Report on CNN's Baghdad coverage has lots of breadth but little depth

February 02, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Mr. Hill, a reporter for The Sun, is a former TV critic of The Evening Sun.


Robert Weiner.


303 pages. $22.

For years, the Cable News Network was the little guy fighting valiantly to have itself taken seriously, but it wasn't on a par with the news operations of the Big Three -- CBS, ABC and NBC. Then in a few hours on the evening of Jan. 16, 1991, it burst onto the American consciousness as a prime source for information. It left its competitors in its electronic wake by bringing the world the only live reporting of the bombing of Baghdad as the gulf war began.

"Live from Baghdad" has obviously been turned around quickly to get it to the bookstores during the first anniversary of that conflict. It's essentially a compilation of notes, diaries and recollections by Robert Weiner, who was executive producer of CNN's coverage in Baghdad from late August 1990 until just after the coverage began.

This is a nuts-and-bolts sort of book about getting news coverage on the air from thousands of miles away in a strange and foreign land -- strong-arming this person, glad-handing that one, paying off someone else, matching the vagaries of equipment, personalities, Third World transportation schedules, communication systems and censorship requirements to the demands of a highly structured, 24-hour-a-day news operation.

Indeed, reading this is a bit like watching CNN itself: There's a lot of breadth, but little depth. Faces and places come flying past at breakneck speed, but rarely can you put them in their proper places. As Mr. Weiner describes it, that was what his life was like during his stint in Baghdad, surfing along on the huge waves created by this major story, trying to avoid a wipe-out.

If you enjoy reading a behind-the-scenes, semi-adventure story, along with some gossipy tidbits about CNN personnel whom you are never likely to meet, then you might like this. But don't expect to add anything beyond anecdotal information to understanding Iraq and this brief, bloody conflict, or the various issues of journalism that CNN's coverage raised.

As a writer, Mr. Weiner makes a good producer. He's done this book in the fashionable re-created conversational style. Instead of writing, say, "We took two cabs from the airport," he will say something like " 'Bob, find us some cabs,' I asked. 'I hear ya,' he replied. Soon, two Hondas, silver and blue, showed up at the curb. 'Can you guys help me with this?' Sarah asked as she struggled with a camera case." That's not an actual passage, but the book is filled with such gems, including the incessant, and irritating, use of "ya" for you.

Unfortunately, considering its importance to CNN, there is almost no explanation of the four-wire -- the piece of technology that made possible the exclusive coverage on the night of the first bombing. We don't learn what it is or how it works, and why it continued to function while telephones used by other correspondents failed. That's a major omission.

Mr. Weiner makes clear that he did work with the Iraqis throughout his stint in Baghdad. He used CNN's position as a worldwide network to his advantage, not out of any sympathy for the Iraqi position, but simply because he thought that in playing the game straight he could get the facilities and cooperation needed to do the best job for his employer. He was right.

There is a bit of false advertising in the book's subtitle, "Gathering News at Ground Zero." Mr. Weiner made the important and courageous decision to stay past the United Nations deadline for war, and thus was in Baghdad when the bombing started, but he didn't actually hear anything but the beginning of the coverage that riveted the world.

Also, Mr. Weiner left Baghdad within days after the start of the war -- understandable since a bomb blast had just blown him across a room, accompanied by the shards of several shattered windows. But it means that he has no insights into CNN's much-criticized censored reports from Iraq during the rest of the war. We'll have to wait for correspondent Peter Arnett's book for that.

From day one, it was clear that CNN's initial Baghdad coup was a triumph of technology, not of journalism. There were other fine

correspondents who might have done a better job reporting the beginning of the war, but they couldn't get their voices out to the world.

"Live from Baghdad" does let you understand that such victories do not happen by accident. While there was much happenstance to journalism in Baghdad during this time, it reminds you that every broadcast journalist who appears on the air is backed up by anonymous people such as Mr. Weiner and crew, who are doing most of the messy work.

The book is at once at its most trivial and yet somehow at its best when it describes this odd band of competitive colleagues, who pop up at the world's trouble spots with their camera crews and expense accounts, eating room service, drinking vodka and smoking French-made Gaulois cigarettes as another country tumbles into turmoil.

They come across as a brave and resourceful lot, but they also reflect the problems with their medium. They are not seeking understanding or comprehension. They are looking for good television.

Often that means the exclusive interview, whether or not anything of importance is said. In Baghdad in the fall of 1990, that meant bagging Saddam Hussein. So, after CNN's intrepid crew finally manages that feat, you understand why correspondent Richard Blystone gives Mr. Hussein a high-five.

Mr. Weiner says he "couldn't believe my eyes" at that gesture, but his book belies his amazement. By getting that interview, CNN had scored a touchdown in the television journalism game. Mr. Blystone was just celebrating in the end zone.

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