Gulf War journalist wary of pending attacks on Iraq

Zach Fridell

With another Iraqi war on the horizon, a veteran journalist who covered the Gulf War said reporters have the responsibility to give Americans a more accurate portrayal of the conflict from behind enemy lines.

Robert Wiener, author of the book “Live From Baghdad” and producer of the recent HBO movie spent the Gulf War in a Baghdad hotel, broadcasting images of the conflict to the American public on CNN.

His team was the only group of journalists to remain in Baghdad during the attacks of 1990 and 1991. Wiener wrote a book about his experience, which HBO turned into a movie that premiered in December.

“It seems eerie that this is coming out at the same time that there is another American attack on Baghdad looming,” he said.

Wiener told a group of students in University Hall on Monday that his attention has turned to the current conflict with Iraq. He said he feels that war with Iraq is imminent but misguided.

“It is simpler to support the weapons inspectors and in the event that they are prevented from doing their job, we should attack specific targets at specific times,” he said. “We’re talking of occupying Iraq for five to 10 years and some of you may find yourselves in uniform occupying the Middle East.”

He was also critical of any unilateral action by the United States, which he said will create “a firestorm worse than a dozen bin Ladens.”

Wiener spent the Gulf War in his hotel room sending live feeds to CNN. He said the network’s viewing audience did not get an accurate feel from the media of the real effects of the attacks.

“The war for the American public was unfortunately reduced to a series of briefs and bomb site visits that belied the actual damages,” he said.

Because of the danger, former President George Bush asked CNN to pull him and his team out of Baghdad, Wiener said. But CNN management allowed reporters to make their own decision on whether to stay.

“The line between being a hero and a putz is a fine one, and if we wouldn’t have made it out of there alive, I would have been accused of grandstanding,” Wiener said.

Wiener said he was welcomed by the Iraqi people, but he doesn’t expect that to be the case this time.

“Before, the Iraqis wanted us there, partly to counter the jingoism of the U.S. administration at the time,” he said. “But with the current practices of the administration, I’m not sure that they’d spend the energy to help reporters.”

After returning from Iraq, Wiener published his memoirs. About 70 to 80 percent of the book made it into the HBO movie, Wiener said. He showed a clip from the film, in which the CNN reporters are thrown across their hotel room as bombs exploded outside.

“I threatened to walk out several times if certain things were not changed,” he said. “And those were changed, for the most part. In movie-making, I learned that you don’t always get what you want.”

Wiener, who previously has worked with students in Medill’s graduate program in Paris, was brought by Prof. Jack Doppelt. Doppelt said he stayed in contact with Wiener as he crossed the country in recent weeks to promote the movie.

“He had a couple of spare days on his trip, so he thought of us and fit us in,” Doppelt said.