How the public relations industry sold the Gulf War to the U.S. --
The mother of all clients
By John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton*,**
PACKAGING THE EMIR, Part 2
Hill & Knowlton produced dozens of video news releases (VNRs) at a cost of well over half a million dollars, but it was money well spent, resulting in tens of millions of dollars worth of "free" air time. The VNRs were shown by eager TV news directors around the world who rarely (if ever) identified Kuwait's public relations (PR) firm as the source of the footage and stories. TV stations and networks simply fed the carefully-crafted propaganda to unwitting viewers, who assumed they were watching "real" journal- ism. After the war Arthur Rowse asked Hill & Knowlton to show him some of the VNRs, but the PR company refused. Obviously the phony TV news reports had served their purpose and it would do H&K no good to help a reporter reveal the extent of deception. In Unreliable Sources, authors Martin Lee and Norman Solomon noted that "when a research team from the communications department of the University of Massachusetts surveyed public opinion and correlated it with knowledge of basic facts about U.S. policy in the region, they drew some sobering conclusions. The more television people watched, the fewer facts they knew; and the less people knew in terms of basic facts, the more likely they were to back the Bush administration.1
Throughout the campaign, the Wirthlin Group conducted daily opinion polls to help Hill & Knowlton take the emotional pulse of
key constituencies so it could identify the themes and slogans that would be most effective in promoting support for U.S. military action. After the war ended. the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced an Emmy award-winning TV documentary on the PR campaign titled "To Sell a War." The show featured an interview with Wirthlin executive Dee Alsop in which Alsop bragged of his work and demonstrated how audience surveys were even used to physically adapt the clothing and hairstyle of the Kuwait ambassador so he would seem more likeable to TV audiences. Wirthlin's job, Alsop explained, was "to identify the messages that really resonate emotionally with the American people." The theme that struck the deepest emotional chord, they discovered, was "the fact that Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped."2
SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN
Every big media event needs what journalist and flacks alike refer to as "the hook." An ideal hook becomes the central element of a story that makes it newsworthy, evokes a strong emotional response, and sticks in the memory. In the case of the Gulf War, the "hook" was invented by Hill & Knowlton. In style, substance and mode of delivery, it bore an uncanny resemblance to England's World War I hearings that accused German soldiers of killing babies.
On October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill which provided the first opportunity for formal presentations of Iraqi human rights violations. Outwardly, the hearing resembled an official congressional proceeding, but appearances were deceiving. In reality, the Human Rights Caucus, chaired by California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter, was simply an association of politicians. Lantos and Porter were co-chairs of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, a legally separate entity that occupied free office space valued at $3,000 a year in Hill & Knowlton's Washington, DC office. Notwithstanding its congressional trappings, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus served as another Hill & Knowlton front group, which -- like all front groups -- used a noble-sounding name to disguise its true purpose.3
Only a few astute observers noticed the hypocrisy in Hill & Knowlton's use of the term "human rights." One of those observers was John MacArthur, author of The Second Front, which remains the best book written about the manipulation of the news media during the Gulf War. In the fall of 1990, MacArthur reported, Hill & Knowlton's Washington switchboard was simultaneously fielding calls for the Human Rights Foundation and for "government representatives of Indonesia, another H&K client. Like H&K client Turkey, Indonesia is a practitioner of naked aggression, having seized . . . the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975. Since the annexation of East Timor, the Indonesian government was killed, by conservative estimate, about 100,000 inhabitants of the region.4
MacArthur also noticed another telling detail about the October 1990 hearings. "The Human Rights Caucus is not a committee of congress, and therefore it is unencumbered by the legal accouterments that would make a witness hesitate before he or she lied . . . Lying under oath in front of a congressional committee is a crime; lying from under the cover of anonymity to a caucus is merely public relations.5
In fact, the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah. According to the Caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait. Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," Nayirah said. "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."6
Three months passed between Nayirah's testimony and the start of the war. During those months, the story of the babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush told the story. It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council. "Of all the accusations made against the dictator," MacArthur observed, "none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies for their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City."8
At the Human Rights Caucus, however, Hill & Knowlton and Congressman Lantos had failed to reveal that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father, in fact, was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the U.S., who sat listening in the hearing room during her testimony. The Caucus also failed to reveal that H&K vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached Nayirah in what even the Kuwaitis' own investigators later confirmed was false testimony.
