Throughout the war in Iraq, the television networks have been deploying their news big guns into -- and now out of -- the war zone, complete with their authoritative delivery and national reputations. CBS News touted the harrowing journey by Dan Rather and other journalists as they tried to get into the country Thursday. "Nightline's" Ted Koppel just concluded a high-profile stint traveling with a Marine unit. Brian Williams, heir to NBC's "Nightly News" anchor desk, has been reporting from the region.
Then there are reporters such as Linda Alvarez. This week, viewers of KCBS could have seen the weekend anchor in the Persian Gulf, reporting on the small Navy and Coast Guard ships patrolling for enemy forces. "While there is celebrating in the streets of Iraq, the work of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard does not stop," she reported. Days ago, Alvarez was "embedded" aboard the Coronado-based USS Constellation, staging a telephone reunion between soldier Matthew Carpenter and his family in Yorba Linda.
"This is an exciting moment for both of us," declared Alvarez, who has done pieces ranging from a look at the few women among the 5,500 soldiers on board to the rescue of two pilots of a plane that accidentally fell into the water. Today, she is transferring to the medical ship the USNS Comfort.
Dozens of reporters from local markets all over the country -- particularly those near military bases with troops in the gulf region -- have been dispatched to the battle front.
At home, these reporters are among the best known of local news personalities. But abroad, they are the B-listers dealing with an A-list assignment.
Part of the rationale for the assignment -- as it is when local stations send reporters to such major news events as natural disasters or presidential inaugurations -- is to remind viewers that there's more to hometown newscasts than apartment fires and freeway car chases. Having correspondents report from the war front instead of from in front of a studio map, even if they're just providing headlines furnished by national correspondents, shows a station's commitment to cover all the important news, executives said.
Viewer identification with the conflict is very important, said KABC general manager Arnie Kleiner: "We know through our research that viewers have a much higher comfort level with faces they know."
Kimberly Godwin, vice president and news director of KNBC, agreed: "We believe that having a familiar face is really important. Conan [Nolan] was out there interviewing soldiers even before the war began, so there is that credibility."
Besides, local stations still have their early-morning, afternoon and evening newscasts to fill.
"The networks aren't on between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., so we have to do the best we can to be as comprehensive as possible," KABC news director Cheryl Fair said.
That familiarity hasn't paid off in higher ratings. None of the local news stations are seeing any kind of ratings spike due to their coverage. A recent Los Angeles Times poll suggested few viewers are turning to local stations for news from the front.
But KCBS officials, echoing sentiments of the other stations, said that "going the extra mile" on big stories such as the war would pay off in the long run with viewer credibility.
So Dave Bryan, who reports for both KCBS and sister station KCAL, is now in Baghdad with a Marine support unit from Camp Pendleton.
"There's still suspicion among some Iraqis about what the motives of the U.S. really are," he told viewers on Thursday.
KABC "Eyewitness News" reporter John North this week stood on a Kuwait City rooftop during the station's 4 p.m. newscast, hands on hips, proclaiming: "The soldiers have entered central Baghdad, and this time they're here to stay. It looks like the end of the war is very near."
KNBC's Nolan, who is not only reporting for his home station, but also juggling other reports for CNBC and MSNBC, on Friday morning told KNBC viewers, "Citizens are celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime by destroying Iraqi currency."
Outfitted with their combat fatigues and videophones, they are often indistinguishable from their better-known colleagues from the networks. But instead of covering military briefings or offering on-the-scene reports from the most ferocious fights, the local reporters have been focusing on building a connection between the soldiers abroad and their families at home, developing human interest stories that the networks and news channels tend to gloss over.
"I didn't want to do stories about advancement from the front. I knew there were a million stories to be told, and many of them would be from Los Angeles," Alvarez said by phone. "I wanted to tell the story of the war through the eyes of local people."
"This war is a story so big that everyone must cover it, including us," Bryan added. "We're trying to keep the California perspective in mind. We want to give the meat and potatoes of what is really going on with our boys over here."