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When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators

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From there it began to pick up steam, as one media unit after another started repeating the story without checking it. Sensing an opening, the Hill & Knowlton people jumped on the story.

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The key moment occurred on October 10, when a young woman named Nayirah appeared in front of a congressional committee. She told the committee, "I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 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."

Hill & Knowlton immediately faxed details of her speech to newsrooms across the country, according to CBC's Fifth Estate's documentary. The effect was electric. The babies in incubator stories became a lead item in newspapers, and on radio and TV all over the US.

It is interesting that no one – not the congressmen in the hearing, or any journalist present – bothered to find out the identity of the young woman. She was the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, and actually hadn't seen the "atrocities" she described take place. (When later confronted with the lack of evidence for her claims, the young woman said that she hadn't been in the hospital herself, but that a friend who had been there had told her about it. )

Similar unsubstantiated stories appeared at the UN a few weeks later, where a team of "witnesses," coached by Hill & Knowlton, gave "testimony" (although no oath was ever taken) about atrocities in Iraq. It was later learned that the seven witnesses used false names and even identities in one case. In an unprecedented move, the US was allowed to present a video created by Hill & Knowlton to the entire security council.

But no journalist bothered to look into these witnesses' claims. As Susan B. Trento wrote in her book, "The Power House," an in-depth look at Hill & Knowlton, "The diplomats, the congressmen, and the senators wanted something to support their positions. The media wanted visual, interesting stories."

On November 29, 1990, the UN authorized use of "all means necessary" to eject Iraq from Kuwait. On January 12, 1991, Congress authorized the use of force.

The story was later discredited by organizations like Middle East Watch, Amnesty International, and various other groups and media organizations

As Trento comments in her book, whether or not Hill & Knowlton's efforts were effective, or even needed, is open to debate. The US government had already launched a huge campaign to convince the American people to support war against Iraq. But the PR campaign definitely made an impact.

It's a different media world today than the one of 1992. Back then, CNN and the regular broadcast channels, as well as newspapers, were reporting the news. Today, there are many more TV and cable news channels, as well as the Internet, all demanding to be fed 24x7. It would be, in fact, much easier for someone to get a fabricated story circulated even faster. And it would be just as easy for the Iraqis to do it in the Arab world, as it would be for those that oppose them to do it in the West.

In his excellent book on war reporting "The First Casualty (of War is the Truth)," British journalist Phillip Knightly shows how important it is for the media to remain vigilant. While war with Iraq may truly be inevitable, it serves us all well if we make sure the reasons we go are legitimate ones, and not ones cooked up by richly funded public relation firms.