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Other Media Turn to CNN in 1st Hours of U.S. Attack : Broadcasting: The news network dominates so thoroughly that its reports could be seen on four major local stations.

January 17, 1991|RICK DU BROW | TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The sounds of gunfire burst onto American television Wednesday as Cable News Network dominated extraordinary live coverage of air strikes that launched the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The air raids began about 3:30 p.m. Los Angeles time in the expected action after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to obey a U.N. mandate to pull his forces out of Kuwait.

And from the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, CNN provided ongoing, dramatic audio reporting from correspondents John Holliman, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw and cameraman Mark Biello.

At one point, CNN so thoroughly dominated the story that its coverage was being carried not only on the cable channel but also on four major VHF Los Angeles TV stations that are subscribers--KTLA Channel 5, KTTV Channel 11, KCAL Channel 9 and KCOP Channel 13.

In addition, two of Los Angeles' three Spanish-language TV stations--KVEA Channel 52 and KWHY Channel 22--used news feeds from CNN. And even an NBC San Francisco TV station, KRON, broke in with CNN coverage.

As the air raids began, Holliman reported dramatically: "It would appear it's the real thing. There are some tracers going up in the air over this city of 4 million people. Baghdad is beginning to be blacked out now. I'm going to go back to the window and see what we can see."

CNN and ABC, with Gary Shepard at the scene, both broke onto the TV screen about the same time--roughly 3:35 p.m.

"There's obviously an air raid under way right now," Shepard said. "There are flashes throughout the sky."

But ABC lost communication with Shepard at the point of high drama, network spokeswoman Sherrie Rollins confirmed, and the story was all CNN's after that in the early TV coverage.

NBC's Tom Brokaw soon was on the air with correspondent Tom Aspell, also at the scene.

"Here it comes, and there are more explosions," Aspell said. "There's red tracers, white tracers."

"Keep your head down," Brokaw advised.

The sound of planes could be heard. And suddenly Brokaw lost communication with Aspell.

CBS was out in the cold at the start. The network lost contact with its reporter in Baghdad, Allen Pizzey, shortly before going on the air and was not able to re-establish communications with him for the crucial first hours of the attack, a network spokesman said.

All that CBS anchor Dan Rather could say at the beginning of the network's coverage was: "At this hour, we can't emphasize too much how little we know."

Eventually, after stonewalling professionally, Rather and CBS came around stronger. And former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who earlier had appeared on CNN, came aboard with Rather to pick up his old network.

Finally, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was seen on screen confirming the raids and saying: "The liberation of Kuwait has begun."

With CNN commanding the day, the Big Three networks and their Los Angeles stations nonetheless showed steady professionalism in staying the course. Cronkite, for instance, displayed healthy skepticism throughout, noting that "we've had all these reports" but that many were not confirmed. One could, for instance, say that 90% of the Iraqi air force survived, he suggested.

Cronkite has criticized the Rather news in the past, but he was gracious and helpful Wednesday, as was another CBS veteran, Charles Kuralt.

Brokaw also stayed cool under pressure, even acknowledging that CNN's coverage was best. But his comments also pointed up the skepticism that viewers might well have in a story controlled in great part by the military. At one point, he said "we can assume" other attacks--rather than being able to cite them.

Meanwhile, on the local scene, KNBC Channel 4 anchor John Beard added to this underlying uncertainty, saying, "Everybody is hoping it's going as well as everybody says it's going."

KNBC's Diane Diaz also had an excellent report on concern among the Arab-American community of a backlash against Arabs.

ABC hung in there too, with Ted Koppel anchoring an impressive "Nightline" seen here live in prime time--a program helped enormously by the insights of correspondent Pierre Salinger. The network followed "Nightline" with other notable special reports.

CNN, on its impressive day, also caused something of a turning point in radio coverage as well when numerous stations cited its reports and used its audio feeds.

In fact, much of radio--long the dominant source of information in times of crises--turned to TV in general Wednesday for the bulk of coverage during the early breaking news.

Deborah Amos, a National Public Radio reporter stationed in Saudi Arabia, questioned by an NPR editor about the rumors that fighting had begun, said: "I suspect you know more than we do, watching television."

Santa Monica-based radio station KCRW relied heavily on CNN's live audio coverage, and its general manager, Ruth Hirschman, announced at 3:45 p.m.: "It's obvious some sort of attack is under way in Baghdad."

Times staff writers Sharon Bernstein, Robert Epstein, Steve Herbert, Dennis McDougal, Irv Letofsky, Claudia Puig and Steve Weinstein contributed to this report.

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