Seldom have the American media appeared so hornswoggled, so cowardly, or so supine in defending the First Amendment as they are portrayed as being in this bitter polemic on Persian Gulf War coverage by the publisher of Harper's. Virtually from the moment American troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia following Saddam Hussein's takeover of Kuwait, MacArthur contends, the Bush Administration ``never intended to allow the press to cover a war in the Persian Gulf in any real sense.'' In the wake of tight news-management of Grenada and Panama, that doesn't come as a surprise; the real revelation here, based on numerous interviews with journalists and close critical analysis of news accounts, is how the press played along in the hope of grabbing the few scraps of news that fell from the government's table. According to MacArthur, Pentagon spokesperson Peter Williams decisively outflanked the media through his blandly mendacious reassurances that the press would be provided access to the conflict in stages. Thereafter, journalists—confined to press``pools'' that were escorted by armed-forces representatives- -became glorified stenographers for Pentagon propagandists. MacArthur details how the press apparently uncritically accepted and disseminated self-serving myths perpetrated by the Bush Administration and the Kuwaiti government's American p.r. flacks- -including myths about Kuwaiti babies snatched from incubators by Iraqi soldiers, the precision of ``smart bombs,'' and the exaggerated size and morale of Saddam Hussein's forces. Afterward, MacArthur says, journalists who didn't yield to hand-wringing over the government's jawboning fawned over General Schwarzkopf or led the cheerleading for their own organization's pathetic coverage. Some of MacArthur's conclusions—notably, the importance of the incubator story in the crucial Congressional debate on the war- -seem overdrawn, and he resorts to unrelieved sarcasm to buttress his case. But few readers can finish his powerful account without fearing for the future of freedom of the press—and of American democratic institutions.
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