Cut to Somalia: A wave of media floods the scene

December 11, 1992|By Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg,Los Angeles Times

Newscasts had been featuring them for months -- livin cadavers, hollow-eyed and expressionless while waiting to die. But more recently, television viewers have been seeing the new faces of Somalia.

Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel.

First CBS anchorman Rather, then NBC's Brokaw and ABC's Koppel jetted to Somalia to front their respective networks' coverage of the U.S.-led mission to aid starving Somalis.

Mr. Koppel this week has appeared on "World News Tonight," besides being host of his "Nightline" program from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. And, in addition to anchoring their own respective nightly newscasts from Somalia, Mr. Rather and Mr. Brokaw have functioned as men for all time slots, appearing virtually everywhere.

"What's the mood in Somalia?" Katie Couric, co-host of the "Today" show, asked the freshly arrived Mr. Brokaw on Monday morning.

"Cautious optimism," he reckoned.

Yes, the global media crush (including a newly erected electronic village that Mr. Rather called "dish city") is on -- again.

Whatever happened to those other far-off places. Kuwait, wasn't it? Plus Saudi Arabia, and those Saudi women there who publicly protested their second-class status? Remember how we cared about them? They were last year's crash course.

This is the media's season for Somalia.

With Mr. Rather and medical correspondent Rob Arnot as its most visible components, the CBS coverage has displayed the hardest edge.

Mr. Rather began reporting from Somalia at the end of last week. And the work of Mr. Arnot, who first filed from Somalia in August, has been especially sensitive and meaningful.

Yet if Somalia is more than a monolith, consisting only of so-called warlords and heavily armed thugs vs. starving masses, then TV coverage has yet to peal back those layers to reveal diversity.

Are there artists in this society, poets, an intelligentsia? Is what we're seeing and hearing all there is?

What's more, so laser-focused are the Big Three networks on the 28,000 U.S. troops flowing to this largely devastated African land that to them much of the rest of the world now either ceases to exist or exists in miniature.

The hundreds of deaths caused by this week's fierce rioting across India earned no coverage on Tuesday's "NBC Nightly News" and only a brief mention on "CBS Evening News," for example.

As always, some of the networks bestowed dramatic titles on their coverage, almost as if they were producing for theater. NBC called its coverage "Operation Restore Hope," adopting the government's title for the operation as its logo, while initially adding its own somber music for effect.

Both CNN and CBS started off using "Saving Somalia," with CBS switching to the less cosmic "Rescue in Somalia" at midweek.

But who would save the message from being eclipsed by the messenger? The media have been the biggest story to date but in ways vastly different from early coverage of the Persian Gulf war in which "Scud"-dodging TV reporters diverted attention from an unseen wider conflict.

This week's media spectacular -- the first known photo opportunity of an amphibious landing -- found American reconnaissance troops being greeted, followed and engulfed by swarms of media as the soldiers came ashore on the beach at Mogadishu. It was reminiscent of MacArthur's camera-choreographed return to the Philippines in World War II. Only this time, the publicity was shunned.

The scene was almost surreal.Unloading their gear under the white glare of popping flashbulbs and TV lights that made them easy targets for potential hostile fire, the military men seemed on the verge of being taken prisoner by the media. As choppers flew above, you might have expected Francis Coppola to yell "Cut!"

This week, NBC's Brokaw has repeatedly referred to wild-shooting Somali gunslingers as "yahoos." However, it was clear that some of the biggest yahoos in Mogadishu were the ones carrying press credentials. And it was clear also that their reckless conduct could result in increased calls for press censorship of the Somalia operation.

"Were not trying to flog this thing," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said Wednesday, apparently seeking to defuse the issue. After all, the Pentagon would be reluctant to crack down on a media that it is counting on to chronicle the military's good deeds in a foreign land.

Yet some members of the public and military Establishment earlier expressed anger -- and rightfully so -- at this chaotic, camera-lit media mob fiasco on the beach. And stung by criticism, some media members have attempted to blame the Pentagon for what went on, noting that Mr. Williams did not specifically issue a no-lights-on-the-beach order in a media briefing Tuesday.

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