While government officials were negotiating with Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri for the release of American hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon, ABC News was negotiating with Berri to get permission to interview them.
Yesterday the network negotiations, at least, bore fruit, as ABC News scored the most sensational journalistic coup of the six-day hostage crisis: exclusive videotaped interviews with the pilot and two of his crew aboard hijacked TWA Flight 847 as it sat on the Beirut airport runway. The interview helped establish, for the first time authoritatively, that only the crew remains on the plane and that the passenger-hostages have been taken elsewhere.
ABC News correspondents finished taping the interview at 4:10 a.m. Eastern time and ABC aired it as a special report at 10:26 yesterday morning. The tape was delayed by one full hour in its transmission from the Mideast because both CBS and NBC refused to relinquish their satellite time to ABC so it could feed the interview back to the United States. In addition, broadcasting sources yesterday quickly began spreading the rumor that ABC News had given a cash payment to the Amal, the Shiite group Berri leads, estimated to be as much as $30,000, in return for arranging the exclusive interview.
A source at one network said, "The way things work over there, that's the only way they could have gotten it." An NBC source said NBC News reporter Rick Davis, now in Beirut, was offered an interview with the pilot of the hijacked plane in exchange for a $3,000 payment to Amal and declined because NBC policy forbids such arrangements.
Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, yesterday vigorously denied the allegations that any money had changed hands between ABC and the hijackers or their allies. "Not only is it not true, but I find it outrageous that anybody would spread such a story," Arledge said angrily from New York. "It would be against every policy that we have to make such a deal. I double-checked with all our people over there when I heard about this and there is no possibility that anybody paid for an interview."
Arledge said the interview, which gave viewers their first close-up look at the terrorists and three of their captives as they spoke to reporters on the ground from the cockpit window, came about because of the resourcefulness of two ABC reporters at the scene, Charles Glass, a former Newsweek reporter, and Julie Flint, a reporter for ABC radio. Both arrived in Beirut two days before correspondents from the other two networks, an ABC source said, and they began negotiating with Berri on Sunday for the exclusive interviews.
Even if the crisis itself has reached a static impasse, network competitiveness is clearly heating up. Arledge spoke harshly of those at the other networks who had raised the possibility that payments had been made to those responsible for the hijacking, which has already seen the brutal murder of one passenger, a Navy diver.
"What happened was, those other guys got beat," Arledge said. "It's one thing to be grumpy about that and less than gracious about it, especially considering the fact that they denied us use of their satellite facilities, but to make an accusation like that is not only groundless, it's distasteful. Our two people over there are enterprising professionals who got a great story. To have other professionals dump on them just because they got beat is more than childish; it's bad taste."
Arledge said the secret to getting the exclusive interview was "If you keep at somebody long enough, they finally say 'okay.' " Asked if that strategy might work for the government officials negotiating for the release of the hostages, or if the breakthrough by a television network might prefigure a breakthrough in the negotiations to end the crisis, Arledge said he did not want to speculate.
An NBC News spokesman said that after NBC received the request from ABC to share satellite time from its earth station in Damascus, Syria, so the exclusive interview could be "uplinked" back to the United States, NBC told ABC, "We'll transmit it in exchange for access to your material." ABC declined. A CBS News spokesman said CBS personnel in Cyprus, at another earth station, "assumed" that what ABC wanted to feed was "pool" material, available for use by all three networks. When told it was not, executives in New York exchanged phone calls and by that time, CBS's satellite time was over anyway. ABC got use of the earth station in Cyprus, where the interview tapes had been flown (duplicates, as a backup, were also in Damascus) at 10 a.m. Twenty-six minutes later, ABC anchor Peter Jennings showed the full, unedited tapes, approximately four minutes of footage, on the air.
Among those watching were officials at the U.S. State Department, which learned facts even it didn't know from the interviews. Asked about reports that the State Department had mentioned to ABC the possibility that the terrorists might be exploiting the media -- a grim flashback to the long, arduous and heavily televised Iranian hostage crisis -- Joanna Bistany, ABC News spokeswoman, said she knew of no such messages having been received by ABC.
NBC and CBS spokesmen said yesterday they did not plan to ask ABC for permission to use the exclusive footage. ABC News said it had received one such request from the Cable News Network and declined. Sources at all three networks said CNN has a reputation for using material without crediting the source.
Although CBS could not use the ABC footage, its airwaves were certainly not without mayhem yesterday. A CBS News crew happened to be present at the Frankfurt airport when a bomb exploded there killing three people and wounding at least 28 others. No network and no newscast were without reminders of the violence and peril of a terrorist world. To hide from it, you had to turn off your television set.
