NEW YORK — With U.S. and Pakistani military forces stepping up their search for Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders, U.S. television networks have been quietly maneuvering to get people and equipment into Afghanistan and Pakistan in case the terrorist mastermind is found.
Thursday, the networks' preparations appeared to be paying off, although not quite as expected, as Pakistani troops were reported to have cornered Bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri.
In the last couple of weeks, CBS News and ABC News have stationed correspondents and production teams in Kabul, Afghanistan, while an NBC correspondent arrived in recent days and a second CNN correspondent was en route. Fox News Channel said one of its correspondents was expected to arrive next week. ABC, NBC and CNN also have correspondent teams in Pakistan; in addition, CNN anchor Aaron Brown is in Islamabad, the capital, on a long-planned trip.
Predicting where news will happen is a tricky art. Last week, the cable news channels were criticized for being slow to cover the Madrid bombings, which killed 202 people. But this week, the networks reacted quickly to a Baghdad bombing because they already had large staffs in place.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Fox correspondents -- An article Friday in Section A about television news organizations adding employees in Kabul should have said that Fox News Channel already has a correspondent in the city; a second correspondent plans to join the troops in the Afghan mountain region early next week.
"I have no more intelligence than anyone else in the world, but instinctively as journalists, you think something is going on [in the Afghanistan region] and we ought to be in place to cover it," said Chris Cramer, who oversees CNN's international networks.
"I think that all indications are that this is a serious offensive," said David Verdi, executive director of NBC News.
ABC News beefed up its staff because "we felt we were getting a lot of signals that they were closing in," said Paul Slavin, the network's senior vice president for worldwide news gathering. In addition to extra employees, the network has positioned portable transmission equipment in a number of places.
"Clearly, if and when Osama is found, having resources over there is going to be critical," Slavin said. "Getting information out of the Pakistan government is a full-time, on-the-ground affair."
So far, the information is not coming from the front lines of the reported offensive on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
"We're totally reliant, everyone working this story, on what's coming out of the Pakistani government," Brown said by phone from Islamabad. In a stroke of good timing, Brown on Thursday had a long-planned interview with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who said he believed that troops had cornered a "high-value" target, later identified by other officials as Zawahiri.
"Obviously we didn't expect something to end up in our laps," Brown said, but added, "To get the Musharraf interview took a lot of time and effort and that's not luck." He had been scheduled to head back to New York today, but instead was making plans to extend his stay indefinitely. From a financial standpoint, the capture of Bin Laden can't come soon enough for some network executives. Last year's Iraq war led to technological advances that have made coverage from remote locations easier and less expensive, but it's still costly.
It's "too much," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for news coverage at CBS News. "I'm dying -- it's expensive to keep the team there. There's airfare for five people, equipment, hotel, per diems, cars and drivers, security. It's not in the budget, but we're doing what we have to do."