"I was on my own. I could do what I wanted. I had a ton of air time."
The offer was one he couldn't refuse. So on Aug. 5--three days after Iraq caused a crisis in the Persian Gulf region by invading Kuwait--the local anchorman with the solidified blond coif and stereotypical TV looks flew to the Middle East.
Uh oh. Would he be able to buy his brand of hair spray in Jordan, yuk, yuk, yuk?
David Jackson affirmed over the next 54 days, however, that he is far from being just another pretty face. His work in the gulf region--reporting live three to four times nightly on KCAL Channel 9--was something to behold.
One-man bands like Jackson are poor bets to break stories in the gulf region, especially if they don't speak Arabic (he doesn't) and haven't been there before (he hadn't). For sheer persistence and productivity alone, however, Jackson deserves high praise. And that he was able to maintain his grueling on-air pace without babbling incoherently--his reports, often packaged with material from CNN and other KCAL sources, were almost always intelligent and well-measured--is an achievement of its own. All things considered, the man was terrific.
Showing a sense of humor, KNBC Channel 4 sent anchor Colleen Williams to Saudi Arabia for a week. KTTV Channel 11 briefly sent consumer reporter Tom Vacar to the region, where he seemed to vanish like a speck in the sand. KABC Channel 7 assigned free-lance Middle East specialist Alex Paen to the gulf region for a short period, and Paen did an especially good job reporting from Baghdad.
But it was Jackson's often-personalized and conversational live reports that, over the long haul, most closely connected the crisis to local viewers. As a bonus, he gave KCAL one of its rare class acts and an edge over the competition in covering this story.
It's an example of how media--in this case a Disney-owned station hoping to throw a spotlight on its relatively new three-hour prime-time news block--can at once cover and benefit from a story.
"They (Disney executives) wanted to have a real strong presence on a large scale and wanted to find a story that would fall into place for them," said Jackson, who is now back co-anchoring KCAL's 9 p.m. newscast after returning home Sunday. "It could have been an emergency or a plane crash somewhere. But when this broke, it didn't take those guys more than 24 hours to see that it would be the kind of story we could run with."
As one of KCAL's very few capable on-screen journalists, Jackson was the ideal gulf marathoner, combining visibility and promotional value as an anchor with experience as a reporter both domestically and abroad. The latter includes assignments in Argentina during the Falklands war in 1982 and in the Philippines during the Marcos vs. Aquino election in 1986, both while Jackson was at KPIX-TV in San Francisco.
He carried a heavy burden in the Middle East. "You're feeling the pressure because you've spent a lot of money and you want to show something for it," Jackson said. What he showed for it were extensive live reports and chats with the other anchors on the 8, 9 and 10 p.m. newscasts, and also at 11 p.m. during the three weeks that KCAL ran a gulf special at that hour.
Jackson: "The only thing that went through my mind was, 'How was I going to do the same story four different ways so that the people would tolerate it?' I was trying to vary the material enough so that it was not repetitious or, if not a whole lot happened on that given day, I wanted to give it the kind of energy that this story was a significant event and you should know it."
He also faced the added pressure of having to try daily to gain access to the epicenters of the gulf crisis. Although based mostly in Amman, Jordan, he reported from half a dozen gulf nations while in the region.
But not from the Big Two: not from Saudi Arabia, where U.S. forces were continuing their buildup, and not from Iraq.
In the case of KNBC's Williams, getting to Saudi Arabia via an Air Force plane was made easier by the fact that she not only came from a military family but also represented a powerful NBC station. And KABC's Paen not only was backed by a big ABC station but also had his own contacts that he says helped him gain a visa for Iraq.
Jackson, however, had only one name he could throw out in hopes of convincing the Iraqis and Saudis to grant him entry, only one name he hoped would dazzle them into giving him visas.
The region's general "bureaucratic tangle" and his lack of a network affiliation did him in, Jackson believes. "I've never worked for an independent station like KCAL before. When you tell them (Middle Easterners) it's the Walt Disney Co., they don't quite get it. Every other day I would go see the man in the Iraqi embassy in Amman who handles every application to get into Iraq."
And? "He'd ask me about Mickey Mouse."