Iraqi permission helped CNN to Baghdad exclusive WAR IN THE GULF David Zurawik

January 18, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It was a combination of on-scene savvy, technology and government agendas that resulted in CNN's exclusive live reports from Baghdad Wednesday night.

But yesterday morning, when Iraqi officials shut down CNN's phone line from the Al-Rashid Hotel, it became clear that the most important factor in the cable network's reports was an apparent Iraqi decision to permit them. Anchorman Bernard Shaw said from Baghdad that the broadcasts would not have been possible without the government's blessing. His comment came before Iraqi officials -- citing military censorship -- pulled the plug at 10:59 a.m. (EST).

Officials at ABC, CBS and NBC, each of which had varying degrees of success with live reports from Iraq's capital Wednesday night, agreed with Mr. Shaw's assessment.

"You know Iraq's been getting information about the war by watching CNN throughout" the Persian Gulf crisis, NBC spokeswoman Katherine McQuay said.

The consensus among broadcasters yesterday was that CNN received special consideration because of its unique function as a channel of diplomacy; it is watched in houses of government throughout the world.

Network officials believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein thought it might have been to be his advantage for his Arab neighbors to know what it was like on the ground under American bombers.

"We planned for this -- how to stay on the air -- in such a situation," CNN's Eileen Murphy said. "But why our government or their government, which could have pulled the plug on us at any time, didn't is something nobody knows."

Technology also played a role. CNN was using a satellite phone connection -- in essence, its own phone system. CBS, however, was relying on phone lines through the hotel switchboard, which went dead once fighting began, CBS spokeswoman Donna Dees said.

The network did not get on the air with a live report from Allen Pizzey

in Baghdad until 12:30 a.m. (EST), six hours after its competitors.

NBC and ABC both had satellite phone systems like CNN, although NBC claimed yesterday that the Iraqi government permitted the cable network to use a "four-wire core circuit" as part of its phone hookup but denied NBC's request to use one. Ms. McQuay said the circuit maintains a connection between the phone and the satellite, so the reporter doesn't have to "dial up to it."

But NBC, ABC and CNN were already connected to Baghdad through the satellite at essentially the same time for their initial reports. A source at ABC called the "four-wire" talk a public relations "smoke screen. . . . We all had the same technology."

Another factor in CNN's triumph was savvy.

When Iraqi officials told reporters to enter a bomb shelter in the hotel basement, Mr. Pizzey of CBS did so, as did NBC's Tom Aspell after his brief broadcast was shut down. But CNN's Peter Arnett told the Iraqis he had been in Vietnam and would rather brave the bombs in his room.

"I'm a wreck in fallout shelters, and I'd make everyone crazy," a CNN spokeswoman quoted him as saying. Mr. Arnett, along with colleagues Mr. Shaw and John Holliman, were allowed to stay in the room and deliver their remarkable broadcast.

Overnight Nielsen ratings showed viewers preferred ABC News Wednesday. It was watched in approximately 18 million homes; NBC drew an audience of 14 million households, and CBS drew 10.5 million.

CNN's audience was the largest ever for a program on cable: about 11 million homes, 16 times larger than CNN's usual draw of 700,000 homes.

But that does not measure true audience size. CNN has arrangements with independent and affiliate stations in virtually every major market allowing them to broadcast the news channel. WTTG-TV (Channel 5), an independent station in Washington, carried CNN coverage much of Wednesday night, for example. The viewers tuned to those stations are not included in CNN's rating.

TV coverage

The major news networks -- CBS, CNN, ABC and NBC -- planned continuous coverage of the Persian Gulf war "for as long as it is warranted," officials said yesterday. The networks have pre-empted regular programming since Wednesday evening to cover the hostilities.

PBS, which has limited its coverage to the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," added a special editions of that program at 10 o'clock last night and was expected to do so tonight as well.

In addition, the award-winning PBS series "Frontline" went to nightly broadcasts yesterday. A spokesman for the show said the resources of the weekly series will be combined with the news operation at WGBH-TV in Boston, which presents "Frontline," to produce a half-hour report on the gulf seven nights a week. Hodding Carter is anchoring the nightly reports. The program airs nationally at 11 p.m., though a spokesman said it may change to 10 p.m. with 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. updates. The show will continue indefinitely. A spokesman for Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) said yesterday that MPT expected to carry the show.

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