ABC's footage was not only a journalistic coup, it was also the most vivid and compelling television moment of the crisis. Viewers could not only see and hear the pilot and two crew members as they leaned out the cockpit window and shouted out answers to questions, they could also see behind them the dark, glaring eyes of a terrorist and even saw the terrorist end the questioning period by pulling the pilot back into the plane with a gun used to cover his face and force him back inside. The gun was visible in several shots. The pilot and crew members did not look ill or despairing but in fact looked robust, at least considering the circumstances.
NBC and CBS did have still photographs of the crew members as they were interviewed. They were taken by a photographer from Agence France-Presse, the only other western journalist present during the ABC interviews. The other networks were free to use those photographs and to quote the words spoken by the hostages, but not to use the actual videotape of them talking.
There was a heart wrenching subplot to yesterday's chapter of the hostage saga. Flight engineer Christian Zimmerman, last to speak, and asked if he had any messages for his family, said, "Well, just to tell them, my wife Melvia and Elizabeth and Stephen and Eric and my father, that everything's okay." Zimmerman's father died over the weekend of a heart attack upon learning that his son was among the hostages. Zimmerman has not been told.
ABC's interviews made the crisis more shockingly immediate than it had been. Yet there was also at least a semihopeful aspect: if the terrorists had ended their media blackout and been willing to let some hostages talk, it might indicate they did have some regard for world opinion, perhaps even that their bitter resolve was weakening. Now television had crossed the line it crossed with the Iranian crisis; it seemed a participant in the story as well as a conduit of information. It remains to be determined whether that participation is proper and whether it can in any way hasten the end of the crisis.
Of course the first job of reporters is to report. Yesterday, there was little else to report by the networks. CBS and NBC had audio interviews conducted by their correspondents with the pilot of the plane, who spoke to them as they waited in the airport control tower. But otherwise it was the by-now familiar ritual of interviews with friends and relatives of hostages and interviews with real or alleged Mideast experts.
On yesterday's early-morning programs, all three networks took turns "reuniting" freed hostage Arthur Targontsidis, still in Greece en route to the United States, with his parents in Boston. "Good Morning America" linked a live picture of the parents with the voice of their son by telephone from Greece at 7:10 a.m. About 40 minutes later, NBC's "Today" show had both son and parents on the air live via split-screen pictures. They exchanged warm words on their second reunion of the morning. Their third came a few minutes later when they all reunited again on "The CBS Morning News."
By then they were all looking just the tiniest bit unthrilled.
Network competitiveness was escalating to a fever pitch. Overnight Nielsen ratings indicated that the three networks combined were attracting 11 percent more viewers to their morning news programs this week than they were last week, before the crisis began. ABC launched a new and highly praised late night news program, "Nightline," with Ted Koppel, out of its daily reports on the Iranian hostage crisis. The Beirut hostage crisis could have almost as much significance for the network.
Although anchor Dan Rather is the visible leader of CBS's coverage, NBC News has been plugging along without the services of vacationing anchor Tom Brokaw, whom NBC sources usually describe as invaluable. Apparently not. A strong showing by ABC's Jennings, coupled with the victory achieved with yesterday's interviews, could affect the audience's perception of ABC News for the better and the perception of NBC News for the worse. Jennings and his "World News Tonight" tend to seesaw for second place in the weekly ratings with NBC. That could change, and this crisis could be a catalyst for that change.
Perhaps it sounds insensitive to consider such matters during so perilous an ordeal as this hostage crisis, but the networks do think such thoughts. All three network news departments are not only working reporters and producers extra hours, they are also working their publicists extra hours. From out of nowhere, they have been thrust into a new confrontational competition, one that yesterday seemed to be nearing the cutthroat stage.
As for the always third-rated "CBS Morning News," what it proved this week is that it certainly doesn't take Phyllis George to make this program bad. George has been absent and her role usurped by Terry Smith, former newspaper reporter unequipped to handle anchoring chores or to enliven the sleepy panels-of-experts that CBS insists on reconvening each day to jaw over the crisis. Perhaps these have been designed as exercises in futility symbolic of the wider frustrations of the crisis.
President Reagan struggled gainfully through a televised press conference Tuesday night in which he was continually haunted by the refrain of criticism he had directed against the Carter administration for its supposedly weak-kneed handling of the Iranian crisis. President Reagan did not look combative. He looked besieged. It is likely viewers felt not resentment but sympathy for him, however. What could he do? Besides, we are all in this together in part thanks to television. And yesterday, television itself waded more deeply into the crisis than ever.