Something called a No. 4 wire made CNN the No. 1 network as television assumed its most important role of informing a nation in crisis last night.
It's not clear exactly what a No. 4 wire is, but only CNN had one linking its reporters in Baghdad with the outside world -- and the world turned to CNN for its news.
Apparently all the major networks applied to the Iraqi communication authorities for permission to install this sophisticated piece of equipment, but only CNN was allowed to proceed.
So, shortly after the attack began, CNN's Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett were the eyes and ears of the nation and the world as the other networks quickly lost their feeds from their reporters in the Iraqi capital to the power blackouts and electronic jamming.
ABC, with Gary Shepard reporting from Baghdad, was first on the air with a report on the attack, about 6:40 p.m. CNN quickly followed, with NBC and CBS joining soon after. But, as the Big Three networks lost their Baghdad links, CNN continued to broadcast audio, describing the air assault and its aftermath.
As a result, in homes equipped with cable, there was absolutely no reason to watch anything other than CNN's coverage. That was never more evident than when NBC's anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed CNN's Shaw on NBC, crediting Shaw's enterprise and lauding CNN as a major network.
It was a move that was at once an admission of CNN's dominance of the story, but also a laudable acknowledgment on the part of NBC news that informing the country was more important than competitive considerations on a night like this.
From across the country came reports that at least two CBS affiliates and one NBC station left their networks to carry CNN instead. In Washington, Fox network affiliate WTTG-TV also carried CNN.
Though it is not established why exactly CNN was allowed to install its special wire while the other networks were not, some credit must go to the global reach of the cable network, a strategy carefully planned by its owner, Ted Turner.
It is well-established that they watch CNN in Baghdad. As a result, when CNN makes a request, it must carry more weight than when representatives of CBS, NBC and ABC make similar requests, since their networks are unknown in Iraq.
Last night CNN, with personnel who are used to churning out hour after hour of news, immediately adopted the appropriate tone. As the other three network newscasts quickly moved into their analysis mode, filling the screen with experts and pontificators -- CBS' Dan Rather interviewed colleagues Walter Cronkite, Connie Chung and Ed Bradley, among others -- CNN stayed with a straight-ahead, hard news approach.
There was a perhaps instinctive understanding that on a night like this people were looking to their television sets not for perspective, but for information. CNN periodically checked in with various reporters in various Mideast countries. And since three of those reporters were in Baghdad, CNN's reports had an immediacy and urgency that the other three network broadcasts lacked. CBS did intelligently provide updates on the latest information every 15 minutes.
And CNN, even though it is configured as a 24-hour news operation and sells advertising accordingly, did not run ads during its coverage. Neither did CBS nor NBC, but, amazingly, ABC opted for commercials almost from the beginning.
Not only was the taste of this move debatable -- cutting from war coverage to a deodorant commercial promising "extra protection," or a pain reliever spot in which a woman has a headache depicted as a raging fire, even an ad for the war movie "Flight of the Intruder" -- but it seemed self-defeating, since it is hard to imagine any viewer with a remote control sitting through a commercial.
CNN's victory was technical and stylistic rather than journalistic. The trio in Baghdad was spotty, as Shaw occasionally got a bit dramatic, and Holliman piped in with some inappropriate foxhole humor. Arnett, a veteran of Vietnam war coverage, provided the steadiest reporting.
On the whole, though, CNN did not have anyone of the caliber of the defense department reporting of NBC's Fred Francis or CBS' John Martin or ABC's John McWethy at the State Department.
Little of that mattered last night. If the war turns into a land battle, the coverage will get tougher, and the broadcast networks may well catch up.
But last night was a special one for CNN. In November 1963 the three networks proved during the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination that they could cover a story better than newspapers and joined the journalistic big leagues. With its Iraqi war coverage, CNN showed that it could cover a story better than the three networks and thus passed a similar milestone.