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WAR WITH IRAQ

ABC News Slips Up on Attack Coverage

Executives apologize to affiliates for being late and leaving some without a newscast.

March 21, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — ABC News executives apologized to network affiliates Thursday for failing to bring viewers the opening minutes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and for leaving dozens of stations across the country without any late-night news coverage of the war.

Affiliates had been told that Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC News would feed them coverage, so many stations sent their late news staffers home Wednesday evening and didn't prepare newscasts. When ABC abruptly ended its news programming at about 11 p.m., some stations, such as KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas, suffered the embarrassment of temporarily going to black -- with no picture.

In New Haven, Conn., WTNH-TV aired long stretches of commercials. WSB-TV in Atlanta, like many others, had to substitute news from CNN. Some went with sitcom reruns.

Network-owned stations in cities such as Los Angeles and New York were largely unaffected and continued to receive the network's news feed.

An ABC News spokesman said what he described as a miscommunication left affiliate stations "in an untenable position.

"We deeply regret that we let them down," the spokesman said.

ABC News President David Westin and ABC Television President Alex Wallau apologized Thursday, with Wallau personally calling affiliates. People familiar with the situation blamed the problem on a breakdown in internal communications.

A "good portion" of ABC's more than 200 affiliates were affected, said Bruce Baker, executive vice president of Cox Television and chairman of ABC's affiliates board.

ABC executives "made a mistake and they regret it and they're taking full responsibility, which is positive," he said.

But Baker called the lapse "troubling." Stations make much of their money from their local newscasts, and glitches, particularly when viewers are especially eager for news, can have long-term ramifications.

Moreover, it was the second time that ABC News found itself behind its rivals in jumping on breaking news recently. After the network trailed in coverage of the Columbia shuttle disaster, Westin apologized and said the network would put safeguards in place.

"They promised us it wouldn't happen again and it did," said one news director, who asked not to be identified.

That ABC would make such a mistake after months of preparation, and on the night that hostilities were widely expected, was puzzling.

When the U.S. attacks on Baghdad began Wednesday night, ABC still was airing entertainment programming and didn't have its war team ready. Rival networks quickly switched to news.

"Early in the coverage, it appeared that the network was not prepared with Peter Jennings in place," Baker said.

When it finally broke away from entertainment programming 10 minutes behind the competition, ABC "did have coverage, but they didn't have the A-team in there," Baker added. Instead, Chris Wallace anchored from Washington -- interviewing an ABC News producer because no reporters were available.

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