War coverage in prime time


January 18, 1991|By Michael Hill

IF ROUND ONE went to CNN, then Round Two of the television coverage of the Persian Gulf war went to the networks in a night of electrifying coverage that sent the nation on an intense, emotional roller-coaster ride.

For the second night in a row, the major news story -- Iraq's attack on Israel-- happened as if designed for prime-time coverage in the East, timing that saved NBC from what would have been an embarrassing mistake.

NBC officials had said earlier yesterday afternoon that the network would go to entertainment programming at 8 p.m., putting two hours of the most popular programs on television.

It's a move that would have helped the network's bottom line, which, because of war coverage, is sustaining significant damage from loss of advertising revenue. NBC was the last to join ABC, CBS and CNN in showing commercials during the LTC news coverage, but on all the networks the ads were relatively few and far between, bringing in far less revenue than a normal schedule.

If the Iraqi missile attack on Israel had come an hour later, NBC would have been in the middle of 'The Cosby Show."

From Israel, CBS' Tom Fenton reported over the telephone about a loud explosion nearby. NBC's Martin Fletcher followed soon after with reports from Israel, as did ABC's Dean Reynolds, both of whom could be seen via satellite.

For the first few moments, ABC had the top coverage, bringing sounds of an explosion to accompany pictures of Reynolds and crew donning gas masks as the television showed a fixed-camera shot of the city outside.

Then the old-style, on-the-street reporting of NBC's Fletcherwho also ended up on-air in one of the weird-looking gas masks, gave that network the lead. Fletcher, who lives in Tel Aviv, had sources at a hospital telling him that victims of nerve gas were being treated. Police sources were telling him of a gas attack. Understandably, he went with the story, carefully crediting his sources.

Fenton, normally based in London, didn't have such contacts iTel Aviv and, in this case, that served him well -- it turned out the people at the hospital were only victims of panic, not nerve gas. Going with official sources, and showing impressive professionalism throughout the evening, Fenton had the story right. There was no nerve gas in Tel Aviv.

Virtually out of the story was CNN, the clear leader on the first night of the bombing of Baghdad. Apparently unable to establish contact with its Tel Aviv reporter, CNN was stuck with video out of Jerusalem, where there was much excitement in their chaotic bureau, but no real news to report. Only later in the evening did CNN contact its Tel Aviv correspondent.

The playing field had been leveled earlier in the day when the Iraqis cut off all contact with reporters in Baghdad. CNN had been the only news operation with reports from inside Iraq Wednesday night, and that had made its coverage the one to see, bringing the all-news cable channel unprecedented high ratings.

NBC and CNN had reports coming in from Baghdad when Iraq pulled the plug. Once that happened, CNN lost its significant technological advantage and the greater depth and experience of the network correspondents began to be evident.

During the day, the continuous news telecasts were becoming tedious -- it became evident that the Pentagon restrictions on coverage were working. By far the most interesting pieces of coverage were those that came via unapproved means -- those from Baghdad and one from a CBS cameraman who happened to be near a Saudi oil refinery that was hit by Iraqi fire.

When NBC announced its decision to put on two hours oentertainment -- and CBS was apparently planning to put on "Knots Landing" at 10 p.m. -- it actually made sense. Shortly, though, it seemed absurd as events reminded everyone of the unpredictability of war.

Just as the flow of information from the attack on Israel -- and the corollary story about the Iraqi missile shot down on its way to its Saudi Arabian target -- slowed down, ABC showed the first footage of the first night's attack on Baghdad. It was amazing video, showing that the seemingly excessive prose of the correspondents, reporting radio-style the night before, was actually restrained.

ABC labeled the footage "exclusive," and anchorman Peter Jennings explained that it came from an international network called ITN, with which ABC has a cooperative arrangement.

But it appeared on CBS minutes later. A CBS spokesman said iwas legitimately obtained when ITN fed it to a network called WTN, which has its own agreement with CBS.

Hours later, the footage appeared on CNN, usually the leader in international cooperative arrangements. NBC never did get that piece of videotape. Instead, it showed much less effective coverage from the BBC, though it was accompanied by fascinating commentary by BBC personnel who had just left Iraq through Jordan.

And after that footage had aired, the first tape of the missile damage in Tel Aviv made it to the networks. CBS got the first and the best pictures.

The most notable absence from the night of mesmerizing television was official reports from United States sources. The Pentagon's apparent plan to provide only one briefing a day at a time of 24-hour continuous coverage is absurd, especially when the American people are justifiably thirsty for accurate information.

However, by the end of the evening the tedium of the daytime's oft-repeated videotape and the officially approved interviews that came out of the tightly restrained pool coverage was long forgotten.

And late at night, communication was re-established with correspondents in Baghdad, indicating that despite the Pentagon's best efforts, the flow of information to the American people over this most immediate of media would continue relatively unabated.

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