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Working to Keep Pictures Coming

April 04, 2002|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — U.S. television networks are attempting to keep the pictures coming out of the Middle East as the fighting widens and Israeli officials have sought to restrict access to some areas of conflict.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward met with the Israeli consul general in New York on Wednesday to protest restrictions that caused CBS correspondents to be escorted out of Ramallah in the West Bank earlier in the week. "We told him we want to be there to tell both sides of the story," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News, who also attended the meeting.

Israeli officials have also threatened NBC and CNN with possible legal action if they continue to keep journalists in Ramallah, which houses Yasser Arafat's compound, despite attempts to make it off limits to reporters.

Other print and TV journalists continue to report from Ramallah in defiance of the ban, which has been criticized by a number of press freedom organizations. Israel, despite its threats, has yet to expel any journalists.

NBC and CNN declined to comment on the threat of legal action, with NBC saying only that the network "believes the press should have access to stories as important as this one."

The restrictions--and the danger--have made pictures "very hard to come by," said Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." Even when staffers manage to get into restricted areas, they often play "a game of cat and mouse to get material out," he said.

The difficulties are relative, however. "Of course, I wish we had better pictures, I wish we had better access," Slavin said, while noting that the access is still better than what the networks were afforded for most of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, where reporters and coverage were severely restricted.

Despite those limitations, said Bill Wheatley, NBC news vice president, "I believe we have been able to get pictures that are accurately telling the story."

As Israeli military action has widened, the networks have had to scramble to be many places at once. Many networks are sending in more journalists. Wheatley said NBC has increased the amount of coordination with its traditional partners, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Germany's ZDF, to share information and pictures, occasionally dividing up areas to cover.

The networks say they leave it to their journalists on site to decide whether the danger is too great to stay. NBC correspondent Dana Lewis was fired upon; CBS anchor Dan Rather passed by a bombing site only moments before the explosion.

CBS is using one armored car in the region, McGinnis said, and taking other precautions, including flak jackets and helmets; still, she said the constant threat of violence from both combat and suicide bombers "weighs heavily on your psyche."

Network executives declined to provide estimates of what they are spending on their coverage, but ABC's Slavin noted that "not once has someone said you can't do this because it will cost too much money."

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