The Listening Post

Selling the first Gulf War

More than two decades on, we look at the around-the-clock coverage that changed television news forever.

More than two decades after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, we take a look back at the media’s role in selling the Gulf War, the military’s attempts to control the story and the ’round-the-clock’ coverage that changed television news forever. 

In part one we look at what was on television and in print in the five months between August 1990 – when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait – and January 1991 – when the bombs started falling on Baghdad.

President George H.W. Bush said he was drawing a line in the sand; that the invasion of Kuwait would not stand. But the US administration had to sell a war in a distant region and convince sceptics at home – and in the countries that made up the coalition – that the war was about more than just oil; that a former American ally, Saddam Hussein, was now a danger to Western interests. The administration had help: the Kuwaiti government in exile hired a Washington public relations firm called Hill & Knowlton to get the plight of the Kuwaitis to resonate with the American public. Our starting point is the PR campaign that became a case study in how to rally people – through the media – and get them behind a controversial cause: the first Gulf War.

The UN-imposed deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait passed on January 15, 1991. War was coming and most news outlets with reporters in the Iraqi capital pulled them out. Part two of Listening Post’s Gulf War special looks at the media coverage once the fighting started. Live reporting of bombs exploding in the Baghdad night, Tomahawk missiles blasting off American warships and gas-masked correspondents all transfixed audiences.

But the journalism left plenty to be desired. The Pentagon kept reporters at a distance and the pool system they used to do that has since developed into the embedded reporter model they use in Afghanistan and Iraq today. And a 24-hour news channel, one of the very few that existed at the time, rode its wall to wall coverage of a war that lasted only six weeks, and changed the news game forever. Listening Post’s Jason Mojica, on the way the war was covered, and the impact it has had on journalism in the two decades since.

It may seem odd to end a show dealing with war on a lighter note, but our video of the week – although humorous – may have had political consequences. The New York Times’ Jason DeParle reported that when NBC’s satirical programme Saturday Night Live decided to parody the behaviour of over-eager reporters at US military briefings, it convinced the Bush administration – which had been considering easing restrictions on reporters covering the war – that the public was not on the side of the press. Watch as a young Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and Conan O’Brien act out their generation’s version of the five o’clock follies, but remember that it was the Pentagon who had the last laugh.

Listening Post’s Gulf War special features interviews with: John R. MacArthur, Robert Wiener, Pete Williams, Vaughan Smith, Steven Livingston and Claude Salhani.

This episode of Listening Post aired from Friday, January 7, 2011.