Networks, anchors don't hesitate to go off to war

Being there underscores seriousness of the story

July 19, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Six months after ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff was seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, his successor, Charles Gibson, is in the Middle East this week - squarely in harm's way covering the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia that controls much of south Lebanon.

His boss, Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News, says there was not a second's hesitation among members of ABC's senior management in sending the anchor of World News Tonight back to war.

"It is absolutely critical that anchors travel to stories," Slavin said.

"When you send an anchor, you focus not only the program, but the entire news division, on an important issue. And there is no more important an issue now than what's going on in Israel and Lebanon, because this is all wrapped up in our broader Middle Eastern policies," he said. "For Charlie to go and cover this firsthand not only informs today's broadcast, but it will inform his reporting and his program in months to come."

Nor was Gibson alone in leaving the safety of a New York studio and heading off to war. While Gibson anchored last night from Jerusalem, NBC's Brian Williams did the same from Haifa, Israel. Both also reported in-depth pieces during their newscasts last night that took them into areas of northern Israel under heavy rocket attack from Hezbollah.

CNN, meanwhile, had anchorman Anderson Cooper and anchorwoman Soledad O'Brien in Cyprus, while Fox featured Shepard Smith in Nahariya in Israel and elsewhere. Cooper was the first to anchor from the Middle East last week, heading the largest contingent of correspondents in the region - 18 including Christiane Amanpour.

The only network without a lead anchor in the Middle East is CBS, with interim anchorman and managing editor Bob Schieffer working from New York. Former NBC Today co-anchor Katie Couric is scheduled to replace Schieffer when she becomes the permanent anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News on Sept. 5.

The serious injuries suffered by Woodruff and by CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier in Iraq earlier this year may weigh on the minds of network executives and employees, but, "There's been no change in our procedures for covering such conflicts," said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S.

"All of our reporters undergo war training and security training. And they take extreme precautions. We don't hesitate to send our people wherever the news happens to be," he said.

However, "When it comes to anchors, it depends on the story and the anchor. Anderson is the kind of anchor who is really a reporter, and he brings so much to the story when he is on the scene. That's why he's there."

While ABC did not hesitate to send Gibson to cover the conflict, Slavin says the network made one change in the wake of the Woodruff injury: He and other network brass will know exactly where Gibson is going before the 63-year-old journalist goes there.

"I'm certainly informed about Charlie's travels before and after," Slavin said. "We discuss what stories he plans to cover, and we discuss the level of risk and how he's going to transit. What has changed is the tightening of procedures, and it is probably a bit more bureaucratic than it used to be."

But for all the seeming certainty on the part of network news executives about the need for sending anchors to cover wars, the practice is still open to criticism.

Some analysts say the networks have used traveling anchors to try to create a perception of robust international coverage, even as they close overseas bureaus. Others say that the practice has more to do with show business than journalism.

"While I have mixed feelings about it, the motivation is largely commercial - to enhance the credibility of the newscast by making it look like, `Our anchor is a real journalist, and he or she is on the scene,'" said Philip M. Seib, the Nieman Chair in Journalism at Marquette University and co-editor of Media, War, and Conflict, an international academic journal.

"If you send Charlie Gibson or whoever, then you've got this Big Foot over there, and you've got to give him airtime - and that can do harm to your coverage if the story doesn't warrant it. On the other hand, if you've got your anchor in New York, he or she can be more a moderator, and you can cover more ground with all your regular correspondents. Spending a lot of time with your anchor's face on the screen with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background is not about journalism."

John Reiss, executive producer of the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, disagrees: "It's not about ratings. I don't think people sit at home and say, `Honey, look, Brian's in Tel Aviv, and Schieffer's in New York. Let's watch Brian.' It just doesn't work that way.

"When you get an anchor on the scene of a big story, it gives you proximity and access that you just can't get from a studio in New York. The correspondents are there, and they have access, but it allows the anchor to experience the story in a way that he or she simply couldn't otherwise. Brian's the anchor and the managing editor. Being there gives him insight that he couldn't get any other way."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com.

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