Hunkering Down

(By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

Soon after ABC's Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were badly wounded by an Iraqi roadside bomb, a media debate erupted as well:

What was the network doing sending a top anchor into a treacherous war zone? Was this some sort of grandstanding or ratings ploy? Why are news organizations lavishing so much coverage on one of their own when American soldiers in Iraq are injured and maimed every day?

"Why do you think this is such a huge story?" a military officer wrote Pamela Hess of United Press International. "It's a bit stunning to us over here how absolutely dominant the story is on every network and front page. I mean, you'd think we lost the entire 1st Marine Division or something."

What the critics miss is that Woodruff is an experienced foreign correspondent who covered both the 2003 invasion and the Afghanistan war, and knew full well the risk he was taking riding around in an Iraqi military vehicle.

Was it a gamble for ABC to send its newly minted co-anchor of "World News Tonight" into harm's way? Perhaps, but Walter Cronkite first visited Vietnam in 1965. Why is the concept of an anchor who's also a reporter so hard for some detractors to accept? Would it have been better for Woodruff to spend his career in a Manhattan studio, reading copy off a teleprompter?

"Our anchors have always gone out and covered the news," says ABC News President David Westin. "Peter [Jennings] was out in Iraq more than once, was out on convoys. On stories like the conflict in Iraq, it's really impossible to cover that without taking some risk. It's what Bob did. It's what Bob loved. It's what he was superb at. I don't have any second thoughts about it."

Says Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News Tonight": "Journalism in some cases is a very dangerous job. We go places and report, not because it's glamorous, and not because it gets the ratings up, but because we have a responsibility to inform our audience about what is happening."

That view is endorsed by NBC anchor Brian Williams on the network's Web site. "I am a better person and a better journalist today for having seen American soldiers on the job in Iraq," he writes. Hitting the road "can often personalize a story that may seem complex, foreign or ephemeral to American viewing audiences."

What ABC was trying to establish by naming Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas was that it had a young, on-the-go anchor duo who would head for the airport at the drop of a headline.

Still, the tragedy involving Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt has received vastly more attention than the sagas of the other 16,600 Americans wounded in Iraq, especially as the daily drumbeat of casualties in a three-year-old war has produced a certain degree of media fatigue. Part of the intense focus on Woodruff is driven by the natural concern that journalists have for friends and colleagues, but it is also a function of fame.

The most well-known soldier killed in Afghanistan was former football star Pat Tillman. The most high-profile person to battle sexual assault charges was Kobe Bryant, before the case was dropped. The most prominent person accused in an insider-trading case was Martha Stewart. The most universally recognized person to die of lung cancer in recent years was Jennings. The media love to tell stories through people -- making someone famous, such as Jessica Lynch, if necessary -- and Woodruff has become a high-profile symbol of the destructive power of the insurgents' improvised explosive devices.

Fame was also an undeniable factor in ABC's decision to tap two of its brightest luminaries -- Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer -- to fill in for Woodruff on the evening news, despite their vital roles on "Good Morning America." Having picked two experienced but lesser-known correspondents in Woodruff and Vargas, the network wants to ensure that the newscast has ample wattage during Woodruff's recuperation.

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