Lack of focus in 'Baghdad' shows turmoil at CBS

July 04, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Bob Simon: Back to Baghdad" has an identity problem. The CBS news special, which airs at 10 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), isn't sure whether it wants to chronicle a personal odyssey by newsman Bob Simon or examine life in the Middle East four months after the war that was supposed to usher in a "new order."

As a result, the one-hour special never catches fire and lights the mind or heart, despite some evocative photography and resonant writing.

Simon, you may recall, is the CBS News correspondent who was captured along with three of his colleagues by Iraqi soldiers and held for some 40 days until the Gulf War ended. Simon and the others were beaten by their captors, they said.

CBS News left itself open to charges of exploiting that capture by trotting a haggard Simon through "60 Minutes" and other news and prime-time venues the minute he was free. Simon's personal story became part of an overall pattern of television covering the war as a great entertainment spectacle with the correspondents as action-adventure heroes.

That's the track "Bob Simon: Back to Baghdad" starts out on -- with Simon standing near the Baghdad building in which he says he was held prisoner and recounting how he thought he was going to be killed when the American bombs started falling on Baghdad. It is very first-person stuff.

But, then, the piece abruptly switches onto its main track, which is Simon reporting on life today in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and Iraq. This portion of the hour is mostly a straightforward, third-person look at life after Desert Storm.

It's good, solid reporting, though much of it has appeared in one form or another elsewhere: the lack of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, the notion that Saddam Hussein seems to be sitting kind of pretty for a guy who lost a war, the image of the Emir of Kuwait as fat cat.

Simon set out, he tells us, to learn: "Was there a new order or had another desert storm flashed by with much sound and fury leaving the landscape utterly unchanged?" His conclusion: The war changed almost nothing.

"Bob Simon: Back to Baghdad" is an example of the lingering confusion within CBS these days about how news and public affairs reporting should be presented. It seems as if the packagers and managers wanted a correspondent-as-hero entertainment special, but the folks who actually went out and made the piece has another idea of what TV journalism was supposed to be. For the viewer, the result is not very enlightening or moving.

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