A Word Of Caution

by Conor Friedersdorf

As I sit watching CNN coverage from Egypt, I can't help but reflect on the Persian Gulf War, the first conflict that unfolded on cable news. It is worth remembering that the images we saw back then didn't afford an entirely accurate picture of events on the ground.

What follows are quotes from an old MIT symposium [PDF] that examined television coverage of that conflict:

As part of the attempt to “kick” the Vietnam Syndrome during the first Gulf War, the media were denied access to the battlefield, and the public was largely presented U.S. military videos of “smart” weapons hitting their targets... Military tactics such as attaching plows to tanks in order to bury Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches in the first days of the ground war were not revealed until months afterward... As reported by Seymour Hersh in 2000, on March 2, 1991, two days after President Bush had declared a cease-fire, General Barry McCaffrey’s 24th Division destroyed a retreating tank division, killing soldiers, civilians, and children... few scenes of what happened on the ground were shown in the United States during or immediately after the war. 

Here's another passage:

Given the censorship during the first Gulf War, little media coverage was dedicated to civilian casualties. However, the medical and public health literature has reported a tremendous burden of suffering that occurred during and after the first Gulf War. A U.N. report estimated 5,000 to 15,000 civilian deaths during the first Gulf War, but these estimates represent only a small proportion of the civilian deaths that occurred. An estimated 20,000 died in the civil war that followed, and an additional 15,000 to 30,000 Kurds and other refugees died while fleeing for their safety.

What we're witnessing is different in all sorts of ways from the Gulf War. And there are significant differences between cable news of the early 1990s and what we watch today. I intend no direct analogies or moral judgments about the Gulf War or the current uprising. My only point is that what we see on cable television is but a slice of reality as experienced on the ground. Look back at any breaking news long after the fact and you'll be struck by the significance of factors little or nothing was known about at the time. In Egypt especially, there is no reliable method we have for ascertaining how much we don't know. As a consequence, it is prudent that we remain cautious and modest in our assessments, whatever they may be.