The New York Times
May 12, 1996

Five Years Later, the Gulf War Story Is Still Being Told


WASHINGTON -- Explosions and the acrid smell of war still haunt the CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. Baghdad, once Bob Simon's dreaded prison, is now familiar turf for him as a CBS correspondent. And after virtually vanishing from American television screens, Arthur Kent, formerly of NBC, is now reporting for CNN.

Five years after the end of the Persian Gulf war, the television correspondents whose familiar faces brought the 43-day conflict into living rooms across the country hold varied memories from -- and find myriad lessons in -- a war that propelled them in different directions afterward.

Peter Arnett and Christiane Amanpour of CNN have hopscotched from one hot spot to the next: Russia, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. Forrest Sawyer of ABC and Wolf Blitzer of CNN are now anchors of news magazines or political programs in addition to their reporting duties. Some correspondents, including Mr. Arnett, have written books about their war experiences and have been transformed into television personalities.

Brief as it was, the gulf war was the first major conflict involving American troops since Vietnam nearly 20 years earlier. As such, it stamped an indelible mark in the passports of aspiring and veteran correspondents alike and ignited a running debate between the news media and the military over war coverage.

"Baghdad was clearly the most exciting story I covered," said Mr. Arnett, who has covered 17 wars in a 35-year career that has spanned the extremes of journalism, from the news-service world to the 24-hour realm of CNN. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as an Associated Press reporter in Vietnam.

"If we'd had the immediacy in Vietnam that we had in the gulf war, it would have changed history," said Mr. Arnett, 61, who was the only Western correspondent in Baghdad for most of the war. "The Vietnam War could not have lasted as long as it did."

The anniversary of the gulf war's end amid the continuing NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia frames a larger debate on the future of war coverage.

Journalists criticized the Pentagon's strategy to conduct the gulf war largely out of the camera's view, restrict access to troops and showcase the most favorable gun-camera film from allied bombings. But most of the news media acquiesced to this stage-managing.

Some reporters, including Mr. Simon, defied the restrictions. Both sides invoked the Vietnam example: the military said that unchecked television exposure could jeopardize war plans and stoke opposition back home if casualties piled up; journalists said full and open disclosure would help prevent a senseless war.

Vowing never to be shut out again, television has broadcast largely unfettered from Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. But those were peacekeeping operations. The real test will come in the next true shooting war.

"The battle I see today is an attempt by some to restrict the technological advances we've made and restrict our coverage in future crises involving American troops," said Mr. Arnett. "Live cameras are going to be on the battlefield. It's going to be a matter of how military works with them."

Many broadcast reporters say these advances, like improved satellite hookups, also shift more responsibility onto journalists. "The networks are struggling with how to cover these conflicts, how to report fairly and not jeopardize lives," said Mr. Sawyer, 46, who broadcast live from Kuwait and is now anchor of ABC's "Turning Point" news magazine. "A lot of questions are yet unanswered."

But to many of the correspondents who covered the gulf war, its legacies are more visceral than theoretical.

Mr. Shaw, 55, CNN's main anchor in Washington, was one of three CNN correspondents who broadcast live the first night of allied bombing in January 1991 from Baghdad. Mr. Shaw said he had never listened to those tapes, partly because of the painful memories they would stir. "I'm still rattled by certain exploding sounds and smells, especially that acrid smell of electrical equipment burning," said Mr. Shaw, whose patriotism was questioned by some viewers after he refused to tell the Pentagon what he saw and heard in Baghdad.

For many ambitious young correspondents, the gulf war represented a big break -- and their first taste of Pentagon press constraints.

Christiane Amanpour, now 38, covered the Romanian revolution in 1989. But reporting the gulf war from Saudi Arabia and Baghdad whetted an appetite for conflict that has made her the most visible war correspondent of her generation.

"Clearly, there is the drama, danger and immediacy," said Ms. Amanpour in a telephone interview from Paris. "But you also see the very best and very worst of human nature."