If Nayirah's outrageous lie had been exposed at the time it was told, it might have at least caused some in Congress and the news media to soberly reevaluate the extent to which they were being skillfully manipulated to support military action. Public opinion was deeply divided on Bush's Gulf policy. As late as December 1990, a New York Times/CBS News poll indicated that 48 percent of the American people wanted Bush to wait before taking any action if Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait by Bush's January 15 deadline.8 On January 12, the US Senate voted by a narrow, five-vote margin to support the Bush administration in a declaration of war. Given the narrowness of the vote, the babies- thrown-from-incubators story may have turned the tide in Bush's favor.
Following the war, human rights investigators attempted to confirm Nayirah's story and could find no witnesses or other evidence to support it. Amnesty International, which had fallen for the story, was forced to issue an embarrassing retraction. Nayirah herself was unavailable for comment. "This is the first allegation I've had that she was the ambassador's daughter," said Human Rights Caucus co-chair John Porter. "Yes, I think people . . . were entitled to know the source of her testimony." When journalists asked Nasir al-Sabah for permission to question Nayirah about her story, the ambassador angrily refused.9
The military build-up in the Persian Gulf began by flying and shipping hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, armaments and supplies to staging areas in Saudi Arabia, yet another nation with no tolerance for a free press, democratic rights and most western customs. In a secret strategy memo, the Pentagon outlined a tightly woven plan to constrain and control journalists. A massive baby-sitting operation would ensure that no truly independent or uncensored reporting reached back to the U.S. public. "News media representatives will be escorted at all times," the memo stated. "Repeat, at all times."10
Deputy Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams served as the Pentagon's top flack for the Gulf War. Using the perennial PR strategy of "good cop/bad cop," the government of Saudi Arabia play the "heavy," denying visas and access to the U.S. press, while Williams, the reporters' friend, appeared to intercede repeatedly on their behalf. This strategy kept news organization competing with each other for favors from Williams, and kept them from questioning the fundamental fact that journalistic indepen- dence was impossible under military escort and censorship.
The overwhelming technological superiority of the U.S. forces won a decisive victory in the brief and brutal war known as Desert Storm. Afterwards, some in the media quietly admitted that they'd been manipulated to produce sanitized coverage which almost entirely ignored the war's human costs -- today estimated at over 100,000 civilian deaths. The American public's single most lasting memory of the war will probably be the ridiculously successful video stunts supplied by the Pentagon showing robot "smart bombs" striking only their intended military targets, without much "collateral" (civilian) damage.
"Although influential media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal kept promoting the illusion of the `clean war,' a different picture began to emerge after the U.S. stopped carpet-bombing Iraq," note Lee and Solomon. "The pattern underscored what Napoleon meant when he said that it wasn't necessary to completely suppress the news; it was sufficient to delay the news until it no longer mattered."11
For Hill & Knowlton, the Kuwaiti account was a sorely-needed cash cow, appearing at a time that the PR giant was suffering from low employee morale amid controversies surrounding some of its sleazier clients. When the Kuwait money dried up at the end of the war, Hill & Knowlton went into a precipitous decline. A series of layoffs and resignations at its Washington office, including a mass walkout of two dozen employees, reduced that staff from 250 to about 90. Clients began deserting the company, and rival PR firm Burson-Marsteller stepped in to take its place as the world's largest PR firm.
1. Martin A. Lee & Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources: A
Guide to Detecting Bias in New Media (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1991).
2. Transcript, "To Sell a War," pp. 3-4.
3. John R. MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda
in the Gulf War (Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press, 1992),
5. Ibid., p. 58.
7. Ibid., p. 54.
8. New York Times/CBS News poll, as reported in O'Dwyer's PR
Services Report, Jan. 1991, p. 10
9. "To Sell a War," pp. 4-5,
10. MacArthur, p. 7.
11. Lee & Solomon, p. xix
*Toxic Sludge is Good for You, Lies, Damn Lies and the Public
**Blazing Tattles, June 96. No part of this may be reproduced
in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the
publisher. Responses to the above article may be quoted in future
issues unless writer explicitly requests otherwise. For informa-
tion about Blazing Tattles send inquiry to .
Blazing Tattles is at P.O. Box 1073, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019.