NEW YORK — Are America's TV networks being used in the Iraqi crisis? Does their coverage enhance or hinder our understanding of the invasion of Kuwait? Should anchormen be bopping around Baghdad, Amman, Cairo and Riyadh, or should they stay in their New York studios?
Most important, is television whipping up American fervor for a military solution to Saddam Hussein?
One national newspaper ran a front-page story headlined "TV Faulted as U.S. Cheerleader in Gulf." Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales was quoted as saying, "I'm worried the networks are whooping up war fever." Said Sam Donaldson of ABC News: "I was surprised and dismayed by the jingoistic tone of some of my colleagues."
Much has also been said about Ted Koppel, first network anchor to get into Baghdad--24 hours before Dan Rather of CBS News. After coming out of the Iraqi capital, he went on his own program, "Nightline," as a "guest" of substitute anchor Barbara Walters. He was accused, by some, of moving out of journalism and into diplomacy by tongue-lashing the Iraqi ambassador.
President Bush, however, doesn't think the networks have become a sounding board for his gulf policy. Newsweek reported he was angered at Rather's "Iraqi cheerleading" and by network newsmen "roaming the hallways" in Baghdad in search of interviews with American hostages. "Can I, as a reporter, be in (Baghdad)," responded Koppel, "and not try to see the hostages? That's a reporter's function."
That's a point both television's critics in government and in the press--who need to match their own paper's front page against network news--seem to overlook. The reporter is in the Middle East to cover what he can. Is Hussein trying to "use" reporters? Of course. So is Bush.
Hussein's awareness of the importance of U.S. television and of worldwide public opinion is evident in all this. His choice of a subdued business suit--instead of his usual military uniform with jaunty beret--to appear with British "guests" on Iraqi television was meant to convince us that he is not the madman portrayed in newspaper cartoons. That the new image backfired must have been educational for the Iraqi president. As with some of our own leaders, he has learned that just getting on TV is not enough.
Hussein did get a lot of exposure on CNN. For the cable network, it was a gutsy call, because much of the Iraqi material was carried live. No matter how carefully it was labeled, some viewers were bound to be angered by it.
Hussein gave Rather the first network interview, one of a series of coups by the CBS anchorman. His reporting from locations in the Persian Gulf has been outstanding. His initial reports from Amman, Jordan, offered clear evidence that no matter what was thought of Hussein in the West, in the Arab world--particularly in Jordan--he was a hero to many. Rather was also first to report that Iraq was moving American hostages to potential targets for possible use as human shields against a U.S. bombing attack.
Does Rather's successful hopping from country to country during the Iraqi crisis mean that the networks will continue the trend of "anchors away"?
Probably. ABC resisted sending anchorman Peter Jennings, and some at the network regretted that. By Sept. 8, all three networks had their anchormen in Helsinki to report on the "quickie" Bush-Mikhail S. Gorbachev summit.
What has been truly unusual in the network coverage is that we have been watching live reportage from the "enemy" camp. There is little precedent for this. Both Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times and the late Charles Collingwood of CBS got into Hanoi late in the Vietnam War, and both were hostilely criticized for reporting from there. Having Rather and Koppel report from Baghdad is also unusual in that it raised the specter of a network anchor being held hostage. How would that play out?
What have the networks learned from all this? The news divisions, still recovering from massive personnel cuts by bottom-line-obsessed owners, are enjoying the rewards of big-story coverage as a training tool for their next generation of news people. They are also learning to live with the barbs that come from covering a story that stirs up strong emotions. Corporate officers are finding that budgets go out the window when big stories hit. Hopefully, they will also learn that the payoff, when it is covered well, makes the big-story cost worth every penny.
But was the network reporting tantamount to flag-waving jingoism? Some of it could have been read that way. Others probably saw the coverage of Iraqi programming and reports from the enemy capital as unpatriotic. Fact is that good journalists are not very good jingoists, since their job is to report the story as they see it.