1991 Censored

Foreign Policy News Stories


Project Censored


CBS and NBC Spiked Footage of Iraq Bombing Carnage

SYNOPSIS: CBS and NBC refused to broadcast rare, uncensored footage taken deep inside Iraq at the height of the air war. The footage, initially commissioned by NBC with two producers whose earlier work had earned the network seven Emmy awards, substantially contradicted U.S. Administration claims that civilian damage from the American-led bombing campaign was light.

The exclusive videotape, shot by producers Jon Alpert and Maryanne Deleo, during a trip to Iraq in early February, portrayed heavy civilian carnage as a result of allied bombing.

"I thought it was substantial," said NBC Nightly News Executive Producer Steven Friedman, who initially approved the material for broadcast. After a meeting with Friedman, anchor Tom Brokaw, and Tom Capra, executive producer of the Today Show, producer Jon Alpert said, "Everybody felt the film was very good. They asked for three minutes, to be shown on the Nightly News and the Today Show, and we reached a financial agreement." But despite the enthusiasm shown by Friedman and Brokaw, who reportedly fought hard for its airing, NBC President Michael Gartner killed the footage.
The producers then took the video to CBS, where they got the go-ahead from CBS Evening News Executive Director Tom Bettag. "He told me, 'You'll appear on the show with Dan (Rather) tomorrow night."' Alpert said. However, while Alpert was editing the piece for CBS, he got a call from the network; Bettag had been fired in the middle of the night and the piece had been killed. Both networks stated publicly that spiking the story had nothing to do with the controversial nature of the material. But a series of interviews with network producers who requested anonymity charged there was intense pressure to put out a pro-war, pro-administration message.


UPDATE: While the controversial documentary footage was never shown on the commercial networks, the Los Angeles Times reports (5/21/91) that excerpts of it were shown on "The '90s," an unconventional PBS series that shows the work of independent filmmakers seldom seen on mainstream TV. The Times noted the film was "reportedly personally rejected by Michael Gartner, president of the NBC News division." A subsequent story in The Observer (4/10/94) reported the censored images had "contradicted the official line that Allied 'surgical strikes' caused minimal civilian casualties."

Meanwhile, in a major article that appeared in Foreign Policy (3/22/93), John G. Heidenrich, a former military analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and an analyst for the Department of Defense during the Gulf War, rejected the reports of high Iraqi casualties. While he noted the DIA's own report of 100,000 Iraqis killed, 300,000 wounded in action, and about 300,000 deserters, he pointed out the study had an error factor of 50 percent or higher. He suggested that a more realistic estimate would be a total death toll (from both air and ground offensive) of only 1,500 soldiers and less than 1,000 dead Iraqi civilians.



Operation Censored War

SYNOPSIS: A secretive Bush Administration, aided and abetted by a press more interested in cheerleading than in journalism, persuaded the American people to support the Gulf War by media manipulation, censorship, and intimidation. Some of the events covered up by the military and/or the media included: the extent of casualties from "friendly fire"; use of Napalm bombs on Iraqi ground troops; inaccuracy of U.S. bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait; the "fuel-air bomb" experiment; television networks' refusal to run available footage of the mass destruction from the "turkey shoot" on the road to Basra; the networks' refusal to broadcast uncensored footage of civilian casualties; and U.S. battlefield casualties disguised as training accidents. In addition, reporters in the Gulf were routinely and openly censored and harassed by military public affairs officers.


UPDATE: In a lengthy analysis, entitled "National Security and the Persian Gulf War on Television News: Ethics and the First Amendment Paradox," the December 1995 issue of the authoritative Communications & the Law, concluded, "The Pentagon held a strong rein on any and all substantive information about the war, disregarding the freedom of the press and the right to access guaranteed in the First Amendment." It noted that the failure to accurately portray the ravages of war was most likely a case of censorship. Indeed, news media censorship was so bad that Walter Cronkite, America's longtime esteemed television news anchor, charged that the Pentagon's censorship was "the real horror of the Persian Gulf war."

Ironically, given all the lives lost and all the lies, Jane's Intelligence Review reported in its November 1996 issue that "Saddam Hussein has rebuilt the devastated Iraqi army into a credible fighting force by reviving the military industries and smuggling in hardware components." Iraq was not prohibited from increasing the size or quality of its military under the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire.

It was not until mid-1997 that the American people learned the truth about the performance of Gulf War weapons that were so highly praised during the conflict. A newly declassified report by the General Accounting Office, released in late June, revealed that the Pentagon and weapons makers overstated the effectiveness of high-technology aircraft, bombs and other systems during the war. Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan) said the report documents "a pattern of overstated, misleading, inconsistent, or unverifiable claims on the performance of individual, particularly high-technology, weapons systems." He charged the military with withholding this information from the taxpayers (Associated Press, 6/29/97).

Project Censored