War coverage takes CNN to the top WAR IN THE GULF

January 22, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Every time CNN Washington correspondent Tony Collings tried to get someone on the phone yesterday, he got the same response. And it wasn't a response the veteran CNN reporter had been used to.

"Oh, CNN. In that case, I'll see if I can interrupt him."

"I've never heard that before," said Mr. Collings, marveling at his nearly overnight rise in stock. "All you have to do is say CNN and the doors open. It's a different world.

"It used to be, 'CN-what? What's that?' "

Since last Wednesday night, when the voices of Cable News Network correspondents Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman described to the world the aerial fire show over Iraq while peering out the window of Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel, few have had to ask "CN-what?"

"We are now it," said Rick Davis, CNN's senior producer.

"If the war has any one victor," joked Edward Lucas, a Washington correspondent for the Independent of London, "it will be CNN. It's become a new world superpower."

In recent days, no less than Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney; Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz have all made references to getting their news from the 11-year-old Atlanta-based news organization. Cable TV companies in the Baltimore-Washington area are reporting an increase in calls requesting cable installation.

CNN's ratings have soared since last Wednesday, breaking all records for cable television and, in some markets, replacing network news programming on affiliate stations of ABC, NBC or CBS. CNN's Mr. Arnett, a seasoned war correspondent, is the only remaining U.S. reporter in Baghdad.

"The war has proved to be the defining event for CNN," said supervising producer Tom Farmer.

"Who knows how long it will last?" said Mr. Collings. "But we certainly won't go back to being the little network that tried."

In the last week, the network's Washington bureau, the hub for the network's news gathering if not their technology, has become a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation (as have its White House and Pentagon offices), with a producer at the studio around the clock and with much of the staff working 12- to 14-hour days.

"If I can't be in the Persian Gulf fighting the war with my colleagues, this is the next best place to be," said James Blackwell, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Army major who has been on loan to CNN since last week. "The control room here is very much like the combat operations center I ran in the Army."

Assignment editor Beth Fouhy said she and her colleagues have been "energized" by their recent triumphs. Patrick Reap, who arranges for the appearance of on-screen guests, called it "a feeling of vindication" for a network that, early on, couldn't get itself included in network coverage "pools."

These days the switchboard staff has been doubled to handle the barrage of calls. A conference room has been turned into a "food room," where, three times a day, meals are brought in so no one has to leave the building during the day and the long nights (32 Domino's pizzas were delivered last Friday night). For the past few days, everyone from "Entertainment Tonight" to Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, British and German TV crews has been to the Washington bureau to report on its operation.

Security also has been beefed up at the bureau, a single floor of an office building near Capitol Hill. Staff members are required to wear ID tags, visitors must sign in at two guard stations and also wear visitor's tags, and a second security guard has been added in the lobby.

The network has been so high-profile that its guest bookers are having little trouble convincing experts and analysts to come into the studio and appear on the air -- even at 1, 2 or 3 a.m. "No one's minded the intrusion," said Mr. Reap. "That's a first."

All the attention and exposure have also added a certain amount of pressure. "We're acutely aware that we're a global source now," said Mr. Farmer. "It's on our shoulder the whole time. With the whole planet staring, we're doubly and triply aware that everything we do is magnified -- good and bad."

And there has been bad. Last Thursday at 6:35 p.m., 24 hours after Mr. Shaw's first reports about the bombardment of Baghdad, the network replayed the historic segment. It didn't, however, identify the broadcast as dating from "yesterday" until too late -- after an urgent Reuters dispatch from Nicosia in Cyprus erroneously reported that Baghdad was again being bombed.

"Everybody paused a second and said, 'Wow,' " said Mr. Davis.

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