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Reporters discuss Gulf war

By George Ipe

The MIT Communications Forum and the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program sponsored a discussion last Thursday featuring four journalists who reported from the Persian Gulf war. Members of the MIT community, along with a contingent of cadets from the US Military Academy at West Point, filled the Bartos Theatre in the Wiesner Building.

Political Science Professor Harvey M. Sapolsky, who is director of the Defense and Arms Control Studies Program, moderated the discussion and introduced the journalists to the audience. Deborah Amos of National Public Radio, Rick Davis of NBC and John Fialka of The Wall Street Journal served in the press pool in Saudi Arabia in the months preceding and during the gulf war. The fourth panelist, Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer, worked until the

very last days prior to war in Baghdad.

Each reporter spoke about personal experiences and then fielded questions from the audience. All four panelists agreed that the gulf war was, by most accounts, a journalistic failure.

Fialka gave statistics comparing the number of reporters in the gulf war to wars in Korea, Vietnam and the beachheads of Normandy. The gulf war saw almost 150 reporters in the field at any one time, "which was more than twice the coverage of any previous war," Filaca said.

"But I would say from the outset, we didn't do a very good job in covering the war. There are large gaps in our knowledge . . . huge tank battles that weren't covered by anybody," he continued.

Other panelists faulted the tight security limitations and censorship imposed, "sometimes unfairly," by the army. The Marines were praised, though, in part to the successful public relations tactics used by its officers.

The panelists blamed the generals for seeking "revenge" against the press for losing the war in Vietnam.

Personal experiences of

war coverage shared

Fialka and the others described the almost "dog-eat-dog" world of journalism in comic detail. The "byzantine scheming and intrigues of press pool politics allowed for much wrangling for the 60 slots allotted for frontline reporters by the Pentagon," Fialka said.

When questioned about the role of journalists in war, the panelists were quick to defend themselves. "How can atrocities be truthfully reported? What about failures in battle? The public has the right to know. . . . This is fundamental in a democracy," Davis said.

Rubin told of the last days before she and other "potential hostages" were evacuated from the fated Baghdad. She spoke of how the "common Iraqis anxiously wanted to know what was about to happen." She described how she was surprised to find ordinary Iraqis who were concerned about her safety approach her, thinking she was "one of those Westerners somehow left behind in Iraq." "They offered help," she said.