Nitwitness News

April 1, 1991

The ADAGE that there s no such thing as a stupid question took heavy damage in the Gulf War. Henry Allen said it perfectly in the Washington Post Feb. 21: “The Persian Gulf press briefings are making reporters look like fools, nitpickers, and egomaniacs . . . dinner party commandos, slouching inquisitors, college-spitball artists . . . a whining, self-righteous, upper- middle-class mob….”

Let it be noted that much of the news coverage was very good, and some of it was excellent. Radio and television carried the briefings from Riyadh and the Pentagon, uncut and without commercial interruption. For the most part, their expert analysts really were experts. When reporters stuck to reporting the news, they generally did a commendable job of it.

Unfortunately, those qualities were often eclipsed by the arrogance, incompetence, and bias demonstrated by more than a few reporters, correspondents, and news show moderators.

Colman McCarthy of the Washington Post staked out the low ground in a Feb. 17 column that sneered at US airmen as “fearless warriors” conducting an “aerial massacre” at small risk to themselves in “a coward’s air war.”

McCarthy, however, is an extreme example. Such diatribes must be factored out if one wishes to reach useful conclusions about why workaday journalism in the Gulf War deteriorated so often into Nitwitness News.

Some of it was the sheer incompetence and ignorance of amateur war correspondents. The defense world was deeply impressed by the unprecedented feat of a missile knocking another missile out of the sky, but when one of the Iraqi Scuds got through, a National Public Radio analyst yawned that “three out of four is not very good. “

At times the comments from the amateurs were so dumb that they were funny, but the more important explanations of the Nitwitness News phenomenon lie in the prevailing psychology of the news media.

Contrary to popular belief, the working press is seldom consumed by a desire “to sell newspapers.” Reporters may be motivated by idealism, dreams of a Pulitzer Prize, or a few extra minutes of airtime, but they cultivate an active disregard for circulation, advertising, and other economic considerations.

Reporters like to envision themselves as champions of the public. Writing in Newsweek Feb. 25, Walter Cronkite charged that “the US military in Saudi Arabia is trampling on the American people’s right to know.” According to the polls, the public figured the media had all the information they needed to report the war. That, Mr. Cronkite said, “can only be because the press has failed to make clear the public’s stake in the matter.”

Could it be instead that the public has not appointed Mr. Cronkite to determine its informational requirements and understands the situation better than Mr. Cronkite believes? As the Jacksonville, Fla., Times-Union asked in an editorial, “Why does a farmer in Nebraska or a cabbie in Manhattan need to know exactly how many A-10 Thunderbolts are stationed northwest of Jubayl?”

Given their chance to ask questions, reporters went mostly after speculation, irrelevancies, and excruciating detail. In one instance, they clamored for a description of the markings by which pilots recognized traffic on the ground as allied rather than enemy vehicles.

Columnists Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta argue that media performance at the briefings was somehow a natural consequence of keeping reporters “corralled” in Riyadh and limiting press pools in the field to 100 or so, a ratio they compute at one journalist per 5,000 soldiers.

Whatever the forensic merits of that theory, pool reports and other sources were obviously providing the basic facts and a great many details about the war to anyone who wanted them.

As quoted by Editor & Publisher, house organ of the trade, David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times complained that “pool reporting tends to dilute individual creativity.” In that, Mr. Lamb came close to spilling the beans.

The road to glory and airtime is not paved with the ordinary facts unless one has them before the other reporters do. A large portion of the 1,400-member media contingent in Saudi Arabia and their counterparts operating in the Pentagon and elsewhere wanted scoops and exclusives. They wanted to be creative.

The military and the media dislike and distrust each other. The hostility is deep-rooted and has grown steadily worse over the past 20 years.

Some reporters expected–and obviously wanted–to catch the military in lies or malfeasance. Many of the military officials expected sabotage from the media. Some of what we saw on television was sparks from that friction.

The Nitwitness News drill did not help that relationship. The military will almost certainly take it as confirmation of its suspicions. That’s a shame, because the media are not a monolithic “They,” and many reporters performed responsibly and well during the Gulf War.

What the media learned from the experience remains to be seen.