Media

HBO Recycles the Incubator Hoax

Live From Baghdad claims to tell the true story of reporters on the frontline. But the film presents fabricated stories of Iraqi brutality as fact.
Remember the phony story about the Kuwaiti woman who testified in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers were throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators? It was later exposed as a public relations fabrication -- but now it's back on HBO.

"Live From Baghdad," made by HBO, purports to tell how CNN covered the 1991 Gulf war. It is based on a memoir by Robert Wiener, then a CNN field producer, who wrote the script with three others. Airing Dec. 7, this "fiction" based on "fact" propagates the famous Kuwaiti government incubator hoax. As the United States stands at the brink of war with Iraq, such fabrications may invite other, more dangerous hoaxes.

Midway through the movie, an actor playing CNN anchor Bernard Shaw informs viewers that "more allegations of Iraqi brutality emerged today as Kuwaiti refugees testified before a congressional committee." He segues to a tearful young woman declaring, "They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies to die on the cold floor!" It is a real clip of the 15-year-old Kuwaiti, identified at the time as Nayirah "to protect her from reprisals," who in August 1990 said those words to an ersatz "congressional committee" operating out of Hill and Knowlton headquarters.

The intrepid CNN crew (featuring Michael Keaton as Wiener and Helena Bonham Carter as his associate producer, Ingrid Formanek) goes off to Kuwait with their Iraqi handler to investigate. They manage to interview one hospital director who nervously asserts, "All the incubators are here and none of our babies are missing."

CNN correspondent: You are aware of the allegations, doctor?

Doctor: I have heard these stories.

Formanek (sotto voce): He's scared.

Wiener (sotto voce): Yeah, this is bad.

Doctor: I can tell you, nothing has happened at this hospital (pause) that I know.

CNN: But in other hospitals?

Doctor: I cannot tell about other hospitals.

Iraqi handler: Finish! Finish! We go now!

Formanek: To the other hospitals?

Handler: No, back to Baghdad!

Wiener: Hey, hey, that was part of the deal!

Handler: Not this story.

The implication is that the Iraqis are hiding the unspeakable crime that occurred in hospitals the reporters couldn't see. Except that it didn't. The incubator story was a fabrication, first invented for the London Daily Telegraph by an exiled Kuwaiti housing minister, picked up by Reuters, and then propagated by the international PR firm Hill and Knowlton, which received $10.7 million from the Kuwaiti government for this and other services.

The October 1990 hearing was held by California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter, co-chairs of the self-styled "Human Rights Foundation," lodged in Hill and Knowlton's Washington, D.C., office. Craig Fuller, chief of staff for George Bush when he was vice-president, ran the PR firm. Nayirah was coached by the firm's vice-president, Lauri Fitz-Pegado, who later got a job in the Clinton Commerce Department.

The story was repeated by the Americans to the U.N. Security Council and by President George Bush in a January 1991 speech before he ordered the bombing of Iraq.

The incubator tale was a lie from start to finish -- exposed after the war by ABC's John Martin and denounced by the respected rights group Middle East Watch as "a complete hoax." Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, daughter of Kuwait's Ambassador to Washington.

A recent "Live From Baghdad" screening, sponsored by HBO and the Council on Foreign Relations, included a panel discussion. Present were: Wiener; moderator Garrick Utley (formerly with NBC, now with CNN); Deborah Amos, correspondent with ABC News; Tom Johnson, former president of CNN; and Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN. None of the eminent journalists mentioned the incubator story.

At question time, two people in the audience shot up their hands to ask why the film had perpetrated the phony incubator story. Jordan evaded the first question by relating how Saddam Hussein had ordered a Kuwaiti oppositionist cut up in pieces. A follow-up query pointed out that Jordan hadn't answered the question, and that the film perpetuated rather than corrected the phony incubator story. The film ends with text over the close telling what happened to some of the characters; surely, it was suggested, the film could easily run lines telling the truth about the hoax.

Some on the panel agreed that was a good idea, but Jordan of CNN explained that they had nothing to do with the movie. (He might easily phone the suggestion to HBO, which, like CNN, is a Time-Warner company.) Wiener, the ex-CNN producer who co-authored the script, said nothing.

A few days after the screening, Wiener was interviewed on CNN and, disputing that the network had promoted Iraqi propaganda, pointed out the trip to investigate the incubator charge. He admitted that the incubator allegations "turned out to be false" because those accusations were made by the daughter of the Kuwaiti minister of information and were never proven. "That was my regret in one instance," he said.

He didn't regret it enough to tell the truth in the film.
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