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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

September/October 1992 | Contents

HOW TO BUILD SUPPORT FOR WAR

by Arthur E. Rowse
Rowse, a former associate editor of U.S. News & World Report, is a free-lance writer based in Maryland.

"I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators . . . and left the children to die on the cold floor." This was the story told by "Nayirah," the fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl who shocked a public hearing of Congress's Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990.

Nayirah's testimony came at a time when Americans were wondering how to respond to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2. Her story was cited frequently in the congressional debate over war authority, which was approved by only five votes in the Senate. President Bush mentioned it often as a reason for taking firm action. It was a major factor in building public backing for war.

As many are now aware, the incubator story was the centerpiece of a massive public relations campaign conducted by Hill and Knowlton on behalf of a group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, for a fee of $ 11.5 million. After the war, the group revealed that it was financed almost entirely by the Kuwaiti government.

In addition to helping to cast and direct the hearing, H&K sent its own camera crew and produced its own film, which was promptly sent out as a video news release, or VNR, to Medialink, a firm that serves some 700 TV stations throughout the country. Portions of the VNR featuring Nayirah's testimony were used on the October 10 NBC Nightly News and eventually reached a total audience of 35 million -- sufficient to win it fourth place on the top ten list of VNR successes in 1990 (see "The VNR Top Ten," CJR, March, 1991 / April, 1991).

H&K scored another coup for its client when it somehow gained access to the U.N. Security Council prior to a November 27 session at which council members expected to debate a resolution dealing with a Palestinian issue. When members entered the council chamber they found the walls hung with pictures of alleged Kuwaiti torture victims. Despite protests, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, presiding that day, allowed several self-avowed eyewitnesses to atrocities -- rounded up for the occasion by Citizens for a Free Kuwait and H&K -- to testify at both the morning and afternoon sessions. Two days later, the council set the January 15 deadline for the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Most print and television reporters presented the event as a straight news story. A notable exception was ABC's David Ensor, who alluded to "the carefully managed presentation."

Two weeks later, with Congress still debating whether to approve military action, H&K's U.S. operations chief Robert Gray sent a memo to Citizens for a Free Kuwait warning of "the lessening of the U.S. public's enthusiasm for pursuing a military option" and calling for more atrocity charges from "eyewitnesses," a term he put in quotation marks. (H&K's emphasis on atrocities was based on the findings of its $ 1 million research study which showed, among other things, that such emphasis was the most effective way to win support for strong action.) By January 8, when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing, the number of alleged incubator murders being quoted by reporters had reached 312, the figure vouched for by Amnesty International. Four days after the hearing, Congress approved military action, and four days after that the bombing began.

The press, which had shown little interest in questioning the credibility of the atrocity reports when those reports were having such a tremendous impact on policy, seemed reluctant to reconsider the evidence -- or its own reporting.

An exception was ABC's John Martin, who interviewed key Kuwaiti hospital officials in March 1991, shortly after the war ended; they acknowledged that some infants had died as the result of a chaotic conditions, including a shortage of nurses, but said no infants had been dumped from their incubators. Reuters was the only news service to pick up the story, even though the AP and others were notified in advance by ABC. But Martin's reporting prompted Amnesty International to send over investigators and subsequently withdraw its report after finding "no reliable evidence" for its earlier claims.

Now, nearly two years after the incubator story was first told, the dispute over numbers continues to simmer -- this despite a seemingly definitive report by an investigator for the Kuwaiti government itself. The investigator, Kroll Associates, Inc., claims to have found credible witnesses to seven incubator deaths by the Iraqis. Nayirah herself admitted to Kroll that she had seen only one of the fifteen babies mentioned in her written testimony, which was prepared with the aid of Hill and Knowlton. Although this report might have afforded the media a new hook for marking an end to the long-running controversy, only The Washington Post seems to have covered it.

Meanwhile, it was left to a Canadian journalist, Leslie Fruman of CBC, and to a magazine publisher, John R. MacArthur of Harper's, to reveal in January 1992 that Nayirah was not a simple hospital worker, but the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S.

H&K had done its job well. The same could not be said of the U.S. press.