Ms. Amanpour, whose signature story has become Bosnia, believes she saw the very best in the besieged citizens of Sarajevo, who "did not lose their values, their hopes, their humanity." The worst moments, she said, were also in Sarajevo, "looking into the faces of women and children caught in the shelling."

Ms. Amanpour's passion for the Bosnia story has led some people to question her objectivity, a criticism she rejects. "There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice," said Ms. Amanpour. "Objectivity doesn't mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing."

More than any other network, CNN set the standard for gulf war television reporting. One of the network's best-known correspondents, Wolf Blitzer, benefited from lots of air time and his martial name.

"I do have an unusual name," said Mr. Blitzer, who was CNN's Pentagon correspondent during the war and is now the network's senior White House correspondent and host of "Inside Politics Weekend." "But it is my real name. I didn't make it up for the gulf war."

Mr. Blitzer, 48, now works 14-hour days from CNN's cramped booth in the White House pressroom. "But people come up to me to this very day, and say: 'I remember your coverage of the gulf war. You were so brave,' " Mr. Blitzer says. "I say: 'Look, I didn't go to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Kuwait. I was standing in front of a map at the Pentagon.' "

No other gulf war correspondent experienced the rise and fall of Arthur Kent, whose good looks and broadcasts during Iraqi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia won him the nickname Scud Stud. Mr. Kent covered the Romanian revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 for NBC, but it was his gulf war broadcasts that captured public attention. NBC dismissed Mr. Kent in August 1992 after he refused a Balkans assignment in the midst of negotiations on his contract. He sued the network, and the two parties settled two years later.

By then, Mr. Kent had disappeared for most American viewers, producing documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Now 42, Mr. Kent was hired by CNN's London bureau in March, and recently covered the shooting of 16 schoolchildren and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland.

"For a couple of years my career was in limbo in the United States while I cleared my name," said Mr. Kent, who in his forthcoming book, "Risk and Redemption," writes about his war experience and the television industry. "I still get mail from people who wrote me during the gulf war, who are not interested in my leather jacket or hair, but in my reporting."

In his 24-year career at CBS, Bob Simon had covered Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and Tiananmen Square before the gulf war. On the fifth day of the air campaign, he and three crew members were seized by Iraqi soldiers after crossing into Kuwait. Mr. Simon spent the next 40 days in Iraqi prisons, where he was beaten and, for most of his captivity, locked in solitary confinement as a suspected spy.

"What I did was a stupid mistake," Mr. Simon, 54, said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he has been CBS's chief Middle Eastern correspondent since 1987. "It's not like we were after some fantastic story and got unlucky. We were just careless."

After his release, Mr. Simon wrote a book, "Forty Days." He has returned to Baghdad five times since the war's end.

Mr. Simon said he did not dwell on his gulf experience. "What happened to me was like nothing that happened before and I hope never again," said Mr. Simon. "But I survived."

Mr. Arnett has been busy, too, and not just with broadcasting.

Reporting from the enemy capital under siege earned Mr. Arnett the enmity of many Americans. After Mr. Arnett returned home, hecklers hounded him at speeches. But there were also dinners at glitzy restaurants with Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. And Mr. Arnett received a $500,000 advance to write his memoir "Live From the Battlefield."

In exchange for this fame, he has become an ambassador for the American news media, Mr. Arnett says. "Since the gulf war, I've addressed the role of media in society and explained why journalists do the things we do," said Mr. Arnett, who lives in McLean, Va. "Before then, I didn't feel that was my responsibility."

Mr. Arnett spent the last month speaking in the United States, Europe, Australia and his native New Zealand (he has been an American citizen for a decade). His speaking calendar is booked into 1997, but he says he rarely charges a fee.

"I'm available to go on any crisis story," said Mr. Arnett, who in the last year has reported from Bosnia, Vietnam and Cuba. "That's where my heart is, and that's what I want to keep doing."

Eric Schmitt, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, covered the Persian Gulf war from Saudi Arabia.