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The First Gulf War

Within the scope of this research, we will analyze how mainstream media reporting of the First Gulf War was compromised by governments, the military and the media themselves, using CNN and ABC news example. It is apparent that both media outlets were biased, and their reporting of the war was affected and sometimes even coerced by external and internal factors alike.

As President Bush proclaimed the coming of a "New World Order" during the Persian Gulf War, media critics heralded a new world order of instant reporting. The continuous live reports provided by the Cable News Network (CNN) prompted some observers to call the conflict The CNN War (Laurence 1991). Academics have called the Gulf War a "critical incident" for television journalism (Zelizer 1992) because of the challenge CNN posed to the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). But along with the praise and legitimacy conferred to CNN came ample criticism. The charges levied against CNN, and television news in general, included questions about media bias, the perceived inadequacy of information due to news management by the military, the manipulation of television news by political adversaries, and the potentially adverse effects of television news on public understanding of political events.

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The magnitude of attention given to CNN suggests that its role in television journalism may go beyond providing the latest news during major crises. CNN has sought to expand its audience during periods of calm by making its evening newscasts a point of reference beyond opinion leaders (Waldman 1989). But these evening newscasts have eluded researchers who concentrate on CNN's live coverage or technological advantages (Walker, Wicks and Pyle 1991). An examination of CNN's Headline News reveals the extent to which conventions of television news presentation constrain CNN's packaging of events in ways similar to the three networks.

Television news is known for its reliance on dramatic visual presentations, its need to captivate viewers, its condensation of information into brief segments, and its emphasis on immediate and technologically sophisticated coverage. Much contemporary research documents the existence of these constraints without assessing how they shape the telling of news stories. Television news formats shape the way news stories are told and the kinds of interpretations people make about those stories. Detailed analysis of the formats in television news can help explain public understanding of foreign conflicts and identify the kinds of policies viewers are likely to support (Dobkin 1992).

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Media critics commend background reports in newscasts for offering journalistic freedom, providing much-needed context to events, and potentially countering the news management efforts of public and military officials. In fact, these background reports provide viewers with an interpretive framework by which they may understand ongoing events (Dobkin 1992). Background reports, or reporter packages, also constitute a primary site of analysis in the newscasts. As Walker and colleagues (1991) note in their study of CNN's live coverage during the Gulf War, CNN presented accounts of action taking place without much simultaneous analysis. Viewers can find this contextual apparatus in the reporter packages that come before, during, and after cutaways to live events. These packages are consolidated each night in CNN's thirty-minute newscast, Headline News.

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Both ABC and CNN adopted similar structural frames in their reporting of the Persian Gulf War. ABC's World News Tonight and CNN's Headline News posed the enigma, "Will the U.S. go to war with Iraq?"; marked time with deadlines and ultimatums; used the structural frame of romantic quest to develop heroes, villains, allies, and rebels; and focused audience concern on the outcome of the narrative. Television newscasts provided an interpretive framework through reporter packages that privileged military intervention and focused on war strategies. Before the first Allied air strikes, television news had established a structural frame that fit the emerging needs of the Pentagon and White House.

ABC and CNN's reliance on speculations and scenarios about military action also established legitimacy for the plethora of retired generals and military experts in subsequent Gulf War coverage. As one of the critics writes, "Their expertise framed the public's response from the first brainy bomb, tilting it away from human costs or political implications of war toward the payload of F153s and the trajectory of patriots" (Katz 1991). But CNN, while focusing on tactical and strategic military analysis of the war, often presented the teamwork of Allied forces rather than highlight Bush's role as a solitary leader. CNN sometimes began newscasts with settings, such as Kuwaiti beaches and cities in Saudi Arabia, rather than the words or actions of key characters in the narrative. CNN thus showed less allegiance to the character development demanded by quest narratives while maintaining the structural frame with traditional us/them dualities and speculations of military action.

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Additional differences between CNN and ABC news narratives can be identified. CNN's structure of Headline News, with Gulf coverage, economic reports, sports highlights, and regular "updates" as part of each newscast, more closely resembled the "shopping list" organization of print news identified by Lewis ( 1991) and makes the title, Headline News, particularly appropriate. The print-based mode of organization, Lewis argues, discourages viewers from making connections between ideas and limits their understanding of news events to "moments of discursive or ideological resonance" (Lewis 1991). Since television newscasts lack historic context for understanding action sequences, viewers either remember discrete moments of news that fit the interpretive frame provided by journalists, or viewers construct their own, alternative perspective based on knowledge they have acquired from other sources.

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Viewer comprehension is aided when television adheres to the hermeneutic code, which emotionally engages the audience and carries them through the narrative to a satisfying resolution. ABC News, with its gifted narrator and solid reliance on narrative logic, is more apt to draw the audience into its stories and to exercise control over viewer responses. Television journalism's reliance on enigmatic codes and quest narratives transcends issues of news bias and indicates the probable success of news management efforts that fit these structural logics. The framing devices of "will the U.S. go to war?" and "will we win?" inevitably focus on process and outcome, not deliberation and rationale.

Larger issues, such as "why we fight," are subsumed under the enigmatic codes that best fit the logic of television. Similarly, the romantic quest is not necessarily contrived by politicians or journalists in a conscious attempt to use television news as propaganda. The quest narrative is culturally situated and is a pervasive part of popular American entertainment. Telling news stories with this structural frame might increase audience interest in and comprehension of television news. With this audience engagement, though, might also come an insidious form of ideological control that accompanies the quest narrative. The challenge for television journalism is to use structural frames that provide thematic continuity and aid audience comprehension without relying solely on those forms that implicitly support American military intervention

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