Even without pictures, broadcasts from Baghdad by ABC, CNN were riveting WAR IN THE GULF

January 17, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There were echoes of World War II and the London-rooftop radio reports of Edward R. Murrow in last night's television coverage of war in the Persian Gulf. But the echoes were heard on ABC and cable's CNN, not Murrow's CBS.

CNN and ABC were in a league by themselves, delivering the first television reports on Operation Desert Storm about 6:40 p.m. yesterday.

It had little to do with pictures and all the latest satellite video technology discussed so much the last few days. As some had predicted, there were no pictures of the attack.

The vastly superior coverage was instead a matter of having a telephone line to correspondents at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. CNN and ABC each had one. CBS never made contact, and NBC never got back in touch with correspondent Tom Aspell after losing him in the first minutes of his report.

As a result, CBS and NBC foundered badly in the early going and never really recovered their footing as they tried to tell one of the most dramatic stories of the television age.

ABC broke from the gate with CNN. But couldn't keep up after it lost its phone line to Gary Shepard in Baghdad about 20 minutes into the coverage.

The quality of coverage on CNN was remarkable. It involved not only the phone line, but what John Holliman, Pulitzer Prize-winner Peter Arnett and anchorman Bernard Shaw did on the other end in Baghdad.

Shaw seemed more emotional at times than the others.

At one point he said, "What we have been seeing for the last 2 1/2 or three hours is surgical bombing."

Arnett then corrected him, saying, "It only seems like three hours, Bernie. Actually it's only been about an hour. And we won't know how surgical until daylight comes and we can see what happened."

Shaw offered several emotional and dramatic statments, like, "Clearly I've never been there, but it feels like we are in the center of hell."

Arnett would matter-of-factly respond with such statements as, "Well, I think I'll just poke [the telephone receiver] out the window so they can hear the explosions."

All the while, Holliman was offering a running play-by-play of what they were seeing. The effect of the three voices and the sounds of explosions resulted in a two-hour stretch of television that was almost impossible to break away from.

CNN, with David French at the anchor desk, did, of course, break away. They went to members of a crack lineup of reporters that included Wolf Blitzer at the Pentagon and Charles Jaco in Saudi Arabia.

But, mainly, CNN brass were smart enough to know they had an exclusive situation for most of the evening and kept the line open so that the sounds and words of men and a city under fire could be experienced by their viewers.

At 9 p.m. when everyone went to the White House for President Bush's statement, NBC and CBS had still failed to make contact with their correspondents in Baghdad.

CBS, with Dan Rather at the anchor desk, seemed to be totally out of the loop of real coverage. The network offered abstract analysis from retired generals Michael Dugan and George Crist instead of information gathered by reporters.

While CNN and ABC reporters were trying to tell us what was happening in Baghdad and Saudi Arabia, CBS was filling its time with Rather saying such things as, "Truth is never pure and rarely simple. They say truth is the first casualty of war . . ." It was like someone filibustering by reading from a college textbook that was no longer in print.

Bob Simon in Saudi Arabia was the one bright spot on the network last night. NBC was equally out of the hunt. While CNN and ABC had us listening to the bombs outside Baghdad, NBC was talking to Washington correspondents who were almost as removed from the story as Tom Brokaw.

At 10 p.m., when the broadcast networks started whipping around for emotional reaction in U.S. living rooms and on military bases, CNN stayed with its hard news edge out of Baghdad and pulled even farther away from the competition.

How good was CNN? It was so good that that NBC relied on it for news out of Baghdad at times. CBS did a feature on the Times Square ticker tape announcing war. And the tape was quoting CNN.

CNN was so good that at one point Shaw stepped outside the flow of information and offered a context almost unbelieveable for someone in the situation he was in.

"Does it occur to you that it's not accidental," Shaw said, "that we are being allowed to broadcast, that they have not pulled the plug?"

Shaw speculated that perhaps Iraq wanted America to hear what it sounded like on the other end of the bombs or that the American government wanted CNN to be able to broadcast, since both could have cut off or jammed their transmissions.

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