CNN's gain -- and its potential problems

Television

January 22, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- "I think it's been CNN's finest hour" was the evaluation of Tom Johnson, the Cable News Network's relatively new president, in an interview about 48 hours into the coverage of war in the Persian Gulf.

There is, of course, no doubt that CNN made giant strides into the consciousness of the American public, gaining millions of new viewers, not only with its live broadcast from Baghdad the night the bombing began, but also with its very essence, the all-news, all-the-time approach that makes it the channel to turn to when a crisis like this breaks.

But CNN had better watch resting on its laurels because since that first night all three major networks have done a better job covering the war. Their anchors have been a little sharper, their analysts a bit deeper, their correspondents slightly more wired-in.

Indeed, on the second night of fighting, CNN was left in the dust, TC unable to get a live picture out of Tel Aviv as the Scud missiles hit that city. And then it went to its regular Larry King talk show, an apparently inexplicable move that must have been done to assuage one of the largest egoes in broadcasting, that of a talk show host who assumes he deserves a role in war coverage on an all-news network.

Moreover, with the return of Bernard Shaw and John Holliman from their opening night performance in Baghdad getting the heroes' welcome treatment all over CNN -- one self-congratulatory interview after another -- there seems to be a danger that the cable channel will get its arm out of joint trying to pat itself on the back while the war rages in the background.

The fact is that Shaw and Holliman didn't do that good a job last Wednesday night, but they happened to be two-thirds of the only act in town. They spent too much time talking about what they were doing and not enough describing what was going on. By far the best journalism was turned in by CNN's Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his Vietnam coverage who kept his cool and kept viewers informed.

Indeed, if CNN has any leg up on the networks right now, it is that Arnett is the only western journalist who has been allowed to remain in Baghdad. This has raised eyebrows in some circles over the possibility of CNN being used as a propaganda outlet by the Iraqis.

And this might be a legitimate danger were anyone but Arnett in position there. Certainly his reports will be censored but it's hard to see anyone turning Arnett into a mouthpiece. And his unvarnished tale of the war from Baghdad once he leaves the country will be a valuable document for historians.

There have also been questions raised as to why CNN was allowed to have the special four-wire link that allowed it to keep broadcasting when the other networks, denied permission to install this piece of equipment, were cut off. Indeed, NBC's man in Iraq blatantly accused CNN of inappropriate conduct and favorable treatment by the Iraqis.

"That's whining, errant nonsense," Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president, said in an interview last Friday via satellite from Atlanta. "The other ones didn't get it because they didn't work as hard as we did. There was no mystery or secret to it.

"We began nagging these people in September and didn't let up day after day. Finally they yielded and let us install it. That's competition, and I sure don't apologize for it."

* Johnson did say that CNN's international profile probably helped its case. "I think the officials, starting with Saddam Hussein, were familiar with CNN because they could see it," he said. "They didn't know NBC, CBS or ABC, but they did know us."

CNN's biggest asset during this time has been its reliance on its instinctive, basic, what's-happening-now approach to the news, providing viewers with what they want most -- information -- as quickly as possible.

"This is the biggest spot news story of a generation and that's the way, for right now, that we're treating it," Turner said.

"We're trying to bring along analysis and commentary and explanation as much as possible, but it's such an odd story that has so many instant developments from so many different places that we're handling it like you would a huge local car-train wreck. Not to be too gruesome about it, but that's the way it's been and we're going to keep that up for the duration."

But Turner also clearly realized that there are huge pitfalls in a business like this, that an operation that's riding high one day can be down in the dumps a matter of hours later.

"Speaking from almost 11 years at CNN, I think it is without question the biggest challenge we've faced and I think we've met it," he said. "The question now is will we continue to do well, not lose the thread of the story, and do it with balance and perspective. I hope so."

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