What does Hedges mean by "every generation...seems not to listen to those who went through it before"? By "war is always about betrayal"? Some of these questions might also be usefully discussed first in small groups to give everyone an opportunity to have his/her voice heard. Considering their importance, the teacher might want to use a fish bowl technique.

The fish bowl is a way to engage the entire class in one small-group dialogue. Invite five to seven students to begin a conversation on one of the questions above. Ask them to make a circle of chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that this group reflects diverse points of view. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl, so there will be a smaller circle within a larger circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak; thus, the process facilitates a kind of sustained, focused listening.

One way to facilitate a fish bowl is:

1. Ask a question and invite students in the fish bowl to speak to it in a "go-around" without interruption.

2. Designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fish bowl.

3. Invite students in the larger circle to participate after about 15 minutes; a student may enter the fish bowl by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

4. Continue this same procedure with additional questions.


Student Reading:

New rules for a new war

For this second war with Iraq, the Pentagon has a new set of rules. The one getting the most attention is that journalists covering a US attack on Iraq will be "embedded," or have assigned slots with combat and support units and stay with them for up to two months. About 500 correspondents, including about 100 from foreign and international press agencies, have already been given slots. Many have also been trained for combat conditions and offered the same inoculations against smallpox and anthrax that American soldiers have received.

This policy is a significant change from the tight restrictions the Pentagon has enforced since the Vietnam War. Most news executives and reporters welcomed the change. David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times, praised it, "given the controls last time [1991], which were excessive." He added, though, that the crucial issue was access: "Can you get where you want?" Donatella Lorch, a Newsweek correspondent, said the new policy "brings up a lot of issues for reporters," a major one being the pressure "to remain critical and independent" while living every day with troops one is covering.

Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, expressed concern that the Pentagon would continue to make it difficult to get out images telling a story other than the one the military want told. "A lot of people said the right things," Rather said. "In the fog of war, these things have a way of changing."

Because it is likely that some "embedded" correspondents will be with units that see little or no action, Newsweek has announced that, like most other major news organizations, it will have "correspondents roaming the region freely as well as embedded with troops. It's like campaign coverage; you need some reporters on the plane with the candidates and others out talking to the voters. One big question is how the military will treat reporters who aren't embedded."

The changes are possibly the result of 1) the desire of the Pentagon to have correspondents be able to give firsthand reports that would counter any Iraqi claims of American atrocities and 2) the drumfire of criticism of past restrictions.

Other Pentagon rules include the following:

  • Reporters cannot carry a sidearm.
  • They cannot use flash photography at night.
  • They cannot report a unit's exact position.
  • They cannot release reports of live, continuing action without the permission of the commanding officer.
  • They cannot report on future or cancelled operations.
  • They can give the date, time and place of military action, as well as any results, in general terms only.

Of course, news organizations can censor themselves. For example, there has already been criticism of a CNN document, "Reminder of Script Approval Policy," that states: "All reporters preparing package scripts must submit the scripts for approval. Packages may not be edited until the scripts are approved [and those originating from] all international bureaus must come to the ROW in Atlanta for approval." (The "ROW" is the row of CNN script editors in Atlanta who can demand changes or "balances" in a reporter's work.) "A script is not approved for air unless it is properly marked approved by an authorized manager...When a script is updated it must be re-approved..."

Media critic Robert Fisk comments, "Note the key words here: 'approved' and 'authorized'. CNN's man or woman in Kuwait or Baghdad...may know the background to his or her story; indeed, they will know far more about than the 'authorities' in Atlanta. But CNN's chiefs will decide the spin of the story....The relevance of this is all too obvious in the next Gulf War. We are going to have to see a US army officer denying everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on the air." This system of "script approval," says Fisk, refers to "someone" making a change in the script but doesn't say who the "someone" is. He concludes: "But when we recall that CNN revealed after the 1991 Gulf War that it had allowed Pentagon 'trainees' into the CNN newsroom in Atlanta, I have my suspicions."

Paul Scott Mowrer, editor of the Chicago Daily News, writes: "In this nation of ours, the final political decisions rest with the people. And the people, so that they may make up their minds, must be given the facts, even in time of war, or perhaps especially in time of war."

Dr. David Considine, an Appalachian State University professor of media studies, writes: "The mass media is not only capable of shaping products but also shaping the perceptions we have. It's not just a question of what we see but what we don't see, what we are told but what we are not told. It's a question of whose stories are told and who's doing the telling....Public policy is frequently based on public perception....So clearly, what stories are told and what stories are left out really can shape our perceptions and then, as a result of that, public policy."

For discussion

1. What is your reaction to the Pentagon's new rules for war coverage? What do you think is the reason for each rule?

2. Why might news organizations censor themselves? What are Fisk's criticisms of CNN policies? What are your reactions to those criticisms?

3. What does Fisk mean when he writes, "We are going to have to see a US army officer denying everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on the air"? What are his "suspicions"? Why?

