IT'S DAY FIVE OF "WAR IN THE Gulf," and Zola Murdock, CNN's official "ear on the world," doesn't like what she's hearing. Since the fighting began, Murdock and her staff of viewer-response telephone operators at CNN headquarters in Atlanta have answered roughly 2,000 calls a day; positive, supportive calls, for the most part, give or take a few wackos. But lately she's been getting some negative feedback she thinks top management should know about. - When a retired Army colonel calls from Texas with a plan for winning the war by poisoning the mistress of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, that's business as usual. However, when irate mothers all across the country start phoning in a panic, saying that their children think the world is coming to an end--that's a problem. "Kids are afraid," Murdock explains, sounding pretty upset herself. "The mothers say they're crying and really frightened." - But it's not just the war that's got them so scared. It's much worse than that. It's CNN! - The source of the growing worry, it seems, is a special opening "bumper" that features a flaming red and yellow "War in the Gulf" graphic, accompanied by a thudding drumbeat that sounds like the theme from "Jaws." - By noon, Murdock is writing a memo to CNN President Tom Johnson, outlining the crisis. Sensing the threat to young minds as well as to CNN's record double-digit ratings, management springs into immediate action. Within hours after the complaints reach the upstairs executive offices, a toned-down version of the war theme is dubbed, previewed and playing on the evening newscast. Net result: one potential PR disaster averted.
But on the front lines downstairs, events are moving so fast there's no time for pats on the back.
The control room this day is so full it's difficult to see what's going on in the world. The walls are lined with monitors showing feeds from everywhere news is happening. On one, the British House of Commons is debating a wartime censorship proposal. On another, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams is briefing the media in Washington, D.C. On yet another, Brian Jenkins, one of CNN's Saudi Arabia correspondents, is combing his hair, getting ready to go live with a report on the latest Scud missile attack in Dhahran.
"Twenty seconds, Brian," executive producer Bob Furnad announces into a microphone connected by satellite linkup to Jenkins' earpiece. But Jenkins, nonchalantly checking his appearance in a mirror, doesn't seem to hear a thing.
"Can he hear me?" Furnad shouts, sending a palpable stress ripple through the already tense control room.
"Yeah, he can hear," someone replies, at which point Furnad grabs the gooseneck mike in front of him with both hands.
"BRIAN!" he yells, and Jenkins' head snaps back as if he's just been blindsided by a Jimi Hendrix riff. "You're on in 10 seconds!"
Morning anchorwoman Mary Anne Loughlin, who stayed on the air for 13 hours straight during the Challenger explosion in 1986, is telling viewers that a live satellite feed of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's press conference from Moscow is coming up in one hour. "But now," she says in grave anchor tones, "we have more on that Scud missile attack from Brian Jenkins in Saudi Arabia . . . Brian?"
Jenkins, whose ear must be ringing in stereo, delivers a flawless rehash of how three Scuds aimed at the Dhahran military base were shot down by American-made Patriots. The all-clear has sounded, and life in that part of the desert is returning to normal. "Brian Jenkins, CNN in Saudi Arabia."
Furnad, a dapper, take-charge guy who always commands the control room in crises, is known around CNN as a genius at putting news on the air; he's also known for blowing his stack when things don't come out exactly his way. This looks like one of his good days, says a staffer at 11 a.m. But by noon, he's in a rage.
During the first few days of the war, CNN lost a considerable amount of income by dropping commercials to make room for increased news coverage. But as ads gradually crept back into the schedule, commercials that were tacky during peacetime suddenly became tasteless in time of war.
When a report on a Scud alert in Tel Aviv is followed by a commercial for the Time-Life history of the Vietnam War, showing firefights and grim footage of body bags being loaded onto helicopters, the burning fuse on Furnad's temper hits powder.
"Where the hell did that come from?" he screams, throwing his arms in the air. "Don't run that damn thing now. People out there are gonna go crazy."
In the middle of his tirade, he stalks around the control room looking for someone to blame, and noticing the huge buildup of onlookers, he throws a bigger fit. "There are too many people in here! Anybody who doesn't belong--out! No visitors! All non-essential people out of this room--\o7 now\f7 !"