Suddenly, with the speed of a tank attack, CBS, of all networks, was the place to be for coverage of the gulf war.
The first indications came Saturday night when CBS, which had lagged behind for so much of the war coverage, was first with the news of the beginning of the ground campaign by about a half hour, then stayed ahead with with live sound-only reports from inside Kuwait.
Those came from correspondent Bob McKeown and it turned out they were just a hint of things to come. According to CBS news spokesman Tom Goodman, McKeown could have sent out pictures Saturday night, but chose not to for fear of revealing his location.
He got some pictures out late Sunday night, but it was his reports yesterday morning that proved to be as galvanizing and compelling as anything on television that this war has produced, making a star of McKeown. A veteran broadcaster in Canada, where he had played professional football, McKeown joined CBS only last year.
McKeown fed CBS just-shot tape of rolling into Kuwait City as it was being freed from the grip of the occupying Iraqi forces. There were the burnt-out tanks by the roadside, the joy and jubilation of the citizens, fearful only moments before, now flowing out of their houses, some of them talking to McKeown in a cathartic gush with tales of malicious destruction and terrorism committed by the Iraqi troops only the night before as they prepared to abandon the city.
Imagine sitting at home in 1944 and watching the liberation of Paris right after it happened. Though on a smaller scale, McKeown's reports had that sort of power. It was moments like this that make you understand why wars are fought.
And, for that reason, they made the point that the pool system instituted by the Pentagon to keep reins on journalists trying to cover this war was unnecessary, unneeded and probably counter-productive to the cause that the military was trying to espouse.
The reason McKeown was getting these great stories was that he bypassed the pools. Goodman said that McKeown and his crew of three were out on their own, driving two vehicles known as CBS Desert Rats containing the satellite equipment needed to transmit live pictures.
The same is true of another CBS correspondent, Richard Threlkeld, who has a crew of four accompanying him in western Kuwait. Remember that both of these people work for the organization that had a similarly ambitious correspondent, Bob Simon, and his crew of three disappear near the Iraqi border shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. They are reportedly being held in Baghdad. And the danger continues. Goodman said that McKeown and crew came under sniper fire and had been quite near incoming artillery as they worked their way up the Kuwaiti coast to the capital city.
In both cases, McKeown and Threlkeld have captured moments of action -- McKeown of Kuwait City, Threlkeld of grateful, emotional Iraqis surrendering -- that have conveyed powerful truths about the war which have only reinforced the Pentagon's position, not undermined it.
Yet, to get this coverage, these CBS correspondents have had to stay away from American soldiers, lest they get into trouble for violating pool restrictions. McKeown has primarily been with Saudi troops, Threlkeld with Egyptians, though neither has attached himself to any unit, maintaining their independence.
But yesterday afternoon -- it was after dark in Kuwait -- McKeown happened to run into some of the advance U.S. Marine forces in Kuwait City. Not only did two Americans seem proud to be interviewed and report their accomplishments -- which included re-taking the once-besieged American Embassy -- a lieutenant even asked to use McKeown's satellite link to send a message of what they had done back to the Marines waiting outside the city.
"We recognize that the government has national security concerns and we don't complain about their restrictions for those reasons," Goodman said. "That's our underlying and overlying concern, too. We're not going to do anything that's going to endanger anybody."
The other networks have similarly equipped correspondents trying to maintain independent status out there on the war front. It was McKeown who happened to hit the jackpot first. But if all these uncensored reports come back and do no damage to, and indeed only enhance, the war effort, maybe, just maybe, the Pentagon can realize that it is counterproductive to treat the press as untrustworthy adversaries.
They are just people trying to do their job and, when they do it the way McKeown did yesterday, the results can be spectacular.
CBS helps itself and the war coverage