The pictures were dramatic -- all the more so because they were live. And we might never have seen them had the networks not shaken off Pentagon restrictions and gone out on their own to cover the gulf war.
Standing in a circle of TV lights somewhere in the darkness of Kuwait City yesterday, around 10 a.m. EST, CBS Correspondent Bob McKeown was surrounded by a group of exuberant Kuwaitis -- many of them armed with M-16 rifles. They told him of capturing Iraqi soldiers and tanks, and promised to "liberate the American embassy."
There was something surreal about watching that scene live. Viewers were seeing the attempted liberation of Kuwait before the outcome of the overall action was resolved, and even before most of the allied forces had arrived.
McKeown's unilateral reporting has almost single-handedly lifted CBS News from last to first in coverage.
But he's not the only network reporter who, in the last few days, has broken away from restrictive Pentagon pools to join with non-American troops or go out on his own.
It was McKeown, 40, who offered the first live reports of the
ground war Saturday, dramatically communicating a sense of "feeling the ground rumble" with warfare.
Yesterday morning the Canadian reporter, who just joined CBS in August, helped the network dominate coverage of the attempt to liberate Kuwait City.
CBS News stayed on yesterday morning after NBC and ABC returned to entertainment programming following coverage of a statement from President Bush. Neither ABC nor NBC had anything to compete with McKeown's entry into and reporting within Kuwait City.
McKeown kept CBS ahead throughout most of the day, too. He had another stunner at 3:55 p.m. when he interviewed two U.S. Marines who had been inside the U.S. embassy.
CNN, which had dominated Gulf coverage in January, was unable to get pictures from Kuwait most of the day. The network managed phone conversations with Kuwaiti Army Col. Abu Fahad, who was in Kuwait City, and with correspondents Brian )) Jenkins, and Charles Jaco.
But staying away from American troops -- a strategy used by McKeown but not CNN's Jaco and Jenkins -- appeared to be part of the key to successful independent reporting. The Saudis, Kuwaitis and Egyptians did not want it to look as if the Americans were doing all of the fighting, so they were happy to let the camera crews tag along and photograph their victories.
CBS News had been getting bad ratings and worse reviews for its war coverage until this weekend. Tom Bettag, the executive producer of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," was fired two weeks ago for that very reason.
CBS News attributed its comeback to independent reporting. But such break-out reporting is not something new for the network, a spokesman said yesterday.
"The independent reporting started back in January" with Bob Simon, said Donna Dees. Simon and three other CBS staffers disappeared in early January near the Iraqi border as they attempted to break free of the pool restrictions in Saudi Arabia. (Iraq has since told CBS that they have the newsmen in custody.)
CBS spokesman Dees said photographer David Green, who is with McKeown, has been going out on his own for more than a month. Richard Threlkeld, too, is doing independent reporting from within Kuwait, and his live reports aired yesterday morning.
The attempts at independent reporting started to pay off for CBS with the beginning of the ground war this weekend, said Dees.
CBS says it does not believe it is violating Pentagon pool rules, since McKeown and Threlkeld are reporting out of Kuwait, not Saudi Arabia, where the pools were set up.
Another network newsman who has broken away from Pentagon restrictions is ABC's Forrest Sawyer, who is with Saudi troops near the front. He has a truck equipped with a satellite dish that allows him to broadcast live into American living rooms.
Sawyer made it to Kuwait City yesterday in time to broadcast live for "World News Tonight," which is fed at 6:30 p.m. to affiliates. Because he got there in the middle of Kuwait's night, though, everything was shot in green nightscope and there were no interviews. Anchor Peter
Jennings' satellite interview with Sawyer ran for about six minutes at the start of the newscast.
ABC, CBS and CNN all subscribe to and have used the reports of ITN, the England-based news service, which offered some of the best pictures and reports through Sunday, including the first dramatic pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering. The work of ITN's Sandy Gall, 63, who is with Kuwaiti troops, has been especially impressive.
NBC said yesterday that Brad Willis had broken away from the Pentagon pool on Monday and was in Kuwait headed for Kuwait City. Willis did not make it there in time to broadcast from the city on the "NBC Nightly News."
NBC's Katherine McQuay said Willis and the NBC crew were traveling on their own, not with allied troops.