4. Do you agree with Mowrer's comment? Why or why not? How do you think the Pentagon might respond to it?

5. What is your reaction to Considine's remarks? Do you think the media have shaped any of your perceptions? For example, what is your view of the war on Iraq? How did you come to this view? What role do you think any of the media played? How can we know "what we don't see" and "what we are not told"?

For future work

Assign students to specific newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks and cable channels as regular "beats" to report on regularly about how war news is treated. Include mainstream news sources such as newspapers in the area, network and public radio and TV and cable channels, as well as such alternative news sources as WBAI (radio) or those available on the Internet—for example, fair.org. (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), commondreams.org and fpif.org (Foreign Policy in Focus).The web provides a wealth of foreign news sources, some of which students could check against U.S. media reporting. In its section on publications, the New York Times Navigator makes it possible to find newspapers around the world. At the Columbia Journal Review site (cjr.org), click on Media Finder for world newspapers as well as newspapers in every state of the U.S. Still another source is http://newslink.org/.

Some of the following questions may be useful for them to apply on a sustained basis to the stories they read, hear or view.

1. How objective is the reporting? Does the reporter use mainly the language of reports? What, if any, evidence is there of bias in the use of judgmental language, photographs and/or film? Note especially verbs and adjectives as possible sources of judgments. If there are judgments, do they seem fair to make? Why or why not? Try to imagine how an Iraqi might view the story.

2. From whose point of view is the story told? Be specific. Tipoffs are words like "our" and "the enemy." Students might consider the common headline that appeared early in the crisis with Iraq on several TV news channels: "Showdown with Saddam." From whose point of view is this headline? What tone is established by using Saddam Hussein's first name? What would be your reaction if the headline said: 'Showdown by George'?

3. How would you describe the story's tone? What language, photographs, and/or film lead you to your conclusion?

4. Is the story entirely based on an eyewitness account? If not, what other sources of information are there for the story? If you can't tell, why not? Note the use of passive voice and what it might indicate.

5. Do you have any reason(s) to doubt the accuracy of the story? What and why? Can you note any corrections of a story at a later time?

6. How complete does the story seem to be? What, if any, questions that you have go unanswered? Why? Is there any evidence of deliberate, significant omissions? What and why?

7. What perceptions about the war does the story encourage? What is your evidence for them? Consider in this connection, especially, the impact of certain words, photographs, or film segments.

8. Does anything about the story—or anything the reporter says—suggest that the military have censored it? That the newspaper, radio station, or TV channel may have censored itself? Why?

9. Does the story question any information the military is supplying? What and why?

10. Are any newscasts on radio or TV accompanied by patriotic music? Why? Does a TV channel show the American flag as a backdrop or use any other patriotic American symbols? Why?

11. What other questions do students have about their study of war reporting?

In addition to hearing a sampling of student reports on their news analyses, the class might also consider similarities and differences among the media. For example, students should become aware, if they are not already, that TV and radio reports are likely to be very brief, perhaps not much more than might appear in a newspaper headline. On the other hand, while photographs may appear with newspaper articles, TV almost always features film. What, if anything, does such film add to the report? For example, why is a statement by the president delivered by a reporter standing in front of the White House? Radio can only offer words and sounds but is capable of affecting the imagination powerfully. But all news reports, whatever the medium, use language that is open, as is film, to scrutiny and criticism.

Some students might be interested in checking out the claims of cable news channels. Fox's motto is "We report. You decide." CNN claims to be "the most trusted name in news." What do you understand these claims to mean? How accurate do you judge them to be? Based on what evidence?

Possible subjects for further inquiry

1. Government secrecy about the effects of the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

2. The accuracy of information provided to reporters by the government during the war in Grenada.

3. War reporting by such famous writers as Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway in World War II and the TV reporting of the Gulf War from Baghdad by Peter Arnett

4. The impact of war photographs taken by Matthew Brady in the Civil War

5. The role of William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers in bringing on the Spanish-American War.

6. The release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by the New York Times and then the Washington Post and the court battle it occasioned.



William E. Gardner et al, Selected Case Studies in American History
John Dover, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War
Loren Baritz, Backfire: The Myths That Made Us Fight, The Illusions That Haunt Us Today
Theodore Draper, Abuse of Power
Howard Kurtz, Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers
Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert E. Kaiser, The News About the News
Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty
Anthony Swofford, Jarhead

Newspapers, Magazines and Newsletters

New York Post, 2/24/03
New York Times Book Review, 3/2/03 and regular edition, 2/18/03
Center for Defense Information, "Defense Monitor," Vol. XXIII, No.4
The Nation, 1/17/14/02, 2/24/03, 3/17/03
Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1991
Newsweek, 3/10/03, 3/17/03 Christian Science Monitor, 12/4/01
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, August 1985


Center for Public Integrity: cpi.org
FAIR: www.fair.org
The Guardian: guardian.co.uk, 2/5/03
The Independent: independent.co.uk, 2/25/03


NOW with Bill Moyers, 3/7/03 (http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_hedges.html)


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org