High drama is in the air Analysis: The networks scramble to cover a very big news day at the White House, the Congress and in Baghdad.

December 17, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

By the time the first air raid sirens sounded in the Baghdad night at 4: 17 p.m. (EST) yesterday, it had already been such a dizzying day of newsbreaks that you were left almost dumbfounded in front of your television set.

But within 15 minutes came another stunning bulletin -- this time from Capitol Hill -- that the majority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott, did not back the military action taking place.

Then, before the White House and Congressional correspondents could even start to digest that extraordinary statement, it was back to Baghdad and CNN's Christiane Amanpour as anti-aircraft guns started to boom.

And the beat went on -- the mad ping-pong coverage continuing a few moments later with all the news operations scrambling to get back to Washington at 5: 09 as the White House announced a "substantial military attack against Iraq" was under way.

Maybe it was the green, nightscope, video-game look that overtook the TV screen as the networks and cable channels showed us Baghdad at night. Or, maybe, it was just the incredible back-and-forth pace of coverage between Baghdad and Washington. Whatever the reason, watching television news yesterday and last night was another of those surreal experiences we seem to be having more and more these days.

The eerie sense of deja vu from the 1991 attack on Baghdad, the grim specter of impeachment hanging over Washington and the unprecedented challenges to a president in the midst of a major military action all contributed to a television experience that left you feeling jangled and confused as to what was behind the unfolding events.

Television news yesterday was both very good and very bad. It did very well what it generally does best -- providing instant coverage of events around the world. CNN, with Amanpour in Baghdad, was superb.

Amanpour was the only correspondent up on a roof when the air raid sirens first went off. As a viewer, they made you jump in your seat. But not the steely Amanpour, who paused for only a few seconds, looked off into the night sky to see if she could ascertain the cause and then went back to her conversation with CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw, who was in Washington.

The metaphor for how hard the other networks were chasing Amanpour and CNN yesterday came from NBC's Kevin Tibbles and CBS' Mark Phillips in Baghdad. Their air raid reports started about three minutes after Amanpour's, and both were so out of breath they felt the need to explain why: Both had just raced up three flights of stairs to get on the roof, undoubtedly after being told that Amanpour was up there already telling the world about the sirens.

In terms of imagery -- and, like it or not, imagery matters in TV -- Amanpour won that war hands down. Maybe it was reckless for her to be standing out there in just a kind of field jacket and scarf, but she made a striking counterpoint to Tibbles in his helmet and flak jacket. Tibbles, who seemed to be scrambling all day, looked about as comfortable on the rooftop as one-time presidential candidate Michael Dukakis did riding a tank.

TC CNN was at its best when bouncing back and forth between Amanpour in Baghdad and Wolf Blitzer at the White House, with Shaw and Judy Woodruff as go-betweens. Shaw was the weakest link, seemingly unable to ask questions in a neutral tone -- especially when it came to Republicans questioning President Clinton's motives.

But neither CNN nor anyone else did a very good job yesterday providing context and analysis that gets beyond the spin of the partisan potato heads who have become the staple of cable news diets. That failure to provide clarity and perspective shows what television news usually does worst. It is also what leaves you feeling unsettled almost in direct proportion to the extent that you are emotionally lit up by the bang-bang pace and big-big nature of the events being covered.

There were moments so silly and empty-headed that you have to go back to the videotape to believe they actually occurred. MSNBC had Victoria Toensing, an analyst for the cable channel, and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro discussing Clinton and his motives.

In between saying, "I think we're in trouble this afternoon," and "Let me tell you why I think the Democrats are making a mistake in terms of setting up the impeachment vote in terms of whether there's a bombing of Iraq," Toensing paused to ask Ferraro a really big question: "Did you get your Christmas shopping done, Geri?"

"Almost," Ferraro responded.

I felt so much better knowing Ferraro almost had her shopping done. Now if only I had some sense about why the bombers were heading to Iraq and what was really going on inside the White House.

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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