Gulf War Stories the Media Loved
-- Except They Aren't True
"Even though a story can be incredibly preposterous in the Western mind, it can resonate deeply in other parts of the world," Todd Levanthal, a U.S. Information Agency specialist on disinformation, told the New York Times (9/16/90). "The key is predisposition to believe, not the crudity of the charge." While the point of the article was to portray Arabs as conspiratorial and irrational, the U.S. media's acceptance of crude charges about the official enemy demonstrates that a "Western mind" is no barrier to a "predisposition to believe."
Most U.S. news outlets uncritically accepted the story that 300 premature babies died when Iraqi soldiers removed them from incubators, which were sent to Iraq as loot. Alexander Cockburn (The Nation, 2/4/91), an exception, cited Kuwaiti medical personnel who went into exile after the invasion, who said that babies were still in incubators at Kuwait's Maternity Hospital in September, and that empty incubators had not been taken.
After the end of Iraqi occupation, the New York Times (2/28/91) offered this two-sentence retraction, buried five-sixths of the way through an article: "Some of the atrocities that had been reported, such as the killing of infants in the main hospitals shortly after the invasion, are untrue or have been exaggerated, Kuwaitis said. Hospital officials, for instance, said that stories circulated about the killing of 300 children were incorrect."
A "Captain Karim," ostensibly a former bodyguard of Saddam Hussein, was featured on 60 Minutes (1/20/91), as well as prominent TV outlets in Europe, making sensational charges about Saddam, e.g., "He become very happy when he see anyone in the acid bath." But as reported by Doug Ireland in the Village Voice (2/12/91), an investigation by French intelligence could find no evidence that Karim ever worked for Saddam, and labeled him a "mythomaniac" who had frequent contacts in Paris with Saudi military and intelligence officers.
Indulging in wishful thinking, Time's "Grapevine" page (2/11/91) asked "Is Saddam Cracking Up?" The piece claimed that Saddam was blinking very rapidly during his CNN interview the previous week: 40 times a minute, vs. 20-25 during an interview in June. Time consulted John Molloy, who trains salespeople to handle stress, who said, "When salesmen start blinking, they're usually in trouble. The guy looks like he's falling apart."
To put Saddam's blinking in perspective, Greenpeace's Peter Dykstra did a little research of his own: George Bush's eyes, he found, flickered at a Saddam-like 34 to 38 blinks per minute, while Michael Dukakis' showed a positively psychotic 74 b.p.m. Among the most reassuring eyes found by Greenpeace were Dan Quayle's, blinking a sane 20 times per minute.
The New York Times' editorial page (1/14/91) reported that "Baghdad Betty," an Iraqi government propaganda broadcaster, had told U.S. troops: "G.I., you should be home.... While you're away, movie stars are taking your women. Robert Redford is dating your girlfriend. Tom Selleck is kissing your lady.... Bart Simpson is making love to your wife."
When George Bush called Iraqi radio "ridiculous," the editorial said, "he couldn't know how right he was." But the joke was on the Times: The story it gleefully reported as fact was actually a joke Johnny Carson told on the Tonight Show (8/22/90). On Jan. 31 1990, Carson said that his joke had been "reported as a fact on CNN, Entertainment Tonight, Garrick Utley's Year-End Wrap-Up [on NBC], and in this issue of Time magazine [1/21/91]." In Carson's original joke, it's dad Homer Simpson instead of Bart -- a slightly more plausible scenario, since Bart is eight years old.