Geraldo Rivera is doing his Christmas show this year from the Persian Gulf.
And with luck, executive producer Martin Berman hopes, a second show might have Geraldo secretly slipping into Kuwait to talk to the Iraqi “bad guys.”
The three network morning shows are expecting to do something, too, though it is not clear whether it will be as big as at Thanksgiving, when ABC’s Charlie Gibson and NBC’s Katherine Couric did a week full of video reunions between soldiers and families back home.
At the same time, more hard-nosed news organizations are having a difficult time. Over Thanksgiving, newspaper and magazine reporters were kept off most of the helicopters and stuck in the Pentagon press center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, unable on some days even to get access to an air base five minutes away. And even network news anchors found their military escorts more restrictive than they were with the softer-toned morning shows.
This, in the crude language of politics, is media manipulation, holiday style.
With the U.N. Security Council having given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein until Jan. 15 to end his nation’s occupation of Kuwait, the holidays offer the Bush Administration the best--and possibly the last--opportunity to get Congress and the American people behind its Persian Gulf policy.
To accomplish this, experience suggests that the military’s press operation in Saudi Arabia wants especially to capitalize on the emotion-laden pictures offered on television--the heroic troops poised for war, the lone Christmas tree in the sand, the packages from home.
At least to a degree, this involves keeping the potentially more critical print press somewhat at bay. At a recent exercise that served as a test run for the pool arrangement, for example, only four of the 24 journalists the Pentagon allowed to cover the event were writers, and of these only two were from newspapers.
And at a time when distinctions between news and entertainment are becoming blurred, the Pentagon strategy also has meant easier access in particular for local news programs and softer “infotainment” shows covering the crisis--programs that are less likely to offer critical coverage.
Journalists say that the job is made easier by the current waiting game in the gulf, which has led to what Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, calls “Hi Mom” coverage.
“There really is no story now, and so what the press is falling back on is the old Ernie Pyle reporting about the troops on the ground--how difficult it is so far away from home,” says Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard.
This may well serve Bush’s political needs. Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans--about 70%, according to Gallup--believe the President has explained the reasons for the presence of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. The number has not changed significantly since the crisis began.
But not all of those reasons are persuasive, some critics say.
“What Bush hasn’t done is stir people,” says David Kertzer, a specialist in political symbolism and communication at Bowdoin College in Maine.
Bush’s delicate job, then, press analysts say, is to maintain the threat of war to intimidate Iraq while stirring--rather than frightening--the public here at home.
To do so, the Pentagon-run Joint Information Bureau in Saudi Arabia is a remarkable asset. The military decides which media can leave the press center, where they can go and whom they can interview.
Reporters in Saudi Arabia say that the Pentagon also watches closely to see if reporters publish stories that are critical.
“They definitely comment after a tough piece,” says a television producer who has done two long tours in Saudi Arabia since the crisis began. “You hear about it.”
Navy Capt. Michael T. Sherman, who runs the military press operation in Saudi Arabia, denies that the Pentagon is exerting such control. “It wasn’t the Pentagon that declared Thanksgiving the major story,” he says. ". . . It was the media.”
But some journalists argue that it isn’t quite that simple. One technique the Joint Information Bureau has used is to offer generous access for softer “infotainment” programs. ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which is part of the network’s entertainment division, had virtually “no restrictions,” executive producer Jack Reilly says. “The people who took us out to the bases sort of disappeared into the background once we got there.”
The experience of ABC anchorman Peter Jennings was much different. Jennings said that when he asked for permission to interview five soldiers in Saudi Arabia, the Army served up five without giving him any choice in their selection. When he attempted to interview an air cavalry colonel, “off-camera someone from the (Joint Information Bureau) was shaking his head . . . if he said anything that did not conform to the Pentagon line.”
To some extent, the rules can offer more access to local television than to networks. Under the rules, local television stations can go to Saudi Arabia to offer “hometown coverage” and need to be sponsored by a local military unit being deployed. They also go with their own personal public-affairs escort. This frees them from having to wait for escorts, equipment and approval from the Pentagon press operation in Dhahran that the national press must get for every story in the gulf.
KCBS Channel 2 reporter Peggy Holter was given an attorney from Glendale whose reserve unit was called to duty as a full-time press escort. He allowed her to travel with the local unit and even record an extraordinary session in which soldiers questioned their commanding officer about the reason for being there.
Similarly, KNBC Channel 4 reporter Colleen Williams was permitted to get extraordinarily close to the Kuwaiti border on her trip.
Sherman concedes that he has a preference for upbeat holiday coverage. During Thanksgiving, when many reporters say they were stuck at press headquarters, the Joint Information Bureau arranged “hundreds if not thousands” of phone interviews and link-ups between families, “the Hi-Moms and holiday messages,” Sherman acknowledges.
Christmas is likely to provide similar opportunities. The only restrictions will be a ban on cameras at religious ceremonies.
Otherwise, Sherman says, the media are free to cover “the football games, the parties, the ornaments, lights, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, talk to soldiers, do the Christmas Hi-Moms.”