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Amal Hijackers: 'Media Smart,' Or Just Lucky?

HOWARD ROSENBERG

July 05, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Most of the TV pictures and words from Beirut made Nabih Berri and his Amal militia seem like heroes instead of kidnapers detaining innocent Americans. It makes you wonder how they acquired such media smarts.

Smarts?

That notion is dismissed by Charles Glass, ABC's main man in Beirut throughout the 17-day hostage ordeal. "I don't think they have much perception of what we in the media do," the London-based Glass said in a telephone interview from Frankfurt, West Germany, after covering the newly liberated Americans' stay in Wiesbaden.

"If you met most of these Amal guys, they're not that sophisticated," said Glass, who lived a combined five years in Beirut first as a free-lancer and later as an ABC correspondent. "They don't have any feedback on what goes on TV in the States."

As an example, Glass cited Amal's chaotic televised press conference for several of the hostages--an almost comic event, so rowdy that some of the militia drew their guns to keep the news media at bay before falling back and reorganizing.

"They originally scheduled it to be in the restaurant of the airport," Glass said. "Then about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to begin, they said it would be in the departure lounge. So everyone had about 10 minutes to pick up their cameras and tripods and everything else and move over there. People who are sophisticated about holding press conferences don't do that."

If the hostages' captors were such oafs with the media, how were they able to use TV to soften public opinion in the United States and gain sympathy for their demand that Israel release 735 Lebanese, mostly Shiites, in exchange for the Americans?

"There are elements of the Amal case that really hit people," Glass said. "They cleverly equated the 735 with their (the American hostages') situation. You know, sitting there in a prison away from their families and loved ones, not treated as well as the American hostages, not allowed to make phone calls. They managed to create a kind of moral equation that people were able to see."

Although Israel had previously indicated it would release the 735 Lebanese it took prisoner in departing Lebanon--an act that some said violated international law--the prisoner issue got little coverage by the media until the hijacking of the TWA jetliner.

"Now 200 million Americans know about it," Glass said.

ABC had free-lance radio reporter Julie Flint, and NBC had Englishman Chris Drake in Beirut when the TWA Flight 847 hijacking story broke. But Glass was the first network regular to arrive with a camera crew. "For the first 48 hours, we had the TV side all to ourselves," he said.

It was Glass and Flint who achieved the incident's first reporting coup in interviewing the TWA crew held on the jetliner in Beirut. And ABC's picture of a Shiite gunman clasping his hand over the mouth of Capt. John Testrake and waving his weapon to end the interview will be a lasting visual memory.

That story and another Glass coup--an interview of hostages Allyn Conwell, Ralf Traugott and Father James W. McLoughlin, sitting beside their captors at a seaside restaurant--touched off a media tiff that had CBS and NBC disputing ABC's claim that those stories were exclusives and not part of pool coverage.

The restaurant interviews were remarkable, conducted while waiters carried on routinely in the background as if nothing unusual were occurring. "And in Beirut, it probably \o7 wasn't\f7 that unusual," Glass said. "Hostages are taken there all the time."

Glass credits ABC's Lebanese driver with helping to obtain the restaurant interview by persuading Amal security men to speak more freely to American media. "Then suddenly a man came to the hotel," Glass said, "a man I never saw before, and he said to our driver, 'Let's go!' We simply got into the car and followed him to this restaurant, walked up the stairs to the outdoor portion and saw some militiamen having lunch with three Americans. I was pretty surprised."

Glass told the hostages he wanted to do the interview, but not if it would jeopardize their security or if they felt Amal would use it for propaganda. "I told them not to say anything, but to blink if they wanted me to get them out of this. I told them that I could tell Amal that the camera broke."

The hostages talked it over and decided to go ahead, but asked to move to another table because the lavish spread of food before them did not represent their treatment under Amal. It was a bizarre 2 1/2 hours. "There were families at the other tables," Glass said. "We were just another group having lunch."

Glass, who worked 18-hour days in Beirut, has other vivid memories of the hostage story. One is Traugott recalling entering the jetliner lavatory early in the hijacking and finding a gun left there by one of the original hijackers. He wanted no part of it.

"And I'll never forget my own car being shot up by one of the hijackers," Glass said. "We were out doing a standup and some people didn't like what we were doing."

Even in Beirut, everyone's a critic.

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