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Security is a concern as networks gear up for war

October 17, 2002|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- What a difference a mere decade makes, as the television news business gears up to cover likely U.S. military action in Iraq.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was a milestone for television news, putting CNN on the map when the upstart cable network was able to get a satellite phone into Baghdad, and its reporters hung a microphone out their hotel window for a night of live reports as shelling of the capital city started. With adequate notice that war was pending, CNN and broadcast networks were ready for action when the bombs started falling during the nightly news -- the first war to begin with live televised accounts but without pictures.

This time around, media outlets have similar signals that a conflict is coming and it's time to prepare, if the expected timetable of late December or early January holds. The technology is even better, easier to transport and able to transmit pictures, not just sound, by satellite phone.

But the media landscape has radically changed. CNN is established and no longer the most-watched U.S. cable news network, having ceded that title to Fox News Channel. BBC Worldwide and Sky News compete on the international 24-hour-news scene.

Many more outlets have cameras trained on the region. CNN is counting on an advantage from contacts it has established by maintaining an extensive bureau in Baghdad since 1990, at considerable expense. But it could end up upstaged by Arab networks such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera. That network used its access to provide the first pictures of last fall's bombing of Afghanistan.

At the moment, however, the competitive aspects of the coverage are less on the minds of executives than the basics, and many of those remain the same. "We're picking locations, getting together a list of equipment we need to bring, compiling lists of people willing to go, just trying to marry everything together," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president, news coverage for CBS News.

Security is a paramount concern, with heightened worry over biological and chemical attacks. CBS, like other networks, is sending personnel to "hostile environment training." The network expects to mobilize more than 100 employees in the Middle East.

Unlike in Afghanistan, when reporters were able to rely partly on Northern Alliance troops from that country for security when entering war zones, reporters trying to get close to the action in Iraq will largely be on their own, said Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." Those in Baghdad could be targets, with Western journalists required to work from Iraq's Ministry of Information, which also houses government offices and the country's TV operations, said Eason Jordan, CNN's president of news gathering.

Despite the risks, volunteers appear to be plentiful. McGinnis has had more people raise their hands "than I ever expected," including many younger staffers, who have "seen the veterans cutting their teeth on different kinds of wars. It's a rite of passage."

With news-gathering budgets tight, particularly in the wake of the past year's huge costs covering the war in Afghanistan, planning is critical.

"You don't want to go too early, because then you're waiting around, spending money needlessly," McGinnis said. "On the other hand, if you wait, you can be too late. It's similar to a hurricane. If you send [anchor Dan Rather] tonight, it will be sunny tomorrow. If you wait an extra day, you can't get there," because the weather is too bad.

"Clearly we can't put all of our resources in for two months and let them sit around, because we'd be broke," said Bill Wheatley, vice president of news coverage for NBC News.

He has just returned from Baghdad, where he was struck by the contrast between a major newspaper's "plastic table" setup and NBC's big office with extensive equipment for sending pictures. But echoing other network executives, he said, "We believe we'll have the money we need. It's a very important, major story."

CNN has a $36-million contingency fund for coverage; other networks declined to be specific. ABC and CBS expect to save some money as they did during the Afghanistan war by sharing satellite transmission facilities.

"Those who covered [the Gulf War] remember that there were many difficulties in terms of getting timely information," Wheatley said. Military pools of reporters who went in with U.S. troops to report "weren't particularly successful in terms of getting material back."

In all the planning, executives said, they are trying to remain flexible; there could be a preemptive military strike tomorrow or no military action in the end, said one. Executives focused on stationing personnel in Baghdad could find that the country revokes visas and kicks everyone out, leaving people to scramble for new locales.

Just as generals are cautioned against looking back and not to the future, "Maybe the media generals shouldn't be fighting the last war," Wheatley said. "We really don't know precisely how this war is going to play out."

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