CNN's John Holliman: a newsman with good timing


April 19, 1991|By Michael Hill

JOURNALISM is filled with stories of reporters' careers getting extraordinary boosts by being in the right place at the right time and coming through with the story. Dan Rather got on the fast track at CBS after accompanying President Kennedy to Dallas in November 1963.

John Holliman says that it was no accident that he was in Baghdad for CNN Jan. 16. He has a simple explanation for how he got there.

''I begged,'' he said, talking while in town last night hosting a fund-raiser at Martin's West for the Grant-A-Wish foundation.

Like most CNN reporters, until a few months ago Holliman was laboring in semi-anonymity, on the outskirts of the spotlight that shines on network correspondents, but without the intense but limited celebrity of those who work in local news around the country.

A veteran CNN correspondent -- the native of Georgia joined the fledging Atlanta-based cable operation when it began in 1980 -- Holliman had worked his way up to the Washington bureau and happened to be with President Bush in August when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

''I knew it was going to be a big story, and I had never been to the Mideast. I thought it was an opportunity to see another part of the world and broaden my experience,'' Holliman said. ''It took me until November to talk them into sending me there.''

He made it to Baghdad, took a week off to come home for Christmas -- ''I had one of those your-marriage-or-your-job phone calls'' -- and then headed back to the Iraqi capital on Jan. 2. Peter Arnett joined him a couple days before the Jan. 15 deadline when another CNN correspondent had to beg off the assignment, and Bernard Shaw arrived a day or two later looking for an interview with Saddam Hussein.

Those three provided the nation and the world with hours of unforgettable reporting as United State planes and cruise missiles began the gulf war on the night of Jan. 16 and CNN had the only live link to Baghdad.

''I had stayed up about 23 hours because it was the day of the deadline when I finally went to bed,'' Holliman remembered of the start of the conflict.

''I had been asleep about an hour when I heard the air raid sirens going off. I really didn't want to get up so I convinced myself it was just a test. Then I heard the anti-aircraft guns on the building next door, and I said maybe they were just testing them, too.

''Then my bed, which was bolted to floor, shook. I figured it was time to wake up. The night before I had carefully laid out my clothes, but I forgot all about that and started yanking drawers out looking for a pair of underwear.

''I was really scared for about three or four minutes, then I realized my job was to get across the hall to Room 906 and get that four-wire working and start broadcasting the story. After that the adrenalin and the story just took over.

''I wasn't scared again until we were on our way out of Iraq driving down a road lined with Scud missiles, listening to a radio broadcast about the Israeli cabinet debating whether or not to retaliate for the Scud missile attack. I just wanted them to debate for a couple more hours.''

The four-wire Holliman referred to was the open satellite line that allowed CNN to stay on the air from Baghdad that first night of the war after all the other networks lost contact with their correspondents. More than anything else, that piece of technology was responsible for Holliman's current celebrity status.

Though CNN has been charged with getting favorable treatment from the Iraqis in getting permission to install the four-wire, Holliman said the Iraqis weren't involved in its installation.

''The Jordanians offered to install a four-wire in Amman since Jordanian television contributes to our international hour. It was going to cost something like $9,000 a month. They said they'd throw in Baghdad for another $2,000,'' Holliman recalled. ''We said, sure. The Iraqis didn't have anything to do with it.

''It didn't go through the telephone building so when the bombs took that out the first night, everyone else lost their link. They didn't hit the building the four-wire went through for another seven or eight days.''

Nevertheless, the Iraqis told CNN the day after the bombing started that they had to stop using the equipment and that they would be limited to 10 minutes a day on a satellite telephone.

''Bernie Shaw was ready to go. Our crew was ready to go. I was supposed to stay and Peter wanted to stay, but it was clear with only 10 minutes a day there wasn't going to be enough work to warrant having two of us there,'' Holliman said.

''We drew a line down a page of a reporter's notebook, wrote Arnett on the top of one side, Holliman on the other. Under my name was the fact that I had been there longer, that I knew how to use certain equipment, a few other things. Under his name was the fact that he was the preeminent war correspondent in the world. That carried a lot of weight.

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