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Hunkering Down
ABC's Iraq Strategy Comes Under Fire

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.

What will be impaired is the model of constantly traveling anchors, given Gibson and Sawyer's morning responsibilities. And skeptics wonder whether the arrangement might linger, given that they were brought in as "temporary" replacements for the long-forgotten Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman on "GMA" -- back in 1998.

Westin says he asked Gibson and Sawyer to fill in for "a few weeks" -- and that they immediately agreed -- but that the double duty could last longer "if we learn Bob is going to be out for a period of some months."

Vargas, meanwhile, has been carrying the load. "Elizabeth is the co-anchor of this broadcast, but she clearly can't do everything we've set out to do by herself," Banner says. "Obviously we wish Bob was here more than anything. Elizabeth and I are determined to keep his seat warm until he's able to come back."

Cameo Appearance

It was a striking photo in Vanity Fair's December issue: a reunion of Vietnam War correspondents, including Peter Arnett, standing on a crowded Ho Chi Minh City street.

It was also fake. The Smoking Gun Web site discovered that Arnett wasn't there during the shoot of eight journalists last April and was digitally inserted into the picture.

"It wasn't supposed to be misleading," says Vanity Fair spokeswoman Beth Kseniak. "It was a mistake made at the last minute." She says a border around Arnett's image, making clear he had been shot separately, was removed after the art director raised aesthetic questions.

Unholy Bonds?

In baseball, Barry Bonds is almost always news, whether he's hitting homers, denying steroids use or snarling at the press.

It's no surprise, then, that ESPN is drawn to the San Francisco Giants slugger. But what is the network doing in negotiations that would steer money to such a prominent newsmaker? Its entertainment division is close to a deal with Bonds to star in a reality show as he chases Hank Aaron's all-time home run record.

ESPN's ombudsman, George Solomon, who is also a Washington Post columnist, has spanked his new employer for an arrangement he says "boggles the mind" and "seems to be pushing the envelope for what's an acceptable practice for a network that prides itself on newsgathering, reporting, commentary and analysis. . . . Simply collaborating with such high-profile newsmakers seems out of place with the covenants of the kind of broadcast journalism most ESPN staffers seek to attain." A similar ESPN reality show with Texas Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight begins this month.

ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh says the entertainment unit "operates outside our news division" and will not affect its journalism. "We're still going to aggressively cover Bonds," he says. "We had a reporter with him every day last year. The danger," he adds, is that the show "could become a puff piece for Barry Bonds, but he's such an interesting character it could be revealing."

Not With the Program

When Torie Clarke worked at the Pentagon and was pushing a program to embed journalists with U.S. forces during the Iraq war, one administration official objected.

"There's a very real possibility that the American people could see their soldiers hurt or even killed on the battlefield," said Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, according to Clarke's new book, "Lipstick on a Pig." "They might see it on live television. It would be awful!"

"Well, it's the truth, Ari," Clarke says she replied. "People do get killed in battle. . . . The American people can handle it."

Fleischer says he was "horrified about what impact this could have on the military for the cameras to get there first" but agrees that in retrospect the program "was a huge success."

Meet the New Boss

"CBS Evening News" has decided to empower the viewers. Each week, says correspondent Steve Hartman, "you can tell me where to go and what to do" by voting online. Today's three choices include covering do-it-yourself funerals and a device called the Jerk-O-Meter.

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