Networks plan strategy for covering a war in the Gulf


January 14, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles

If war begins this week in the Persian Gulf, television is going to cover it with an arsenal of technology and a commitment of dollars and manpower never before seen. The planning is so intense that it approaches the surrealism of "Dr. Strangelove" in at least one network newsroom.

But that doesn't mean American viewers are going to see more graphic pictures or know more about what is happening on the battlefield than they did during military actions in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada or Panama.

In fact, despite all the satellite technology, advance planning and million-dollar-a-week budgets, there is a very good chance that less of the war will be seen in American living rooms -- at least during the early going -- than ever before in the TV age.

That's what all four major news networks -- CNN, CBS, ABC and NBC -- are saying as they pour unprecedented resources into planning and coverage of an unprecedented military situation, a war with a possible starting date announced more than a month in advance, which one CNN executive has dubbed the "ready-set-go war."

"You concentrate your men, money and machines where the news is, and [the Persian Gulf] is where the news is," NBC News President Michael Gartner said. "It's the No. 1 story in the world right now. But I think covering the war is going to be very, very, very difficult. It'll probably be the most difficult war [ever] for television to cover."

The networks are also saying that there is a secondary war shaping up in the Gulf -- a war over the public's right to know vs. the government's desire to control the flow of information. And the skirmishes have already started between two of the greatest armies ever assembled on both sides of that battlefield.

The networks have the satellite technology to kick coverage up a notch from the "Living Room War" of Vietnam to an "Almost Live War" in the Gulf.

But TV executives complain that the Pentagon is working with the game plan drafted and refined by the image masters and "spin doctors" of the Reagan White House. It is a game plan intended to deny the press corps the freedom it had in Vietnam and keep it on an even tighter leash than in Grenada and Panama.

"First of all," Gartner said, "it's a very difficult place to cover." The potential battle ground is half as large as the United States. "Second, there's a lot of censorship, there are a lot of controls put on."

Gartner said that in terms of coverage it will be a "four-front war" -- Baghdad, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Washington.

"In Baghdad, there's a [an Iraqi] censor at your elbow. You can't get into Kuwait at all. In Saudi Arabia, your movements are very, very much controlled [by the U.S. military]. You can't go anywhere without a keeper or a watcher from the military public affairs operation going with you.

"And in Washington -- well, Washington is Washington. . . . So, it's extremely difficult to cover in preparing [for war]. And it's going to be even more difficult if actual fighting breaks out."

PBS Commentator Hodding Carter attributed the restrictions to two conditions: "The operative thinking in the military is, 'How do we hold the press away from the real action?' Then you have a White House with a very strong interest on the political side in as much control as possible -- much tighter than even the Reagan White House."

The restrictions are so severe that in a rare show of unity the news presidents of the four major networks this week sent a letter to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney protesting the restrictions. The networks asked the Pentagon to rescind orders that pool reporters must be accompanied by military escorts at all times and to ease "security review provisions," which give the Pentagon the right to screen and censor transmission of pictures and reports from pool photographers and correspondents.

Last week, the Pentagon said that pictures of American soldiers in "severe shock" or pictures of victorious Iraqi troops would not be allowed out of the Gulf. Those rules may or may not have been eased, say the news executives, depending on how you interpret the Department of Defense language which now says pictures and reports will not be censored because they "are embarrassing or contain criticism."

But even if greater access is allowed, there is another reason television won't be able to cover the war in what one ABC News executive termed the "gee-whiz-Buck-Rogers way" some had predicted.

"The technology is not quite that advanced," said Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News. "You can't just point a camera at something and the pictures are magically transported through the sky. You have to get the pictures to a satellite ground station.

"Portable ground stations exist. But they are big. You can't haul them around on your back."

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