In the hotly competitive world of network news, the Persian Gulf crisis is a major mobilization of anchors, reporters, producers, camera crews and public relations hype. It's a kind of two-front war. One involves the actual coverage. The other involves selling that coverage to our brothers and sisters who cover television as a beat in the nation's newspapers.
At all the networks, the aim is to be first with the best. But, for many who write about us, what counts is not what is being said but who gets where and on the air first.
As someone who has played the PR game with enthusiasm over the years, I am a little amused and frustrated by the turn this particular battle has taken. Most of the newspaper coverage of our collective efforts has concentrated on who gets where first. Or gets on the air first, even if it's a matter of minutes.
Now, the networks aren't blameless in this. It's a vicious cycle that we are part of. We lean on our press and publicity people to get the word out on how great we are doing or, failing that, how poorly the others are faring.
What happens when the television columns become a time-keeper's score card? ABC gets Sam Donaldson into Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night and then rolls him out of bed to appear on "Nightline" so it can claim the first report out of that country, even though Sam privately complained he'd been on the ground only two hours and had nothing original to say.
Dan Rather deserves the credit and coverage given him for getting the first American one-on-one interview with Saddam Hussein. But many television columnists, judging far-off events from home, didn't bother to analyze the self-serving answers of the Iraqi leader or question the use of American television to make his case. Instead, they told us that Dan didn't have time to shave before the interview and that during small talk with Saddam Hussein the CBS anchor discussed his favorite pastime, fly fishing. This, after earlier columns deploring the evolution of anchors as television personalities first and journalists second.
In writing about broadcast journalism's coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis, form almost always takes precedence over substance. Almost no credit went to NBC's Fred Francis for breaking the story of CIA training of Kuwaiti resistance fighters in Saudi Arabia to strike inside occupied Kuwait; David Martin of CBS was not interviewed about his scoop on President Bush's decision to send troops into Saudi Arabia; no one cared whether ABC's Forrest Sawyer had shaved when he reported that Westerners in Iraq were being rounded up.
My friend Bryant Gumbel spent a week doing memorable live reports from inside Saudi Arabia for "Today." His work received only fleeting attention on the TV pages until "Today's" ratings shot up. This from the columnists who accuse us of an obsession with ratings over substance or anything else.
This kind of time-keeper, travelogue, ratings-driven coverage in the television pages is not unique to the Persian Gulf crisis. It goes on during political campaigns, space shuttle explosions, uprisings in Beijing, the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Too much attention on the trappings of television news and not enough attention on the day-to-day and long-term coverage. In fact, I always find it more than a little shocking when television writers will confess they really didn't have time to actually watch the programs. They were writing from network press releases or spin or hearsay.
That only feeds what is ultimately a form of journalistic cancer: We get so caught up in our own press we lose sight of our real role. Newspapers are not innocent players. They approach broadcast journalism with a cynical double standard. They decry its flamboyance while simultaneously encouraging it. After all, writing about anchors and ratings is easier than actually watching and listening to the programs these people work so hard to put on.
So, the next time the printsters write about who is doing the best job of reporting on TV, look for the what, where and why along with the who and when.