From Tel Aviv, reporters spoke on TV with masks WAR IN THE GULF

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

It would have been hard to imagine yesterday afternoon that there could be television any more gripping than Wednesday night's broadcasts by CNN from Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

But then came last night's initial reports out of Israel -- with pictures of reporters in gas masks and the sounds of sirens in the background -- after Tel Aviv was hit by Iraqi missiles.

Watching it was an intense, frightening and, at times, surreal experience.

Unlike Wednesday night, when the story belonged to CNN after the first 20 minutes, all four major news organizations were in the hunt with live hookups to correspondents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And all four were broadcasting conflicting information as fast, it seemed, as the correspondents got it, confirmed or not.

The most troubling reports started about 7:45 p.m. (EST) when NBC's Martin Fletcher in Tel Aviv reported that the missiles had chemical warheads and that victims of chemical poisoning were being taken to hospitals.

NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw reacted emotionally, calling it "the first chemical attack ever on a city. . . .

And he's [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] a man who portrays himself as a pious defender of the faith. And yet he will stoop to anything."

But at 8:30 p.m., CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Wolf Blitzer, reported that the warheads carried no chemicals. Fifteen

minutes later, the three other networks also were reporting that it appeared the attack did not involve chemical warheads.

As CNN anchorman David French put it, about 9 p.m., "It looks like it is going to be one of those difficult nights to grab all the straws that make up information."

Mr. French had hardly finished when Catherine Cryer reported ++ from CNN's anchor desk in Atlanta that Saudi Arabia had been hit by a missile, while Dan Rather was telling CBS viewers that the Saudi report was "only a scare."

But there was Walter Cronkite on the CBS News set, surely sending some viewers back in their minds to other moments of national crisis.

There was the immediacy and the raw, confused sense of heightened reality in the sights and sounds from Israel, so unlike the glossy and rehearsed look of regular prime-time television, right down to images of mothers strapping gas masks on their children.

Coupled with Wednesday night, it was among the most intense television viewing experiences of our lives.

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