TV news scrambles to keep live pictures from U.S.S.R. on the air

August 20, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun TV Critic

The TV news pictures out of Moscow yesterday were dramatic and stirring: tanks rolling through the streets, civilians massing against the tanks, men in suits standing atop the tanks urging the crowd to resist.

Network news executives yesterday expressed surprise at their access to the coup that appears to have toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. And they warned: Don't assume there are going to be more pictures of such eloquence today or tomorrow or in the future -- Soviet authorities could pull the plug at any moment.

But in the meantime, the network news divisions went full throttle yesterday trying to cover events in the U.S.S.R. ABC brought Peter Jennings back from vacation to anchor an expanded, one-hour version of "World News Tonight." NBC brought Tom Brokaw back from vacation in Montana to anchor its expanded newscast.

A CBS cameraman shot vivid pictures in the streets of Moscow, and the network ran the videotape raw and unedited several times in succession. CNN blew out its entire on-air morning schedule to stay with the coup, which it first reported at 11:27 Sunday night.

But the major effort behind the scenes yesterday, according to a CNN spokeswoman, involved producers inside the Soviet Union hustling to find backup equipment to transmit to the United States should Soviet officials decide to pull the plug on coverage.

"That's the main thing -- the uncertainty of continued coverage," CNN's Su-Lin Cheng said yesterday. "The people in the Moscow bureau heard that TV and radio out of Lithuania had been cut early in the day. And they don't know what kind of restrictions will be placed on them. . . . So the effort is to find the kind of backup equipment needed to transmit."

CNN credits such backup equipment for its dramatic and exclusive audio broadcasts in January from Peter Arnett in Baghdad on the first night of the Persian Gulf air war. CNN believes it can find a way to broadcast even if Soviet authorities try to shut the U.S. networks down.

But just as there was disagreement among the networks whether it was CNN's technology or the good graces of Saddam Hussein that allowed Arnett's broadcasts, there was concern yesterday about what American viewers will see if Soviet authorities shut down satellite broadcasts.

Like his colleagues at CBS and ABC, John Stack, deputy foreign editor at NBC News, attributed the networks' delivery of the news in large part to Soviet authorities allowing them to cover the story.

"As of now, there are no restrictions on satellite orders. Our correspondents are allowed to file reports out. Coverage in the streets of Moscow has been relatively trouble free . . . even with the troop presence. Things are pretty normal."

But that could change dramatically if the Soviets want it to, he said. Stack says he remembers back two years ago -- before Gorbachev's efforts to make Soviet society more accessible to Western journalists -- when it took several hours simply to place a phone call from NBC New York to the Moscow bureau.

"If they pulled the plug on the satellite, what you'd basically have is reporters doing phoners [voice-only reports] and taped reports" rather than lives ones, Stack said.

For network executives, though, that's not good enough. They believe viewers have become spoiled by the new technology of TV news -- we expect not only to see history unfold at the Berlin Wall, we expect to see it unfold live.

But after yesterday's striking pictures and the echoes they sounded from Hungary, 1956, to Tiananmen Square, 1989, television has already set the stage of struggle in our mind's eye.

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