Nearly eight of 10 Americans support the Defense Department's restrictions on journalists covering the Persian Gulf War, according to a survey released yesterday. In fact, almost six in 10 of those surveyed say the military should exert "more control" over the media.
Despite repeated complaints by reporters and news executives about access to information about the war, 78 percent of those surveyed said the military is not hiding bad news and is telling the public as much as it can under the circumstances, according to the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press.
Donald S. Kellermann, the center's director, said the results suggest "the potential for a backlash" against the media if American casualties increase. "The public is going to be upset at the press," he said. "There will be increasing pressure for the press to get in line. ... There is an undercurrent of unhappiness at what many people think is press niggling with the military."
Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, said that "in a war the primeval patriotic instincts of the American people rise to the surface ... and any institution that seems to be critical of the troops and those who command them will be regarded with deep suspicion."
The survey of 924 adults, conducted Friday through Sunday, did contain some encouraging news for the media. Nearly eight of 10 said the media are doing an excellent or good job covering the war, and 61 percent said the coverage has been largely accurate.
Ninety-five percent said they are following the war closely. In fact, half of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "I can't stop watching news about the war" -- the same proportion reporting that they are depressed about the conflict. Among these respondents, 21 percent said they have had trouble concentrating on jobs or normal activities, and 18 percent complained of war-related insomnia.
The findings suggest that the public has become far less tolerant of dissent since U.S. forces attacked Iraq. Forty-seven percent said they are hearing too much about the views of Americans who oppose the war, up from 18 percent in early January. Only 13 percent now say they are hearing too little about anti-war views.
Those surveyed were almost evenly divided on whether news organizations are giving Iraqi President Saddam Hussein too much opportunity to promote his cause. As for Cable News Network's reports from Baghdad, which are censored by the Iraqi government, 45 percent said they disapproved of such reports, and 43 percent approved.
Kalb said the unprecedented daily television coverage of military briefings has fueled public skepticism toward the media. "Some of the questions sound awfully silly, and many seem to be probing too deeply into issues that the press 'has no business knowing about,' " he said. "Not all the reporters involved in this war have had much experience in briefings. Many never sat through the 'Five O'Clock Follies' in Vietnam. The baptism of these reporters was not the finest hour of American journalism."
The survey appeared to confirm television's dominant role in war coverage. Nearly three-fourths of those questioned said next-day newspapers are covering "the same ground" as television, while 23 percent said newspapers had given them "a better understanding" of the conflict. Three-fourths also said television reporters are digging harder for news than newspaper reporters. Seven percent believe newspaper reporters are digging harder.
"This is the first time that television essentially has a monopoly on war," Kellermann said. "Most people feel they're getting enough, or too much, on television. You're getting Scud missiles and Patriots in the sky and gas masks. There is no way for newspapers to compete with that, except in nuanced, second-day stories."
The poll also reflected CNN's recently enhanced status. Sixty-one percent said CNN was doing the best job among the networks of covering the war, compared with 12 percent for ABC and 7 percent each for CBS and NBC.
Asked to name news people who are doing a good job of reporting the war, 16 percent said ABC anchor Peter Jennings; 9 percent, CBS's Dan Rather; 8 percent, NBC's Tom Brokaw; 6 percent, CNN's Bernard Shaw; and 5 percent, CNN's Peter Arnett.