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Networks Gird for 'Ready-Set- Go' Gulf War : Television: About 350 journalists will be on the scene. Their safety may be imperiled as never before.

January 10, 1991|SHARON BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While U.S. and Iraqi diplomats huddled in Geneva Wednesday discussing the prospects for peace, the major television networks continued to prepare for war.

By the time the United Nations' deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait arrives Tuesday, Cable News Network will have 150 reporters, photographers and producers in the Middle East, CBS and NBC will each have about 80 and ABC will have 30 or more.

The networks--which have so far spent about $12 million apiece covering the Middle East since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, have budgeted about $1 million a week--twice their current expenses--for coverage if war breaks out.

Cameras will be poised to record what Ed Turner, executive vice president in charge of newsgathering at Cable News Network, calls a "ready-set-go" war, one where hostilities are coordinated with calendar dates and where sources, even among enemy governments, have been cultivated and are steadfastly in place.

If the Pentagon has its way, even the rules of reporting will be laid out ahead of time, with reporters agreeing not to publish stories about troop movements and submitting controversial pieces for government screening before they are aired.

But this war, if it does break out, is not likely to restrain itself to the polite realm of the staged and structured media event. According to network executives and media analysts, elements as varied as the weather in the Middle East and the possible use of chemical weapons by Iraq promise to make the conflict more of an uncontrollable melee, in which the safety of reporters is threatened more than ever before, and clashes with the Pentagon may mean censorship in the face of the best information technology in history.

Already, apparently false reports that Iraqi helicopters defected to Saudi Arabia have been printed and broadcast throughout the nation, renewing concerns about disinformation campaigns by both sides.

"The biggest challenge will be keeping a rational handle on the story," said ABC News vice president Jeff Gralnick. "We're going to function in large part as a national conduit for information and national rumor control."

And there is the likelihood that either the United States or Iraq will block television signals from the Persian Gulf, at least initially. Turner has said that while he expects the first videotape of a conflict to be footage of nighttime troop maneuvers, he doesn't expect to actually see the pictures for several days. The delay will occur despite satellite technology that, unencumbered, could broadcast live images from the Middle East to the United States almost instantaneously.

"We don't know what's going to work when this starts," said Don Browne, executive vice president of NBC News. "We don't know if the (satellite) ground stations will work, we don't know if satellite feeds will work, we don't know if telephones will work. If the Saudis or the Americans choose to make transmission not possible, transmission will not be possible."

Indeed, television in particular is likely to be affected on several levels. It is not print reporters that the Pentagon worries will broadcast pictures of bloody American soldiers or triumphant Iraqis, in the event of U.S. casualties. And if bombings or the deliberate jamming of signals prevent video transmissions, television reporters will not be able to file their stories.

At the same time, there is concern that while reporters in Baghdad may be in a position to provide information hitherto unheard of in war reporting, they may also wind up as hostages. Last March, the Iraqi government executed a British reporter, Farzad Bazoft, and, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, has threatened to do the same to other reporters.

For the first time, journalists may not be safe even behind the lines.

"We've got our people deployed and now we are facing advanced weapons, weapons that can reach way beyond the borders of Iraq and Kuwait," said Joe Peyronnin, vice president and assistant to the president of CBS News.

"What we find as we lay out every scenario is that it's very hard to plan more than a day in advance, because everything could change on a moment's notice," said CBS News spokesman Tom Goodman.

While CBS anchor Dan Rather was in Baghdad last week and in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, the network has not decided whether to bring him back to New York should war break out. Similarly, while the network currently has staff in Baghdad, no decision has been made on how long they will stay there if war starts.

The situation is comparable at other networks.

"All of our people in Baghdad volunteered to stay, but we have not yet decided whether to keep them there," said CNN's Turner. "The correspondents' hotel, where everybody is required to stay, is three blocks from the palace and very close to the Foreign Ministry and the Information Ministry. So if Baghdad is hit, that hotel is really in harm's way."

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