CNN jumps gun in reporting Iraqi pullout

February 26, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

CNN did it again.

It went with another underreported, shoot-from-the-hip bulletin yesterday saying that the war was all but over. It was another case of reporting first and retracting later, sending viewers on a roller coaster ride of rising and falling hopes.

Think back to Feb. 15, when viewers awoke to stories on CNN that the war was all but over, because of a report on Iraqi radio saying Saddam Hussein was willing to withdraw from Kuwait. A few hours later, when all the conditions attached to the offer were reported elsewhere, it became clear that the offer was mainly a public opinion ploy by Mr. Hussein.

Last night, it was deja vu on CNN. At 5:30 p.m., the network breathlessly reported that Baghdad Radio was saying Hussein had ordered Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait to pre-invasion borders and that the war might be ending as a result.

Contrast that with the broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- which also led at 6:30 p.m. with Mr. Hussein's offer. But they did so only to shoot it down immediately.

ABC hit the story the hardest, quoting an Iraqi ambassador at the United Nations who said the radio report was not an authentic offer. All three networks reported the White House's refusal to treat unverified radio reports out of Iraq as a legitimate peace offer.

But even a half-hour later, at 7 p.m., CNN still had not done the reporting to put the story in a proper context. Anchorman Lou Waters started the hour by saying, "A major development this evening. Baghdad radio is reporting that Saddam Hussein has ordered Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait immediately.

"Since that announcement, about an hour and half ago," Mr. Waters continued, "there are indications from the battlefield that an Iraqi pullout has indeed begun."

A short time later, Mr. Waters finally got the news in his earpiece about what was being said on the other networks. He said, "We're told that another network [ABC] is reporting that an Iraqi diplomat is denying the validity of the report."

At that point, CNN's Jeanne Moos, at the United Nations, said the ABC report came from a "lower-level diplomat" -- as if that made it not worth reporting.

At 8:30 p.m., CNN was still reporting the story as if it meant the end of the war -- even though it had yet to show any of those "indications from the battlefield that the pullout had begun" which Waters had promised 90 minutes before. It was not until 8:50 that Frank Cesno said, "The war is indeed not over."

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